Devil in a Blue Dress (1995): A gripping African-American film noir

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Based on Walter Mosley’s novel of the same name, Devil in a Blue Dress can be best described as the African-American version of all those private eye stories of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Mosley’s story is a classic noir set in the late 1940s, with Denzel Washington playing a World War-II veteran called Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. He has been recently fired from a job and is now desperate to find another. The man’s got to take care of his mortgage payments. He finds one when a shady guy called DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) offers him $100 to find a woman called Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals). Apparently she is the girlfriend of a man called Todd Carter who is looking to be the next Mayor.

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Easy goes through the same experience that every fictional private eye goes through. He soon finds himself involved in a double murder and the police thinks he is behind it. And being an African-American man in that time doesn’t make things easy for him either. I wouldn’t get into all the details because as with any noir, the plot is a little complex, gripping and has few twists and turns which I don’t want to give away. Anyway, the character that Denzel plays is not that different from Philip Marlowe, the famous private eye character from the Raymond Chandler books. The only difference between them is that Easy is not an established private eye with his own office. He is just a regular guy looking for work and gets mixed up in trouble.

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Now, as good as Denzel is, the real scene stealer here is Don Cheadle, who plays a guy called Mouse. Now, Cheadle doesn’t show up until the second half of the film. But when he does show up, he takes advantage every opportunity to overshadow Denzel. This character reminds me a little bit of John Travolta’s Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction. Just like Vega, Mouse is always a little hyperactive and his unpredictable and trigger-happy behavior is not easily tolerated by Easy. It’s their scenes that are the most entertaining. You can tell that these guys are having a great time playing these characters. The film is directed by Carl Franklin, who made a great crime film before this called One False Move.

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And it’s also nice to see Tom Sizemore plays a psychotic scumbag. It’s funny how he reminded me so much of Michael Madsen’s character from Reservoir Dogs. These two could be brothers. Devil in a Blue Dress has everything that I love seeing in a murder mystery film: A strong lead character, an entertaining sidekick, a beautiful femme fatale, vintage automobiles, solid cinematography and an overall great production design. It benefits greatly from Franklin’s assured direction and his handling of some of these fantastic actors, especially Denzel and Cheadle. He succeeds in recreating 1940s Los Angeles and gives you a real sense of the time and place. If you liked films like L.A Confidential, you’ll like this one too.

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