The hardest thing about being a fan is wondering why other people don't love something as much as you do. I remain baffled that the whole world doesn't bow down in front of the self-evident brilliance of my favorite film, and I have never understood why Carl Franklin's 1995 neo-noir Devil in a Blue Dress wasn't a huge hit that spawned at least a half dozen sequels.
In a conversation included with the recent Criterion Collection Blu-ray reissue of the film, Franklin points out that modern film noir tends not to attract huge audiences, cites several examples, and speculates that the adult themes and content of the genre attracts a more mature audience whose movie dollar isn't as liquid as the young people who make action movies and superhero films blockbuster hits.
Once again, as a huge fan of the genre, this simple fact – verifiable with box office numbers – is hard to accept. But I'm also someone who thinks beef marrow, dandelion salad and sour beer should be on every menu. I am not a reliable indicator of market trends.
Carl Franklin was a former actor who had just made the critically acclaimed crime film One False Move (1992) when he signed up to make a film out of the first book in Walter Mosley's series of Easy Rawlins mystery novels. Denzel Washington had a fantastic reputation after films like A Soldier's Story, Cry Freedom, Glory, Malcolm X, Philadelphia and Crimson Tide – he was a movie star, but not quite yet DENZEL WASHINGTON, boldface and all caps, as close to being a major movie star in the Brando/Grant/Wayne mold as anyone making movies today.
Tom Sizemore was a character actor in the middle of a winning streak of roles in films such as True Romance, Natural Born Killers, Strange Days, Heat, Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down. And while Jennifer Beals' career would likely never reach the height it had with Flashdance, she seemed perfectly cast as the titular femme fatale of Mosley's story.
The film begins with Washington's Easy Rawlins sitting in a bar overlooking Los Angeles' Central Avenue, the spine and nerve centre of the city's African-American community during the Second Great Migration to California from places like Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Mississippi. The scene-setting is straight out of classic noir, as Easy – recently unemployed after losing his job at an aircraft plant – is called over by the bar's owner, Joppy (Mel Winkler), a former prize fighter, to meet a white man named Dewitt Albright (Sizemore).
Albright is a tough guy with connections who needs someone to track down a woman named Daphne Monet (Beals), the fiancée of Carter (Terry Kinney), a rich man who had until recently been running for mayor. She's a beautiful woman with what Albright describes as a taste for "dark meat" and her former fiancé wants to talk to her. It's not the kind of job Albright can do easily so he wants Easy to ask around and see what he can find, offering him the kind of money that will help Easy keep up the mortgage on the house that he calls his pride and joy – the first thing of real value he's ever owned after a tough childhood in Houston's Fifth Ward and a stint in the army fighting across Europe.
Easy Rawlins would be the hero of fifteen novels (so far) by the prolific Mosley – a character inspired by the writer's father, who reluctantly becomes a private detective across a stretch of decades that begins in 1948 and continues through the civil rights era and the social upheaval and riots of the '60s to the 2021 novel Blood Grove, set in 1968. He's a reluctant hero – a man whose desire to be left alone by a system stacked against him is complicated by his ambitions for financial comfort and safety for himself and his family.
In Devil in a Blue Dress he's alone, and being pulled back into the dangerous life he thought he'd left behind in Houston. And like any decent noir protagonist his journey leaves behind a trail of bodies, starting with the seductive Coretta (Lisa Nicole Carsen), the girlfriend of Dupree (Jernard Burks), two old friends from Houston. Easy has sex with her after she tells him she knows Daphne – and while Dupree is passed out in the next room.
Coretta's murder just hours after he was with her gets him hauled into custody by the LAPD – yet another ritual every noir protagonist must endure, though Easy has a harder time than Philip Marlowe or Jake Gittes. As a black man he knows he's easy to pin a charge on and just as easy to batter or kill while in custody.
While white private eyes in classic noir could at least go up against the cops on an equal footing – or as peers, if they were ex-cops like Gittes – Easy can't presume as much. In a scene in the book where he drives to meet Albright at the pier in Santa Monica, Mosley writes:
"I was unhappy about going to meet Mr. Albright because I wasn't used to going into white communities, like Santa Monica, to conduct business. The plant I worked at, Champion Aircraft, was in Santa Monica but I'd drive out there in the daytime, do my work, and go home. I never loitered anywhere except among my own people, in my own neighbourhood."
Franklin retains the scene and moves it to the Fisherman's Pier in Malibu, but Easy still finds himself at the mercy of a group of white youths about to beat him up for talking to a white girl until Albright shows up unexpectedly, pulls a gun and humiliates one of the boys before pistol whipping him. We're meant to understand, early on and vividly, just how dangerous life can be for someone like Easy in postwar L.A.
In the Criterion reissue bonus interviews, Franklin says that he's a big fan of Roman Polanski's Chinatown, so it's easy to see why he found Mosley's story so appealing. It's the archetypical L.A. story, about the same network of powerful men running the city and the state to their own advantage, aided by violent hired hands like Albright, and a complete disregard for the priorities or needs of the citizenry.
There's even a subplot of perversion – a noir trope that goes back to Howard Hawks' version of Chandler's The Big Sleep and echoes in Chinatown, only instead of involving pornography or incest, Mosley's story has Terell (Maury Chaykin in the film), Carter's rival in the mayoral race and a repulsive pedophile.
(As an aside, it's hard not to be nostalgic for the days when pedophilia was a vile moral outrage, the rights of its practitioners inconceivable to being entertained in civic dialogue. A remake of Mosley's story might require serious revisions today.)
The further Easy gets in his search for Daphne the more danger he finds himself in, until the day he comes home to find Albright and two of his goons sitting in his house making breakfast. This violation of his sanctuary is almost too much for Easy, who had already presumed that his life was valueless to Albright even while he worked for him. With the police and Albright competing to take away either his life or liberty, he sends out for a lifeline, calling home to Houston.
Daphne is often seen in the company of Frank Green, a hijacker who deals in stolen booze, and famous for his skills with a knife. Easy makes himself conspicuous looking for Frank, who responds by blindsiding Easy at his front door, pinning him to the floor of his living room as a prelude to getting busy with his blade before a voice – and a very large gun – suddenly appear behind Frank.
As Mosley writes in his book:
"Frank did as he was told and there was Mouse, beautiful as he could be. His smile glittered. Some of the teeth were rimmed with gold and some were capped. One tooth had a gold rim with a blue jewel in it. He wore a plaid zoot suit with Broadway suspenders down the front of his shirt. He had spats on over his patent leather shoes and the biggest pistol I had ever seen held loosely in his left hand."
Raymond "Mouse" Alexander is a childhood friend of Easy, an old running buddy, the reason why Easy left Houston and one of the most memorable psychopaths in detective fiction. He's a remorseless, eager killer, wholly lacking any moral compass except for his loyalty to friends like Easy, though Easy admits in Mosley's book that "if I'd touched his money he'd have killed me straightaway."
Don Cheadle had appeared mostly on television except for roles in movies like Hamburger Hill (1987) and Colors (1988) and had been in Franklin's student thesis short film Punk in 1986 while barely out of his teens. He'd assumed that he was too young to play Mouse, but Franklin saw past that and gave Cheadle the part that would be his breakout role.
Denzel Washington has made himself a star playing men who live and die by their moral codes, and Walter Mosley's conception of Easy Rawlins was as an existential hero in the same vein as other hardboiled heroes. He's a man tested by circumstance and identity, and for Mosley his role in his stories is to explore "what it's like to be a human being."
The ability to embody moral choices in difficult circumstances is what has made Washington a successor to Hollywood's golden age of leading men – actors like Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda and Humphrey Bogart. His Easy Rawlins has seen plenty of death and suffering, both in his Texas childhood and in the war in Europe, and his prime motivation across Mosley's books is to support and protect his family and be of service to his community.
He's admirable and humbly heroic, but Mosley makes it clear that he couldn't survive the men and the system he's up against without Mouse, who's happy to have his back and eliminate any threat to Easy as long as violence is the solution. An agent of chaos, Mouse is nearly as much a potential threat to Easy as he is a real one to Easy's enemies, but that's the risk Rawlins has to take when he realizes that a workingman's wage will never let him to achieve his ambitions.
As Easy says to his mild-mannered, church-going friend Odell at the end of both Mosley's book and Franklin's film, "If you know a man is wrong, I mean, if you know he did somethin' bad but you don't turn him in to the law because he's your friend, do you think that's right?"
Even better is the question Mouse asks Easy near the end of Franklin's picture, in a line written by the director: "If you didn't want him killed, why you leave him with me?"
Most viewers will have figured out the twist with Daphne's character long before the film reveals it – Beals' casting pretty much gives it away – so the dramatic tension isn't as much the basic story as watching Washington's Easy try to survive to the end of the picture against what seem like heavily uneven odds. Like The Big Sleep, another great film noir that Franklin's film happily echoes, the pleasure of the picture is the characters, not the plot.
Franklin's movie had good reviews but never made back its budget; the director can personally vouch for his opinion about the popularity of noir with modern audiences. And even though the studio had optioned all three of Mosley's Easy Rawlins novels then in print, the departure of the executives who'd overseen the production meant that any chance of sequels were dead in the water.
Franklin would make a handful of films after Devil in a Blue Dress, but most of his career has been on television, directing episodes of shows like Rome, The Pacific, The Newsroom, Homeland, The Leftovers, Vinyl, Ray Donovan and Mindhunter. Don Cheadle would have a great career, in films like Boogie Nights, Traffic, Hotel Rwanda, the Ocean's Eleven series and a major role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Denzel Washington would get to be the star of his own movie series. As Robert McCall in Antoine Fuqua's The Equalizer films (the third installment of which comes out late this summer), he's a retired special forces operative, a man with "certain skills" in stories about revenge – films that I consider Fuqua's "hold my beer" response to Liam Neeson's Taken franchise. As McCall he gets to be both Easy and Mouse – moral and remorseless – in movies that have been wildly popular with audiences.
But at the end of Devil in a Blue Dress, when he's able to relax at his house with his friend Odell, Mouse back in Houston, Daphne long gone, his enemies dead and the police at bay, we get a glimpse of Easy Rawlins enjoying the best that his community can be, even under the restrictions of "separate but equal."
It would have been nice to get more of Washington's Easy and Cheadle's Mouse over subsequent years, as America changed and Easy quietly prospers. There should have been at least a half dozen Easy Rawlins films by now if adults spent their money on films as much as kids. But like Elmer Bernstein's fantastic score for Franklin's picture, Devil in a Blue Dress turned out to be the last of something we might be forgetting how to enjoy.
Mark Steyn Club members can let Rick know what they think by logging in and sharing in the comments below, as access to the comments section is one of many benefits that comes along with membership in the Mark Steyn Club.