Noir is well-known for private detective protagonists, down-on-their-luck protagonists, and just generally kind of surly protagonists. It’s also, unfortunately, a genre made up almost entirely of white protagonists.
And then we have Easy Rawlins.
I watched Devil in a Blue Dress last week, and it’s definitely one of my favorite noir films of the year.
Easy (Denzel Washington) is a recently laid-off WWII war vet desperate to pay the mortgage on his house. But when he accepts money from shady-as-hell Albright (Tom Sizemore) to locate a missing woman, Easy finds himself hounded by both sides of the law as a political scandal unfolds around him and bodies start dropping.
1. Easy Rawlins is a likable and surprisingly sympathetic protagonist.
I say surprising because a lot of noir heroes are pretty much assholes, and most of the trouble they get into is very much their own fault, but I actually feel bad for Easy here. He does do a couple of not-so-nice things in this film, but overall, Easy seems like a decent enough guy who’s just trying to hold onto the life he’s managed to build for himself. And sure, he knew that the guy waving money at him was bad news, but his back was against a wall and he had to do something. It’s refreshing when our heroes have, at least, sufficient motivation for doing totally stupid shit. Also, Easy’s funny. And yeah, the fact that he looks like this doesn’t hurt.
You know, I feel like not enough men currently rock the tight, white tank top or T-shirt and simple pair of pants look. Why is that? Can we bring that back into vogue? Because that is a good look, especially on Denzel Washington. Damn.
2. Though I should say . . . as much as I like Easy, there is one point in this movie where even I’m like, “Man, what the hell are you doing? Do not go meet this person, I repeat, do not go meet this person. You still have a very minimal chance of escaping now before you get in too deep. You don’t have to — you know what? Fine, fine, just go, but don’t say I didn’t warn you, buddy.”
3. Devil in a Blue Dress is decently plotted, and the relatively quick pace keeps things moving along without ever feeling rushed. The mystery itself — well, mysteries, really, as The Case of the Missing Woman quickly becomes The Case of Many Other Things — is nicely complex. The film isn’t super overcomplicated or filled with ludicrous twists, but there are enough players and various motivations to go around to keep everything interesting. I wasn’t entirely surprised by one development, but there’s probably a reason for that, which I’ll discuss in the Spoiler Section. On the other hand, there’s something of a whodunnit that develops in the course of this story, and I didn’t guess whodunnit at all.
4. You know who’s a lot of fun in this movie? Don Cheadle.
Everyone in the supporting cast is fairly good. Jennifer Beals is perfectly decent as the movie’s femme fatale, and I like Lisa Nicole Carson as Coretta quite a bit. (More on her a little later.) Tom Sizemore plays an almost cartoonishly sadistic gangster with apparent ease.
But it’s Don Cheadle who really lights up the screen with his very presence. Cheadle plays Mouse, Easy’s murder-happy friend from Houston, and he just brings an enormous amount of energy to the role. He and Denzel Washington have good chemistry on screen, and I’d happily watch more movies with the two of them playing amateur detectives together. (Well, more like amateur detective and his psycho buddy. Still. Who doesn’t think that sounds like a good time, right? It’s a buddy dynamic that you can apply to every genre! I, for one, would love to see a road trip movie with an amateur detective and his psycho buddy. Ooh, or maybe a romantic comedy with an amateur detective and his psycho buddy. Oh, so many writing ideas, so little time.)
5. I won’t say how the movie ends, exactly, but I will say that the story concludes on a good note. It’s certainly not all sunshine and rainbows — it is a film noir, after all — but in a way, Devil in a Blue Dress might be a little bit more upbeat than other films on my list thus far, despite dealing with weightier social issues like, you know, widespread and horrifying racism.
Unfortunately, everything else I want to say — and I do have quite a bit more to cover — includes Spoilers. But if you haven’t watched the film, I’d recommend checking it out, at least if you like mysteries or period pieces or Denzel Washington’s arms.
Cause, come on. Who doesn’t like that?
So, Easy is hired to find Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals). Daphne’s dating Todd Carter (Terry Kinney), or was, but there’s something strange going on there, especially since Carter just dropped out of the race for mayor, despite being the current favorite to win. Supposedly, Carter stopped running because Daphne went missing, so Albright — who just as supposedly — works for Carter wants her found. It’s rumored that Daphne frequents various black clubs in LA, so Easy tries out this illegal bar he knows and runs into his friends, Dupree and Coretta.
I actually thought these two were married, but Wikipedia tells me that they’re just dating, and IMDb is giving Dupree and Coretta different last names, so I will bow to Wiki’s superior knowledge on this one. What’s important is, they’re together. Easy asks them about Daphne, and Coretta obviously knows more than she’s telling. There is much with the drinking, and then Easy helps Coretta get her drunk ass boyfriend back home. And while Dupree’s passed out in the other room, Easy and Coretta, er, pump each other for information.
And while I do actually feel a little bad for Dupree here (who, poor sap, never finds out that Coretta cheated on him), I like this scene a lot because there’s an equality in power dynamics. Easy thinks he’s screwing Coretta to get answers, but it doesn’t even occur to him until the next day that she’s managed to get just as many answers out of him. I like Coretta quite a bit, actually.
This is, of course, why she immediately dies.
Going through my ever-expanding list of various tags, I came across ‘It’s Sure Cold in this Refrigerator,’ and realized I needed to decide if Coretta counted as a woman in a refrigerator or not. She is, after all, a love interest (well, of a sort) who is killed off very quickly after having sex with our hero, and our hero does have some semi plot-driven angst over that. (It’s not exactly shaking fist at the sky, DAMN YOU, SALAZAR, DAMN YOU rage, but it’s in there.) And considering Hollywood has something of a history of killing off sexually confident women in movies, it’s hard not to at least take into consideration the fact that a woman who uses sex as a tool is murdered, while a man who does the exact same thing makes it out alive.
Still, Coretta isn’t killed by a villain looking to make a point or cause our hero the Ultimate Man Pain. Actually, Coretta’s death doesn’t have much to do with Easy at all, nor is she killed by Albright or any of the other obvious bad guys in this movie. She’s actually murdered because she tries to shake someone down, and that person doesn’t respond well to it. I’ll get into the specifics a little later, but what I like about this is the misdirection. You think, of course, that she must have been killed for knowing too much, even when the film has told you time and again that Coretta tries to get more bang for her buck, so to speak, whenever she can with whomever she can. It seems to be sort of her basic philosophy in life. And I never really got the impression that the screenwriter was punishing Coretta for being a Bad, Bad Woman, so that was kind of refreshing too.
The cops bring Easy in for the murder and beat him up some, but they eventually let him go, presumably because no one really cares all that much about a dead black woman. This is about when Easy meets Matthew Terell, the other guy in the mayoral race. Terell is apparently trying to come off as a nice, not terrifying guy, but no one buys that, even if his (supposedly) adopted son is hanging out with him. Easy gets out of the car as soon as humanely possible, and I approve of that.
Then Easy gets a call front the elusive Ms. Daphne Monet.
Daphne asks if Easy wants to meet, and this is the point where I was like, “No, Easy. No, you don’t want to meet. Only bad things can come of getting further embroiled in this. Please don’t go see this woman.”
Obviously, Easy goes to see her. They flirt a little in a hotel room, and I’m like, “No, it’s cool. You’re both supposed to be friends with Dead Coretta, but never mind that. You just keep making eyes at each other.”
They get down to business, though, and Daphne actually does seem upset about her dead friend. (Although we later find out that she’s at least partially responsible for what happened to Coretta.) She’s actually called Easy to give her a ride to some guy’s house. He has some very important letter there, or so she thinks. Because when they actually do get to the house, there is no letter, and the man is quite dead.
Daphne immediately (and hysterically) gets in the car and ditches Easy’s ass, something that I feel like Easy ought to yell about later. Sadly, he doesn’t. I suppose he has a lot on his mind. After all, Albright is going to kill him if he doesn’t track Daphne down again, and the cops — who actually give a shit now that a white man has been killed — are going to arrest Easy for double homicide if he can’t give them the actual killer.
So, Easy goes to Todd Carter to figure out why the hell everyone wants to get their hands on Daphne so bad. And here you’re thinking Todd Carter has to be some kind of Big Time Ominous Dude, right, if he has a psycho like Albright on retainer . . . but Carter’s just a skinny, balding dude in an ugly tie and an old man sweater.
Turns out, Carter doesn’t know anything about Albright. Albright’s actually been working for Terell all along. Carter does want to see Daphne, enough to pay a thousand dollars for it, even — but he refuses to tell Easy why he dropped out of the race or why he broke up with her in the first place. I will, though, because this recap’s running long, and I have shit to read, dammit: Daphne’s father was white but her mother was black, and Terell — who somehow found out — would have made that knowledge public, ensuring Carter lost.
(This is the twist that didn’t particularly surprise me, mostly because I came upon a list maybe two weeks ago of 15 Celebrities Most People Don’t Know Are Black. I didn’t see, or didn’t remember, the note about Devil in a Blue Dress until after the fact, but I did remember Beals that was biracial when I saw her name on the cast list. Also, and in an entirely unrelated note, I think this might be the first movie I’ve ever seen with Jennifer Beals. I haven’t even watched Flashdance yet. Opinions, people. Should this be remedied? Do I need to watch Flashdance in its entirety, or just the One Scene?)
Daphne, in turn, has found out that Terell has quite the secret of his own: he’s a creepy pedophile fuck. There are pictures of him with naked boys, pictures that Daphne plans to use to out-scandal Terell. She thinks that once Terell’s out of the race, Carter will welcome her back with open arms. Easy and the audience know better, but that’s for later. (Also, I’m vaguely annoyed with basically everyone in this movie for not really seeming to give a damn about the kids in these pictures. Daphne and Carter only value the pics for their effect on the mayoral race, and Coretta is only using them as a means to make more money. I know it’s noir, but come on now. You people all suck.)
Easy discovers that Coretta hid the pictures in her Bible. Unfortunately, Albright and his goon squad abduct Daphne, so Easy and psycho buddy Mouse (who he called in earlier as backup) interrogate Joppy, Easy’s bartender friend. Joppy is the very same schmo who recommended Easy to Albright in the first place. Joppy is also Daphne’s friend (which, is to say, he’s totally in love with her), and it turns out that he’s the one who killed Coretta. See, she wanted more money for those pictures, so he went there on Daphne’s request to scare her . . . and ended up killing her instead. (Which probably did scare her but didn’t exactly get him the pictures, so we can’t really call that a win on his part.)
Easy’s not particularly happy with Joppy, but he needs to keep him alive in order to serve him up to the cops. Joppy helpfully directs Easy and Mouse to Albright’s cabin in the middle of the woods. Easy specifically tells Mouse not to shoot Joppy while he goes ahead and checks out the house. This is a terrible idea, of course, for a couple of reasons: one, what’s the point of bringing backup if you’re not going to wait for them, and two, Mouse just predictably strangles Joppy instead because, hey, it’s not shooting him, and do you know how long it takes to tie up a guy? Way too long. Even Mouse is like, dude, if you didn’t want him dead, why the hell would you leave him with me? You know how I am.
What Easy should have done was throw Joppy’s ass into the trunk — no ties required –and then snuck up on the cabin with Mouse, but oh well. What’s done is done.
Mouse and Easy manage to kill Albright and all his goons. I was sure Mouse was going to bite the big one, but shockingly, he makes it out alive. The two men save Daphne and bring her back to Todd Carter, who predictably breaks her heart. Carter pays Easy and tells him that he’ll square things with the cops. He also tells Easy that he really does love Daphne, and Easy — being a better person than me — doesn’t say, “Not enough, apparently,” and/or punch him in the face. He just stares at Carter a little and then walks away.
Daphne and her half-brother Frank (who Mouse hilariously shot earlier in the film) take off without a word. Mouse goes back to Texas. And Easy, who can now pay his mortgage, decides to go into business for himself as a private detective. Because — unbeknownst to me when I started watching this movie — Devil in a Blue Dress is based on the first novel in a detective series by Walter Mosley, which I’m seriously considering picking up at some point. I certainly would have watched more Easy Rawlins movies, had they made any sequels to this film.
Too bad. I’d like to find more Denzel Washington films that I actually have interest in.
Easy: “A man once told me that you step out your door in the morning, and you’re already in trouble. The only question is are you on top of that trouble or not?”
Easy: “What kind of work you do?”
Albright: “I do favors. Favors for friends.”
Easy: “This one’s mine.”
Dupree: “Are you sure? You’re the one who’s got no job.”
Coretta: “And you’re the one who’s got no money.”
Easy (trying to get Frank to tell him where Daphne is): “A rich man is willing to pay one thousand dollars just to talk to this guy. A thousand dollars. That’s a hell of a lot of money, man. Frank.”
Mouse: “Wait, wait, wait, wait. Let me try. (puts his gun away) Now look here, Frank — it’s Frank, right?”
Mouse: “Frank.” (He pulls his gun out again and shoots Frank in the arm.)
Mouse: “You got blood on my coat, Easy. It’s a damn expensive coat.”
Easy: “You ain’t even in been in my house five minutes, and you already damn shot somebody, Mouse.”
(Easy desperately needs to find Daphne. Meanwhile, Mouse has just told somebody on the phone that Easy will have to call them back.)
Easy: “Who was that on the phone?”
Mouse: “Oh, I don’t know. Sounded like some white girl.”
Dude: “Not very smart, talking about Mr. Carter’s business to a secretary.”
Easy: “I don’t want to hear it, man. There’s too much going on for me to give a damn about what you think is smart.”
Joppy: “Stop that shit! Boy, that’s my marble. My uncle left me that after he died!”
Easy: “Well, godammit, he’s about to get it back!”
Joppy: “Ain’t nothing to worry about.”
Easy (VO): “Now, when somebody tells me, ‘Ain’t nothing to worry about,’ I usually look down to see if my fly is open.”
Easy: “What happened?”
Mouse: “I had no time to be tying him up, Easy.”
Mouse: “You just said don’t shoot him, right?”
Easy: “That’s right.”
Mouse: “Well, I didn’t, I just — I choked him.”
Mouse: “Well, how am I gonna help you out if I’m back here fooling around with him now? Easy, look, if you ain’t want him killed, why did you leave him with me?”
Overall, I really liked it. This movie deals with heavier social issues than the other noir films I’ve watched so far, but they’re handled well, and none of it takes away from the action or enjoyment of the mystery itself. I’m sincerely kind of bummed there isn’t a sequel.
Get on top of your shit, man. Do what you need to do, cause you’re gonna have to fight for what’s yours, even if you shouldn’t have to.