Reviewed by Bob Banka
April 10, 1999
DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS
Widescreen, 1.85 : 1, Anamorphic, or Full Frame
Dolby Digital, 5.1, or Surround Sound
Rated R 1995
Director Carl Franklin is one of the best kept secrets in Hollywood. He hasn't made many films to date, but those he has made are top notch, unforgettable features. His first was the riveting crime drama, ONE FALSE MOVE - one of 1991's very best, but very few folks have seen it. The same goes for his second feature, the film noire, DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, which stars Denzel Washington as a regular guy, who takes a small job tracking down a politician's moll, and gets tangled in a dangerous game. Recently, Franklin helmed the more main stream, emotionally charged, ONE TRUE THING, which earned another Academy Award nomination for the great Meryl Streep. Critics have been hailing Franklin's work for years now, but he's still not a familiar name with film goers.
DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS is a beautifully crafted film, which marvelously recreates 1948 LA. Franklin is acutely aware of the importance of atmosphere in a film noire, where setting is like another character. Denzel Washington's character, 'Easy' Rawlins, is a Texan, now living in LA, residing in a quaint little neighborhood, in a cute little house, surrounded by scores of other cute little houses. The block used for filming still exists, and little had to be done to transform it other than manicure the lawns and park a dozen or so antique cars along the curb. By shooting with the proper filters, cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) was able to create a gorgeous, glowing, aura around the neighborhood. The same goes for the shots in town, more particularly, in a portion of town made up to closely resemble LA's Central Avenue in the forties. As Fujimoto's camera glides about, it allows us to soak in and appreciate the atmosphere oozing from the speakeasies, the small shops, and the restaurants. Extras are dressed in boldly colored period outfits - the very height of fashion for the day. Every classic automobile looks just right - roomy, with lots of chrome, and white walls. DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS has top drawer production values that give just the right look and feel so the story can work its magic on you.
Based on Walter Mosley's Edgar Award-nominated novel, published in 1990, DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS is an intelligent P.I. tale. It takes a regular fella, mixes him up with a seedy, hired hand who does 'favors' for folks, and then has him crawl through the filth of an LA mayoral election. Carl Franklin penned a handful of changes to the novel - all with the author's blessings. It's a smart script which manages to stay well ahead of the viewer - confident that we'll stay tuned in throughout, and not miss the clues scattered within the fast talking dialogue of all the slippery players.
There are at least three outstanding performances in the film. Of course, Denzel Washington has the more challenging part - an out of work machinist who takes a job from a stranger, against his better judgment, so he can continue to pay the mortgage on his lovely home. Washington's character, 'Easy' Rawlins, begins as a tuff, but naive, transplanted Texan with a shady past, who's trying his best to hold on to his bit of the American dream. He's a likable, regular guy, who does what anyone would try to do. He's a gullible, desperate sort who transforms first into a hopelessly confused dupe, then a frightened murder suspect at the mercy of bigoted, brutal police detectives, and finally into an angry man on the offense - fighting to protect his freedom. One of our best actors, Washington is perfect as his character rides this emotional rollercoaster penned into the script. With the help of director Franklin, he manages to give a performance that steadily builds momentum. Easy starts out desperate, and down on his luck - hesitating to take a job that'll allow him to keep his home. But by the final reel, he's an unstoppable force - interrogating suspects and brandishing a sidearm. This is one of Washington's best performances.
As good as Washington is, Don Cheadle, as Mouse, Easy's dangerous, homicidal friend from Texas, manages to steal every scene he's in. Mouse was a player in Easy's shadowy past back home. When he needs help dealing with his problems in LA, he calls in his old friend, but gets more than he bargained for. Mouse is a hard drinking, trigger happy, opportunist who's idea of mercy is using a smaller caliber gun to shoot someone with. Cheadle has never been better on screen. He's at once edgy and viscous, and yet genial. Cheadle somehow manages to make Mouse a likable character. A number of film critics circles recognized his as one of the best supporting performances of the year. Tom Sizemore also does a fine job as DeWitt Albright, the slimy gun for hire working for... well, I wouldn't dream of saying. A young man of thirty at the time of filming, the actor put on some thirty pounds in order to age himself for the role. He's a slippery lookin' dude. Albright speaks quietly, and stares intently - a cobra ready to lash out if you don't tell him exactly what he wants to hear, if you don't dance to his tune. Jennifer Beals in the title role is the only disappointment. However, it's a small part and we don't see her often enough for this to take a toll on the film. She doesn't smolder the way other gals have done in more recent noire flics. Consider Kathleen Turner in BODY HEAT, and Ellen Barkin in THE BIG EASY. Her Daphne Monet is supposed to be strong and intelligent, but she comes off rather whimpy - a victim of circumstance, helpless and afraid.
Carl Franklin's DEVIL IN BLUE DRESS is a terrific film. High production values and a great script give the leads something to sink there teeth into. The tale will keep you tuned in and guessing for the duration. There had been talk of at least two more Easy Rawlins flics, starring Washington, back when 'DEVIL was released. I've not heard anything about it since. Too bad. But we still have this film, and if you've yet to see it - here's a great chance since Columbia's release comes with a running commentary by the director. They also included his commentary on their release of his first film, ONE FALSE MOVE. Way to go Columbia!
Jennifer Beals as Daphne Monet
WW II veteran, 'Easy' Rawlins (Denzel Washington), wants nothing more than to make payments on his house - his part of the American dream. He recently lost his job at the plant, and while scanning the want ads in Joppy's bar, he's approached by a slick looking fella named Dewitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) who offers him a job tracking down Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) - the moll of a politician who recently dropped out of a mayoral election campaign - leaving the challenger, Matthew Terrell (Maury Chaykin) uncontested. Albright would do the job himself, but Monet's predilection for 'dark meat' often has her cruising clubs where a white man would be too conspicuous. For $100, Easy can't resist.
DON CHEADLE and DENZEL WASHINGTON as MOUSE and EASY
in CARL FRANKLIN'S
DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS
When the first person he questions about Monet, a sexy gal named Coretta James (Lisa Nicole Carson), turns up dead, Easy realizes he's made a big mistake - a point driven home by two bigoted cops who 'good cop / bad cop' him at the station house. Either Easy finds out who punched Coretta's clock, or he'll get the chair. Then the devil in the blue dress, Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), slinks into his life, tells him half of a story, and pays him to give her a lift. She needs to see a man about an important letter. But they find the man dead, and now Easy is connectable to homicides. The scum is getting too deep too fast. Needing a special kind of help, he calls an old friend back in Texas, Mouse (Don Cheadle), who arrives just in time to prevent Easy from having his throat slit by a local mobster. Tired of playing defense, Easy decides to hit the bums head on. He and Mouse visit a sad friend and then a creep or two, and eventually uncover the rotten core. Easy has less than 24 hours to settle all scores before the local cops pin the two murders on him.
Don Cheadle as Mouse
Columbia Tristar couldn't have done better here. This is a top of the line transfer of a film that could've presented some problems for the folks at the bench. A few exceptions aside, there are basically two types of scenes in DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS - very dark (it's a noire after all), and very bright (we're in sunny California). We've seen dark films which looked too murky and we've seen brighter exteriors in flics with bleeding colors, blooming whites and yellows, and soft edges. We saw none of these problem here.
Throughout the presentation, regardless of lighting key, the image remains sharp and detailed. The only instances which hint at a softer appearance were intentionaly made so by cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. For example, the shots around Easy's house and neighborhood, which have a glowing, sun soaked softness to them. However, we noticed no color bleeding between fields, and no overly bright, or 'blooming' fields of white or yellow.
The darker scenes - in the smoke-filled pubs of Central Ave., look outstanding. The picture is sharp and detailed with excellent shadow delineation and deep rich blacks. There are no signs of 'grain' or image breakup, and colors are very well rendered and fully saturated. The crimson, blue, purple, and lavender shades worn by the patrons are deep and rich. They look excellent. With cigarette smoke swirling about and hung in the mood lighting, and the dark corners and long shadows typical of a humid, upstairs pub, there could've been trouble, had this been a sub par transfer. But rest assured, Columbia serves up a picture that does justice to Fujimoto's work.
Flesh tones look natural throughout the presentation, and the print used by Columbia is free of distracting nics, scars, and scratches. Brightness and contrast levels are perfect and consistent throughout. We noted no alaizing, and no 'ringing' or 'shimmer' from digital over enhancement.
High marks for Columbia's marvelous, very film-like presentation of DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS.
Tom Sizemore as Dewitt Albright
This is a very good Dolby Digital, 5.1 mix. The forward soundstage is wide open and deep, and reaches around nicely to merge with the surrounds. Panning effects and sound effects placement are smooth and accurate. Though the film is primarily cool narration and fast chatter dialogue, there are instances where accurate placement of gun shots, shattering glass, and skidding tires, is called for, and this track serves them up perfectly. There's a fair amount of bass signal sent to the front left and right channels to ground the reports from handguns and higher pitched sounds are clean and undistorted.
There aren't many instances that call for true spilt surround effects, but the rear speakers do support some panning effects from the back left or back right to the forward soundstage, as well as some localized ambient sounds of traffic and sounds of the evening - like crickets and so on. Primarily, the rear channels are used to serve up strains of Elmer Bernstein's moody score. The music is very well recorded and is often heard at nearly the same volume from the surrounds as from the forward speakers - allowing for a nice enveloping sound during a number of the film's quieter, yet very dramatic scenes - for example, any scene when Washington and Beals share the screen.
Dialogue is well recorded and nicely integrated. Voices sound natural - never distorted or compressed. This is a 5.1 mix, but the .1 FX channel has little to do. Other than the finale, which is loaded with gunfire, there's not much to get the sub's cone moving. But this is the nature of the film, and has nothing to do with the efforts of the folks at Columbia.
Denzel Washington as Easy Rawlins
Scene access menu with links to 28 chapters in the film
Audio commentary by director Carl Franklin
Don Cheadle's screen test footage (FF, mono)
3 Theatrical trailers
Alternate Spanish and Portuguese language tracks
English, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles
English closed captions
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