Director Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress opens with a shot of a Black neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles. The hustle and bustle is there as DP Tak Fujimoto’s camera cranes up, winding around a building before moving through a window. Inside, it is a bar with Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Denzel Washington) sitting down, scanning a newspaper for job opportunities. He recently lost his because he showed up late for work. Now, his life hangs in the balance. Two months late on his mortgage, he needs work and fast. Bartender Joppy (Mel Winkler) kept an ear out for him and found something, working for a man named Albright (Tom Sizemore) who “does favors for friends.” Now, he needs a Black man to help him. Albright is tracking the wife of ex-mayoral candidate Todd Carter (Terry Kinney), Daphne (Jennifer Beals). She has been seen in the Black neighborhood at jazz clubs, which the white Albright cannot get into. Too eager for work to think about the who, what, and why, Easy is in and things soon get messy.
Easy Rawlins is a literary character created by Walter Mosley, a private eye cut out of the classic noir style and is even set in the 1940s. There is plenty of narration, as well as underworld dealings, red herrings, and confusing mystery twists and turns to go along with his journey. However, it is all filtered through a Black perspective. When Easy drives through a white neighborhood, he feels the eyes of the neighbors on him. The cops hassle him and other Black men. A lead on Daphne’s location is not only perilous because it may bring him to his goal, but because she is apparently holed up in a whites-only hotel. Merely standing next to a white woman on a pier nearly costs Easy his life. For classic noir, race was rarely ever a factor, if even mentioned. It was a white-dominated world and Black characters popped up only as hired help in the background, usually without dialogue. Exceptions came few and far between, becoming a tad more commonplace in the 1950s with films like No Way Out directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz starring Sidney Poitier or Odds Against Tomorrow directed by Robert Wise starring Harry Belafonte. As with those films, Easy’s race is front-and-center, as it is for every other Black person in 1940s Los Angeles.
It is especially an issue when it comes to Easy’s social status. He has carved out his own slice of the American dream. Having served in World War II, he came back, used the GI Bill and some savings he put together, and he bought a home in the Watts neighborhood. Fujimoto ends the film with shots of the neighborhood, showing little girls jumping rope, a car passing by with some friends of Easy’s inside, a neighbor who has a habit for chopping down everyone’s trees, a family offering pony pictures for 15 cents, and others just hanging out. Easy himself recounts a story of passing the day away, sitting on “my porch” at “my house” with friends. His home is his castle. It is confirmation he is not letting the racist world around him keep him in bondage. As he puts it, “It felt good to own something.” Now, without a job, that status is in peril, let alone with the cops now breathing down his neck because searching for Daphne keeps leading him to corpses. This is a mystery film, one that leads Easy to corrupt and deplorable men, but it is also a portrait of Black identity in the 1940s. From the tracking shots that soak up every inch of energy outside of a jazz club to Easy’s struggle to keep his home, and even Daphne’s story as a woman born to a mixed race mother and a white father. It is a world defined by race and these character’s struggles when confronting the color line. In the Black neighborhood, there may be police but it is all good and everyone can relax. Outside of it, they are dominated by fear. Easy keeps looking over his shoulder at that pier, keeping an eye on some white men who just stepped out of a building nearby, knowing they will challenge him for standing next to a white woman if they see him. Daphne and Todd Carter love one another and while he is rich, marrying a woman with even a little bit of Black in her is too much of a risk for him. Easy may have his American dream home in a nice neighborhood with families and life abounding. Daphne may be capable of passing as white, tricking some along the way. However, neither are all too welcome in this white world and everything they earn comes with twice the amount of hard work.
Devil in a Blue Dress was not as much of a mystery originally, being reworked by Franklin to emphasize that part of the story and make it into more of a detective story. Its racial themes and odes to the classic era of the noir genre are clear, while its mystery proves just as engrossing as every piece. Easy has no idea what he is up against and chasing Daphne turns into a full-time job with new entanglements cropping up, while Todd Carter’s mayoral opponent Matthew Terrell (Maury Chaykin) sniffs around, keeping his eye on Easy and Albright with mysterious motivations. It is a story of the sordid side of Los Angeles. While classic noir may have been hamstrung by the Hays code, having to tone down, excise, or only allude to the brutal realities of the world, Devil in a Blue Dress is free to show just how deep the moral corruption runs. Men like Carter are generally good, but others, such as Terrell may cozy up to the Black community – “I am a friend of the negro,” he professes to Easy – but they are no ally to anyone but themselves. Worse, they indulge in the most horrendous actions one can imagine, all part of their generally demonic nature. The path to get to these realizations is not an easy one, handled with great care by Franklin. Clues often come in drips, while bodies keep dropping all over town and the scale of this cover-up grows immensely. Easy’s smooth talking voiceovers and the arrival of his colorful but violent friend Miles (Don Cheadle) bring energy to the picture, both via the old-school charisma of the detective and the comedic force that is Cheadle. Yet, as with even the best private eye from 40s noir, Easy barely knows what he has until it jumps up and hits him in the face (often literally). What he lacks in clues, however, he makes up for it with his affinity for asking questions and poking his nose where it is not welcome, which guides him right to the truth, no matter how hard to stomach that will end up being. Smooth, confident, and assured, Devil in a Blue Dress oozes style and its twisty storyline benefits considerably.
Old school, confident, and stylish, Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress is a great noir. In offering a unique perspective on the gap between the white and Black sections of Los Angeles, the struggles of fitting in with a segregated society of 1947, and presenting a classic noir through that lens, Franklin creates a fantastic and peril-filled experience. For Easy Rawlins, the mystery and those trying to kill him to hide that truth may be the least of his concerns.