DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS (1995) *** 1/4
"Film noir" (literally "black film") is a genre indigenous to American cinema, along with musicals and westerns, all genres present in foreign films but on a reduced scale. The French, in their passion for American movies and in their vindication of their artistic values, (when most Americans saw those films as mere entertainment) also identified "noir" as something special.
The term was no doubt inspired by the collections of hard-boiled and (mostly) detective fiction that went under names like "Serie Noire," and, with more stress on detection and less on violence, in series like "Le Masque" and others. The "noir" books were predominantly by American writers, like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Philip MacDonald, Cornell Woolrich, etc. Many of their novels made an impressive transition to the screen.
A glossary definition of noir is "A film with a gritty, urban setting that deals mainly with dark or violent passions in a downbeat way. Especially common in American cinema during the late forties and early fifties, its themes of existential alienation and paranoia have often been read as signs of postwar malaise and Cold War anxiety."
But it's not that simple. Here are some random examples: "Farewell My Lovely" (aka "Murder My Sweet") (1944) "Double Indemnity" (44), "Detour" (45), "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (46), "The Big Sleep" (46), "Out of the Past" (47), "The Asphalt Jungle" (50), "The Big Heat" (52), "Killer's Kiss" (55), "Touch of Evil" (58).
It is clear that "noir" spills over narrow definitions and into other genres, with one main constant, crime. On the other hand, the first reaction of connoisseurs of "noir" evokes a lone investigator, night, rain or fog, and terse dialogue.
In "Devil," writer-director and ex-actor Carl Franklin has literally a quadruple whammy film noir. It is not neo-noir but classic noir, going back to the sources and the conventions of the genre (though without fog or rain). Franklin is African-American; so is novelist Walter Mosley; so are the principal characters. The story, adapted with the right changes by Franklin, comes from the first of four Mosley books about Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins
Easy is played by the irresistible Denzel Washington. The year is 1948 and the place is Los Angeles, a location that, for a change, is fully justified and not used simply because it's handy, as in thousands of other films.
Fired from his air plant job, decorated World War II veteran Easy is close to a down and out status. Touchingly, he finds a "raison d'Ítre" in his new cottage, but he needs to make payments. This leads to his acceptance of a sleazy type's offer.
He pays Easy $100 for a job. (I waited in vain for the old slang "ten sawbucks" or "one hundred fish"). The task, unexplained, is to locate a white woman who frequents black circles. She is called Daphne Monet, a bucolic, peaceful name that contrasts ironically with the troubles she is causing.
Easy, moving mostly within packed, lively black neighborhoods, enters the world of black nightclubs and of streets that are not mean. It's the white streets that are mean, and some of the whites who come to the black areas.
An early lead is a man whose woman, Coretta (Lisa Nicole Carson) is a friend of Daphne's. Accompanying the couple to their home, while the man sleeps off his liquor, Easy has an easy time of bedding down Coretta. That's a smart touch about Easy's easy morals, in keeping with the thin line that often divides gumshoes from upright citizens.
The new sleuth gets plopped into one damn thing after another, a morass of violence, murders, blackmail, thugs, corruption, brutal cops and no-good politicos. It's That's the ideal formula for a film noir, yet "Devil" is no slavish copy, but a fresh work with echoes of old movies, including the neo-noir "Chinatown." (I won't explain why).
"Devil"'s main, crucial originality is the excellently staged atmosphere, a reconstruction (realistic but with some good cinematic exaggerations) of the black areas where Central Avenue throbs with movement and color and is for many a memory of the relatively peaceful old Los Angeles that contrasts with today's state-of-war violence.
As for Easy's residential neighborhood, with its pocket-size lawns, neat little homes, kids playing safely in the street and neighbors neighboring, it is downright Edenic.
This, however, is 1948, and the color line, unsubtle and pernicious, is all over the place. What is fascinating is the juxtaposition of vibrant black life with racism, and an unshown, unspoken suggestion: that period, no matter how unjust, held hope for racial harmony. You can't help thinking with sadness that if, on the books and in much real life, some equality was attained decades later, but also that today races are still severely polarized.
Carl Franklin's first film was the admired "One False Move," set in recent times and about a white Arkansas sheriff going after drug runners. Compared to that movie, "Devil" has less of a steely mood and less nail-biting suspense in expectation of sudden violence. The woman in "One False Move" was gorgeous, complicated Cynda Williams, at center-stage. Here, fairly inexpressive Jennifer Beals plays Daphne in a small part trimmed down from the book's , especially an affair with Easy. But for the purposes of the movie's plot, she is a good choice. (I won't reveal why).
Another such choice is Mouse (Don Cheadle) the pal who comes from Texas to lend Easy a hand. He mostly lends bullets, as Two-Gun Mouse is superlatively trigger-happy. He also lends quite much gallows' humor and comic relief.
The film is narrated by Easy in keeping with one of the many traditions of noir. Washington's voice is rather too sweet, lacks the tough staccato of Dick Powell, or Tom Neal's desperate tones in "Detour." A bigger cavil is that while the ensemble works in "Devil," the characters are not really terribly interesting, as, for example, in the classic "The Big Sleep." But, nostalgia apart, you can do much worse than watching "Devil," a rare, born-again film noir.