Director/Screenwriter: Carl Franklin
By Roderick Heath
Although crime films and thrillers never went away, the late 1980s and ‘90s saw a busy revival of noir film, a new mode conscious of the genre’s past but invested with a hard edge of contemporary awareness. A battery of filmmakers including Michael Mann, John Dahl, Howard Franklin, Bill Duke, Stephen Frears, Lee Tamahori, Spike Lee, the Coens, Melvin Van Peebles, Lili Fini Zanuck, Quentin Tarantino, Bryan Singer, David Lynch, the Wachowskis, and Curtis Hanson all began stripping down and reassembling the genre according to their extraordinarily diverse talents and interests. Several of these directors represented a new wave of black cinema talent infiltrating Hollywood, talents who found the genre a natural field to plough in cultivating tough, pithy, interrogative dramas about America’s social makeup and urban realities, populist kin to the wave of contemporary dramas like John Singleton and the Hughes brothers were making at the same time. Carl Franklin had been acting since the 1970s and made his directing debut in low-budget, trashy thrillers like Nowhere to Run (1989) and Full Fathom Five (1990), but suddenly caught the trade winds of the burgeoning indie film movement with the neo-noir One False Move (1992), a movie that also provided a leg up to its coscreenwriter and cast member Billy Bob Thornton.
Franklin briefly became a hot ticket around Hollywood and parlayed his success into Devil in a Blue Dress, a vehicle for Denzel Washington. Franklin then tried a shift of direction with the family drama One True Thing (1998), which attracted Oscar nominations but lost Franklin his cool factor, and his return to thrillers on the silly High Crimes (2002) and the underrated Out of Time (2003) gained no new traction. Since then Franklin has worked busily in television, returning to cinema only for the well-reviewed but barely-seen Bless Me, Ultima (2013). But One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress have proven over time to be fondly regarded, even essential bits of filmmaking. The first film provided a bloody, acrid calling card that showcased Franklin’s awareness of the impact of violence and his wry sense of modern America’s blurring frontiers of class and race. Devil in a Blue Dress was by contrast a period film, an adaptation of a novel by crime writer Walter Mosley. The book was the first of Mosley’s tales about detective Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins and his loose-cannon pal Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander, who have so far appeared in ten novels and a short story collection, covering a time period from the late 1940s to the early 1970s.
Mosley’s creation was the first major work in this field to sport black protagonists since Chester Himes’ classic novels, a film of which, Cotton Comes to Harlem, helped kicked off the Blaxploitation movement in 1970, and Bill Duke’s film of Himes’ A Rage in Harlem (1991) also nudged along the ‘90s noir revival. Where Himes’ heroes were cops, Mosley took the classic template of the private eye hero and gave it some sharp twists in the figure of Rawlins, unlicensed and chiefly commended to his line of work thanks to his gift for handling people and negotiating LA’s black community. Although spiritually linked to some of the great Blaxploitation heroes from the ‘70s, Easy was not a swaggering fantasy like John Shaft or Trouble Man’s (1973) Mr T, but a product of and observer of the American social landscape in all its transformative turmoil and iniquity. Mosley coproduced the film whilst Franklin wrote the script, but aspects of Mosley’s specific style, like Rawlins’ fascination with his own ability to coolly instruct himself in high-pressure situations, were hard to reproduce cinematically. Devil in a Blue Dress remains the only adaptation of his works to date, largely because it was a flop at the time, and overshadowed by other works in a similar key at the time, particularly Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997).
Devil in a Blue Dress takes as its guiding principle less the assimilation of retro tropes and celebration of macho neurosis found in Hanson’s film than the artwork that appears under the opening credits, Archibald Motley’s “Bronzeville at Night,” a stylised and wittily textured panorama exploring a specific time, place, and culture all too often passed by in the movies of its own time. Franklin evokes an islet of black history at once tense and eternally expectant of trouble but also basking in a moment of respite, in the post-war spell of prosperity with the ever-so-faint possibility of a better future. Easy, a former GI and transplanted Texan washed up in Los Angeles after World War II, is a machine operator who has even dared buy himself a house in Watts. But he’s also just been fired when the film opens in 1948 by a boss who disliked his tendency for standing up for himself, and is deeply anxious about his mounting bills. Sitting in the upstairs bar run by his pal Joppy (Mel Winkler) scanning the newspapers for jobs, Easy is approached by DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), as Easy was recommended to him by Joppy as the type of guy who knows his way around. Albright claims to be working for the rich and influential Todd Carter (Terry Kinney), and wants to track down Carter’s former fiancé. Carter recently quit the race to be city mayor after breaking off his engagement with the glamorous but elusive beauty Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), and Albright wants to find Daphne, who has a supposed predilection for black lovers.
Easy accepts Albright’s cash with the lingering sense he’s getting himself mixed up in some rancid dealings, but after making the rounds finds the wife of one of his friends, Coretta James (Lisa Nicole Carson), is pals with Daphne. Coretta is soon found murdered and Easy finds himself a favourite suspect of detectives Mason (John Roselius) and Mille (Beau Starr) and threatened with being fitted up for the crime unless he can turn up a better alternative. Albright quickly reveals a sinister and brutal streak, visiting Easy with a trio of goons and intimidating him to make sure he’s telling them all he’s learned. Easy encounters Carter’s former rival in the mayoral race, Matthew Terell (Maury Chaykin), who seems interested in the hunt for Daphne and who is Albright’s real employer. Easy soon meets Daphne herself: she enlists Easy to take her to a rendezvous with an associate, but find him dead upon arrival at his house. Easy eventually learns Terell has assigned his goons to destroy Daphne because she bought incriminating pictures that he proves he’s a paedophile, so Easy calls in his old friend from Houston, Mouse (Don Cheadle), to watch his back. Eventually Easy discovers Daphne’s secret: she’s passing for white, and hopes to use the dirt she’s gathered on Terell to fend him off and allow her and Carter to be married.
The story structure of Devil in a Blue Dress is very much that of a traditional detective tale, as Easy moves about LA encountering odd characters and finding himself embroiled in situations dangerous, sexy, and enigmatic. But in the fashion of the genre’s more modern template, it fills in elements elided or offered through euphemisms in earlier film editions like The Big Sleep (1946), and ties such discoveries to a larger project of analysing the social landscape. The insidiousness of Terell, the traditional sleazy fat cat, is rendered baldly exploitative and depraved even as he proclaims himself “friend to the negro,” and the classic figure of the femme fatale is deployed in a way that further elucidates problems of race. One of the more original aspects here, however, lies in its rigorous sense of characters grounded in an everyday world. Where figures like Sam Spade and Phil Marlowe drifted in and out of a cloud of existential suspension, whilst many a noir film concentrates on natural outsiders and demimonde denizens, Easy, whilst tough, canny, and streetwise, is an aspiring property owner trying to maintain his position in a community. He’s a man of daylight obliged to become an adventurer in a nocturnal universe. In that regard he more closely resembles the sorts of protagonists favoured by ‘40s and ‘50s directors who blended noir with social realist concerns, like Nicholas Ray and Jules Dassin.
Franklin spares time for simply observing Easy and his position in his street, his enjoyment of sitting on his porch and watching the parade of life, interacting with neighbours, and contending with disturbances, like the local pest who fancies himself as community gardener but mostly likes to chop down trees. The equilibrium of such an environment has its uses, particularly when said pest helps save Easy from getting his skull cracked through his attentiveness to what’s going on. Easy isn’t such an ordinary figure, however. The decorated former soldier can handle himself, and he has a murky past, suggested in a brief impressionistic montage and in furtive rumours repeated by some of his acquaintances, connected with Mouse, whose propensity for violence is both handy and chilling. He’s readily and easily seduced by Coretta when her boyfriend (Jernard Burks) lies sleeping off his liquor in another room. Coretta seduces Easy but easily switches roles of sleuth and prey as she breaks off screwing to force him to cough up his reason for searching for Daphne, a move that reduces Easy to a gabbling brat desperate to get back to business. Easy’s aspirational streak (“Man, I loved coming home to my house…”) is signalled early on as a rare accomplishment for a man of his race and class, a sign he’s cannier than most in his ability to outpace the corrosive forces he faces. Property here signals permanence, security, yardsticks of pride, and threats to property maintain a special kick against their owners, not just in Easy’s concern for his home but also Joppy’s vulnerability to Easy’s special method of interrogating him – bashing his inherited marble bar top with a hammer.
Washington was on fire in the mid-‘90s as arguably the biggest black star since the heyday of Sidney Poitier, propelled by his Oscar-winning turn as the angry Trip in Glory (1989) and cemented by his performance as Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic, two roles strongly rooted in a new openness to black history and sensibility in mainstream cinema. Devil in a Blue Dress was, amongst other things, a perfect star vehicle for an actor like Washington, engaging him in all his modes, segueing from dirty comedy in Easy’s sexual gamesmanship with Coretta, to frantic physical action. Easy evolves from a man making his first, furtive attempts at self-empowerment glimpsed in his glum and uncomfortable effort to stick up for himself in a flashback to his firing, to reactive anger as the two detectives bully him and then cowering fear as he unleashes one cop’s swift readiness to punish an uppity black man. Easy nonetheless accumulates new confidence in his dealings and confrontational potency in contending with dangerous and powerful characters. The pivotal moment comes when he encounters Carter, a drab and beaten-looking man in spite of his great wealth; when Carter thinks he’s trying to take him for a ride and mentions he’s friends with various city officials, Easy, like a verbal equivalent of a jujitsu master, converts a threat into an advantage for himself as he suggests with quick and businesslike assurance, “Then they can help us find her.” Which then obliges Carter to admit that no, they can’t; only a man like Easy can navigate these particularly mean streets.
Franklin successfully ties his camera effects to Easy’s perspective without any ostentatious gimmicks, tracking Easy’s progress through a mystery that’s serpentine in all the regulation ways but with an added layer disseminating the games of social demarcation and secrets that hide in plain sight. Like the discomforting sight of Terell in the back of his limousine with a young Latino boy he describes as his “adopted son.” Franklin’s recreation of the period atmosphere is at once palpable and believably crowded and bustling, but also dreamy, a mood enforced by Elmer Bernstein’s scoring and Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography. The film’s very end stages a long, languorous reverse pullback that drinks in Easy’s street with all its simple, mundane pleasantness, blessed with an aura of the idyllic through Fujimoto’s use of light. An early sequence in which Easy encounters Coretta and her husband in a bar captures the flavour of a bygone era’s nightlife in all its smoky, sweaty, sin-on-Saturday-and-pray-on-Sunday intensity. But the soft parade leads into a cryptic aside as Easy catching sight of Coretta’s red lips reflected in her makeup mirror, hinting at forces in motion he scarcely has any idea of yet, signalling Coretta’s sensual enticement, but also rendering her a ghost already in the midst of all this life, speaking to Easy from the far side of an ethereal veil.
As in One False Move, which revolved around a white southern cop’s hapless love for his black former girlfriend, Franklin here uncovers of fraught and transgressive grasping at sources of pleasure and happiness as manifests in many forms. The overtly brutal business of movies in this genre is mediated throughout by his care in observing so many of his characters as people lost in the world and lonely. The basic motive of the entire plot proves to not be mere greed or even the desire for betterment, but Daphne’s genuine love for Carter foiled by the failure to completely obscure her roots, that elusive promise of the Gatsby America. Easy presumes Daphne is having an affair with the tough black gambler Frank Green (Joseph Latimore), but he proves to be really her brother, connected by bonds of blood and love but thanks to random acts of genetics planted in totally different spheres of life. Easy’s enclave is filled with transplants who fled to the prosperity of the coast only to find themselves in over their heads, but it’s a phenomenon that even more widespread. One of the film’s most intricate sequences in terms of gesture and meaning comes when Easy goes to meet Albright at a seaside pier and gets into conversation with a young white girl from Des Moines (Renee Humphrey), who’s forlorn and disinterested in her boorish young male shepherds. When they come out and see them talking, Easy faces a seemingly inevitable fight that will seem him beaten and possibly killed by the young men, but Albright arrives and intervenes with drawn pistol, less out of liking for Easy than for a chance to exercise his delight in sadistic acts.
Franklin and Washington are thorough in depicting Easy’s emotional experience in this scene, uneasy as the girl makes conversation as he knows it’s a potential distraction and a risk, gearing up for a fight he knows well may be the end of him in the face of the men’s offence that Easy might offer a possibility of romantic sensitivity they can’t manage (“You was talking about the ocean!”), and shocked by Albright’s delight in dealing out pain. It also sets the seen for much of the later drama as Easy is all too aware that Albright is a malignant force. The terrible speed with which ordinary events gain a charge of violent promise, particularly in the context of a racially hierarchical society, is one of the film’s quiet but exactingly charted concerns. But there’s also strong suggestion that all the violence and disaffection glimpsed in the film is an eternal roundelay forced along by alienation, that perpetually nagging sensation of being stranded in a poorly-knit and rootless society where money and ownership are perceived as tickets to some sort of secure identity. But even Carter comes across as a man crushed by his role rather than anointed by it, and the most assured and pleased-seeming characters are men like Terell and Albright who relish power for the way it allows them enact sick tastes.
Easy’s aspirations and efforts to be at once on the make and decent are contrasted with rude force by his friendship with Mouse, who arrives just in time to save Easy from getting his neck sliced open by Frank Green. Mouse has a perfect absence of compunction about dealing out violence, shooting Frank through the shoulder to try and get him to talk and later finding his own Jesuitical response to a problem by strangling a man to death after promising Easy he won’t shoot him. Mouse’s ruthless streak is however very useful to Easy in fending off threats and keeping his back well-covered as the case demands real force to contend with Albright and his hired guns. Easy only has to negotiate deeply dangerous interludes as when Mouse, drunk as a skunk, starts practicing his quick draw and jams his gun into Easy’s ribs. He’s like some emanation from the Texas badlands, Easy’s potential darker self given shape as a perverse imp, wielding his pistols like a gunfighter and dealing death with abandon.
Given Washington’s well-established gift for playing truculent dudes and firebrands and Cheadle’s tendency to play warmer, more thoughtful figures, if Devil in a Blue Dress had been made a few years later it would be easy to imagine the two actors swapping roles. But as long as Cheadle’s on screen he provides a brilliant source of psychopathic charisma, with his cold killer’s glare and glib smile, eagerness for money and readiness to provide a receptive audience for Easy’s acerbic way with words in the little acts of theatre that constitute macho relations in their circle. There was interesting subtext to Franklin’s casting of Beals as the title’s nominal demon temptress: Beals, singularly associated with her role in 1983’s Flashdance, was like her character half-black, half-white, and had a moment in the spotlight before mysteriously falling out of sight again. Trouble is, Beals is also one of the more awkward aspects of the film, as Daphne is supposed to be a figure of electrifying sensual attraction and nigh-tragic pathos, but the promise never quite translates into real force (indeed, quite a few of the neo-noir films from this period foundered on the problem of the femme fatale). Franklin also reportedly cut out a love scene between Easy and Daphne, which might well explain why the subplot of the two characters’ charged exchanges never really goes anywhere.
Daphne is nonetheless a genuinely interesting character who is ultimately revealed as a hapless and misunderstood figure, one who revises the classic figure of the femme fatale. Daphne’s attempts to control her own fate get other people killed, and almost end in terrible fashion at Albright’s hands as he kidnaps her and. Fortunately Easy and Mouse manage to track them down to a Malibu beach house, and Easy is forced to intervene as he Albright intends to torture Daphne with a glowing poker. For the most part Devil in a Blue Dress is more interested in character interaction and mood than action, conjuring the feeling of sitting down with some interesting characters for a drink and an anecdote about that bad shit that went down. This is certainly one reason it didn’t hit at the time. And yet Franklin’s talent for staging violence in a way that conveys force and ferocity without seeming romanticised comes to the fore throughout, in the percussive intensity to Easy’s fight with Green and the brief but excellent eruption of gunplay at the climax.
Easy must take on Albright and his heavies to save Daphne, and is given a hand by Mouse, whose poise under fire is admirable, but comes at a cost. Necessary action and deadly struggle surge on with dizzying speed. The results see men riddled wandering about with holes in their flesh and writhing upon the ground, twitching in death throes, watched in abiding perplexity by their killers. The storyline resolves with a lingering sense of severance and impossibilities, although Daphne’s gift to Carter promises that at least a decent man might be elected mayor. But Daphne’s hopes are dashed as she cannot convince Carter their secret is safe, foiling all her efforts, and Easy finds she’s vanished when he decides to look her up. He’s left to weigh up his own guilty place in the scheme of things and his friendship with Mouse, a man he knows very well is a menace, but is also, at the very least, his menace, a dragon that keeps watch over the hearth. The very end sees Easy sure in his place again, considering detective work as a metier but knitted back into the fabric of his community, grateful for it toehold. History is rolling on, but time only ever passes at the same pace, day by great and painful day.