“Now when someone’s telling me there ain’t nothing to worry about, I usually look down to see if my fly is open.”
As expected, winter (as we know it, anyways) returned to the southland as of late. Cool temps, rain, wind, and a splattering of snow on the foothills and mountains made that abundantly clear. But as Detroit-based blogger Patti Abbott noted in her SoCal vacation summary (which coincided with our recent warm spell), “You know you’ve been in California too long when you see Chris Matthews on TV and wonder why the hell he is wearing a wool jacket.” That would about cover it.
So, before the shortest month on the calendar leaves entirely, I’ll inaugurate the new blog with its first joint post that is a continuation of the series begun last year with the Scientist Gone Wordy. As usual, the wordy one will examine the text of a famed novel later adapted to film, which I will review. In this case, she will scrutinize Walter Mosley‘s debut crime fiction novel, Devil in a Blue Dress. Rachel’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film: In 1948 Los Angeles, a recently unemployed African-American World War II vet is searching for work. Ezekial Rawlins, ‘Easy’ to his friends, needs the job since he’s a home owner and there are bills to pay. Wanting to keep his tenuous perch in the middle class, he’s open to whatever comes his way. Even if it means accepting something from a furtive white stranger by the name of DeWitt Albright.
The undertaking involves locating the fiancée to a certain well-to-do man… in other words, one of the city’s elite. Since she’s known to frequent the Central Avenue Black jazz clubs of the era, DeWitt surmises Easy is the right man for the job because he can move in circles and ask questions he cannot. And by innocently accepting the offer, Easy Rawlins will become involved with crooked cops and politicians, murder, and the nasty side of human corruption.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film are revealed in this review]
My Review: First, let’s get my bias out-of-the-way. The 1995 adaptation of Devil in a Blue Dress remains a favorite of mine on many levels. And Carl Franklin is major part of that as he not only directed it, but performed the screen adaptation from the novel he held in high regard. Plus, the source novel by Walter Mosley itself struck its own chord of relevance in crime fiction with its distinct perspective that spoke to many of the disenfranchised when it first appeared back in 1990.
The book (and the film) presented the ugly racial reality as it told its late-40s mystery and presented a much different backdrop to the beautiful Los Angeles “…they were sellin’” (to paraphrase James Ellroy).
Even with the changes Franklin made to the original story for filming, it didn’t amend that essential viewpoint. In all honestly, the peaks at social realism which was part of the background in such well-known crime classics of L.A. like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential (also top picks of mine), is very much front stage in Devil in a Blue Dress by comparison. It is no question that is its strength and weight, I think.
Like the noir classics I’ve mentioned, this film captures and holds the City of Angels in another time and it becomes an additional character in the picture’s narrative. This isn’t the pre-war city of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown where the behind the scenes brokers were beginning to flex their power, nor it is the same place struggling to throw off the corruption of its police force years later during the 50s as was on display in Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential.
No, this was Los Angeles’ post-World War II era. The period recognized for its influx of out-of-state migrants1, and it’s reflected with clarity in the film. All of the out-of-towners were treated as outsiders (especially when they competed for the same local jobs), and for clear reasons other than just where they came from. It is that status the former Houston, Texas native Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington in a role tailor-made for him) is well aware of.
Daphne: “Are you nervous?”
Easy: [to himself] Nervous? Here I was in the middle of the night, in a white neighborhood, with a white woman in my car. No, I wasn’t nervous. I was stupid.
DiaBD is neo noir in the best sense, IMO. Director Franklin plays with the conventions of this crime genre, but to his credit never really tries to break from them. And in this case, the hero, while being cynical (à la Chandler’s Philip Marlowe) with regards to people and the cards dealt him as a black man in 1948 society, he is also the innocent neophyte in the story (as Franklin notes in the commentary track on the DVD). He’s not, nor does he resemble, the hardboiled detectives of my parent’s time. Not by a long shot.
“Easy” is not even a P.I. at the start of this introductory story. And he stumbles more than once in his attempts at locating the wayward bride-to-be, the mysterious Daphne Monet (played with particular understated grace by Jennifer Beals). So much so, he needs the intervention of childhood friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander to save him. Don Cheadle is extraordinary as the friend from hell that rescues our hero — he and Joe Pesci (Goodfellas, Casino) should give lessons for how a small guy can throw the fear of God into anyone. He’s menacing like few others, and a standout in a cast loaded with a number of skilled actors.
Still, as much as there is a social statement being made in the film, Mosley (who was an associate producer) and Franklin never let that get in the way of telling an intriguing story. Easy’s progression from naive newbie, lost in the dealings of those more powerful than he, to a confident investigator is the main trust (although, there is significant collateral damage that comes of this). Indeed, the film (like the novel) is unafraid at showing the less than admirable qualities in people to help drive the tale. That said, what I think is a pivotal scene in the film is when Rawlins follows the advice of the nefarious DeWitt (the role done to slimy, scary perfection by Tom Sizemore when his career was still gathering steam):
“When you’re mixed up in something, you better be mixed up to the top.”
And that’s exactly where he goes here in the scene. Notice Washington’s body language and demeanor throughout this sequence. Gone is the deference he’s shown early in the film whenever he’s crossed the color-line (pay particular attention as he walks up the stairs at the mansion and the gathered looks from either perspective to that act). His decision to be the guy “…banging the nails” instead of the one “…hanging on the cross”, as it were (to paraphrase the character of Craven from Edge of Darkness ), is on clear demonstration here. It’s a marvelous sequence done deftly by actor and director:
Devil in a Blue Dress has always been an underrated piece, but nonetheless one of the definitive ‘L.A.’ films, in my humble opinion. Carl Franklin deserves considerable praise for managing to capture a glimpse of an era and an area long kept in the shadows of LaLa Land as he transformed Mosley’s story to the screen. The Central Avenue he arrayed in the film’s backdrop, the vibrant African-American community steeped in its jazz roots, was lovingly accomplished, I believe.
The classic jazz and Shout & Jump (the style/sound that foreshadowed Rock ‘n Roll) music cues used by Franklin throughout the picture genuinely established the period and locale2.
As well, the noted Tak Fujimoto served as DP in the film and delivered a visually beautiful film that honored noir tradition while setting the distinct mood characteristic of this undervalued filmmaker. The use of widely known and uncommon locations (unless you’ve been there) in Los Angeles for this period film was impressive, and very much appreciated by fans of the film and those who live here. The construction of the movie made clear the hopes of the filmmakers for continuing Easy Rawlins as a series (plus, there were many books and short stories by the author to gleam from).
However, its overall box office under-performed and any plans were discarded to cinema’s waste heap, unfortunately.
Fittingly, I’ll close this review with the scene that continues to have an effect on this L.A. dweller — almost as much the “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” finale from that definitive film. It is an appropriate one, too, though considerably amended from the novel’s. Not only does it lay out the secret of the Daphne Monet character, but I believe it works remarkably well because of the singular quiet performance by Jennifer Beals in the scene.
She really brings a heartfelt and sympathetic power to the sequence. You’ll note she barely has any lines here. Still, the actress really makes the most of it with just facial expression and body language throughout (helped enormously by Franklin’s selection of location and framing, Fujimoto’s camera work, and Elmer Bernstein’s touching theme). As good as Denzel Washington is in this, Beals is the reason the excerpt resonates after all these years.
Trivia: note the misspelling of Shoo-in in the headline when this scene ends on the fade-in to the shot of the newspaper. The goof is acknowledged by Carl Franklin in his commentary as something he missed in the film’s production.
Parallel Post Series
- Something very familiar to me as it’s part of my own family history, in fact. ↩
- Growing up here, I caught some brief and haunting remnants of Central Avenue when I ran the streets of my youth, and I heard stories from friends back then, and later from my in-laws, of the era, which introduced me to its passionate history. It continues to register with me because of that. ↩