Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)


This is a wonderful movie to revisit: Novelist Walter Moseley’s detective classic rendered into a beautiful period piece set in LA in 1948 and dramatizing black life in Compton and in the  jazz clubs on Central Avenue, that life getting tangled up with the corrupt LAPD and with two questionable politicos running against each other for Los Angeles Mayor while trying respectively to hide secrets which would end their careers, deep secrets Moseley’s Private Eye, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (a perfect jazz-time name if ever there was one), having stumbled into getting hired to uncover, reveals only after a very hard journey.

Black style of the period in clothes (it’s before the zoot suits and is flourishingly tasteful–sharp, cool, an uptown transformation of Savile Row), talk (the conversations are like jazz licks, jive alive, the bluesy phrasings poetic and in tempo and above all clickin’ along), jazz (on Central Avenue the swing and bop of Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, Helen Humes, teenage prodigy Art Pepper, Slim “McVouty” Gaillard singing his poetic nonsense lyrics), food (crawdads, Southern fried chicken), boxing (the young Sugar Ray)–all this preserved in its welcome groove, unerring swing, bebop flow.

The cars are magnificent–restored masterpieces of showy design, those motorized metal 1940s prodigies of aristocratic carriages–cruising LA night streets fronting the spelling-out neon signs and crowded sidewalks.

Devil in a Blue Dress is not only a suspenseful noir but a great visual nostalgia.

Tak Fujimoto’s cameras bring us a gorgeous dynamic tapestry of the place and the period. It’s a loving act of preservation. It’s on a level with Hitchcock’s preservation of post war British aristocratic life in The Paradine Case and Spielberg’s preservation of American middle class life in the 1980s in ET.

The Adventure: Easy Rawlins (Denzil Washington), Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), and Mouse Alexander (Don Cheadle) give wonderful performances in Moseley’s unfailingly compelling storyline in which people are being murdered by goons who, like Easy, are in pursuit of the disappeared beauty, Daphne. Easy, laid off his job unethically at Champion Aircraft in the post war aerospace boom, ends up being paid by more than one client to find the lovely Daphne (and, as he sees soon, to rescue her from the goons), for she is believed to be hiding out in Easy’s black community. Enter Mouse Alexander, a gunslinger friend of Easy–neither Wyatt Earp nor Shane have anything on Mouse–summoned to help Easy survive the goons, rogue LAPD homicide detectives, and a few other deadly surprises, including some by supposed friends. Here I have no choice but to stop to pay tribute to Don Cheadle’s magnificent performance as the loose, humorous and deadly hired gun (“Mouse,” like “Easy,” just the right name). Cheadle is simply perfect, inspired, terrifyingly funny. He brings you to a certain laughter whose quality, I feel sure, you’ll find unique: you won’t have laughed quite that way bef0re; there is no higher praise for humor in storytelling.

The two candidates for mayor–Todd Carter and Mathew Terrell–each have a secret vulnerability tied in with the missing Daphne. Carter loves Daphne, but her mother was Creole and her father Caucasian, and in the bigotry of the day he wants to marry her but hide it; she quite rightly doesn’t. Meantime, there are compromising photos of Terrell with boys, and the goons hunting Daphne have enough reason to believe she knows where they are.

Moseley has things work out within the constraints of the time.

I especially like it at the end when a neighbor asks Easy what he might do now that he’s been laid off. Easy says maybe this PI stuff might be something to do. And then, relaxing on his front porch on a  sunny day in 1948 in Los Angeles, happy to be home, he says maybe he’ll use his handsome fees from his recent detective work to invest in some real estate. Bing! An inspiration in that promising time and in that portentous place poised for dreamful enormity that in mere years will set Easy on Easy Street.

As it should given our Spirit of Place, Moseley’s wonderful story Carries On.

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