Was there ever a more decent human being caught up in more lurid affairs than Denzel Washington's character in "Devil in a Blue Dresss"?
There have been a handful of great detective films over the years: Bogart in "The Maltese Falcon"; Dick Powell in "Murder, My Sweet"; Robert Mitchum in "Farewell My Lovely"; later, Paul Newman in "Harper." Washington in "Devil in a Blue Dress" deserves to be included in that august company. Based on the popular books by Walter Mosley, the movie is a throwback to the gumshoe tales of the thirties and forties; in fact, it's even set in the forties. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler would have been proud.
Washington plays Easy Rawlins, a young man trying to earn an honest living and pay his mortgage on a little house. But he's just been fired from his job. Seeking some other means of employment, he accepts a deal from a shady underworld type to locate a woman in a blue dress. It isn't long before Easy is up to his private eyeballs in mystery, double dealing, political intrigue, and colorful personalities. The plot could just as well have come from any film noir classic, except that it's set largely in the black community of Los Angeles rather than the white sector. There are a few references to segregation and prejudice--Easy gets hassled by racist cops and racist gangsters alike--but basically it's a straightforward, old-fashioned detective yarn.
As in so many older P.I. films to which it pays homage, the main character narrates the story in a voice-over. It's a device that can sometimes hinder the action but in this case adds legitimacy and a touch of nostalgia to the goings-on, especially when the voice is Denzel Washington's. His delivery doesn't have the tough-guy impact of a Bogart, but it is more smoothly sympathetic.
In addition, what every good detective story needs are compelling characters and a distinctive atmosphere. "Devil in a Blue Dress" provides both, starting with Easy himself. He's not an investigator when the movie begins; he's just a guy out of work who still believes in the American Dream, who wants to own his own home and achieve some measure of dignity and respect. Denzel Washington plays Easy with such charm, such charisma, such outright sweetness, we can't help liking him and wishing he'd come back in a flock of sequels. This movie is really just a look at Easy's introduction to the sleuthing business.
Then there are the supporting characters, some of them expectedly stereotypical, others not so. Foremost among them is Don Cheadle as Mouse. He's a homicidal gunman, played by Cheadle with obvious glee, a man we are glad is on Easy's side. Tom Sizemore plays a gangster named Dewitt Albright. He's cheap and sleazy, and we're glad he's on the other side. Jennifer Beals as Daphne Monet, the mysterious woman in the blue dress, is straight out of all the pulp novels and noir films ever made. Her past and her present are a riddle. Is she good or bad, or both? She has a surprisingly small amount of screen time but plays a pivotal role in the plot developments.
Then, there are Maury Chaykin as a corrupt politician named Matthew Terrell, Mel Winkler as a bar owner named Joppy, Lisa Nicole Carson as Coretta James, and Terry Kinny as millionaire Todd Carter. Lastly, let me mention the two goon policemen and the two good hoodlums who are practically interchangeable (like Hemingway's "The Killers" or the hit men in "Bullitt"); and Easy's friend Deacon Odell (complete with "The Life of Riley" playing on the radio, or don't you remember that show's undertaker, Digger O'Dell?).
Screenwriter and director Carl Franklin oversees matters with an eye for period authenticity, shooting in and about the neighborhoods of Los Angeles. It all adds up to one terrific private-eye film.
Side one of the disc contains a widescreen edition of the film, about 1.74:1 in ratio, and side two contains a full-screen, 1.33:1, edition. Comparisons are always interesting. The widescreen version conveys about 20-25% more image left to right than the full-screen version, but the latter conveys about 10% more information at the bottom of the screen. Each has been matted from the original film stock in different ways, with the original, theatrical widescreen format ultimately conveying the most picture. The quality of that picture is quite good, too, although not always as vivid or well defined as it might be. I wonder if it wasn't the director's intention to communicate some of the film's mood through the use of soft color tones and delicate contrasts. Not having had the time to sit through the film a second time to listen to the director's commentary, I can't tell you if Franklin explains the question somewhere.
The Dolby Digital sound is adequate but in no way remarkable. It does what it has to do with a minimum of bother. Tires screech in the left and right channels, gunfire is heard from all directions and overhead, and drink glasses tinkle convincingly behind us in the nightclub settings.
The major bonus items are the aforementioned director's commentary, a screen test with actor Don Cheadle, plus an animated scene selections menu. And the language choices include not only the accustomed English and Spanish, but Portuguese. Portuguese? I can understand having French and Spanish on most DVDs, what with Hollywood's neighbors to the north and south, but Portuguese? Well, it's a first.
As though you hadn't deduced it by now, "Devil in a Blue Dress" is basically a reworking of "The Big Sleep." If imitation is the highest form of praise, this facsimile not only pays tribute to some of the best of its kind but darned near tops them! The plot isn't much to brag about, but the characters and mood are. The film fared only middling well at the box office; maybe it didn't contain enough asteroids or space aliens. This new DVD, with its enhanced qualities for home viewing, gives audiences a chance to redeem themselves. It's one of the year's best releases.