Read it with us: Powell’s
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) is a great example of a genre I’m already a sucker for: detective stories. It pays loving homage to its predecessors but doesn’t feel derivative or tired.
Denzel Washington plays Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, a recent WWII vet who finds himself out of work and with a mortgage to pay. Easy gets a job offer from a shady character (Tom Sizemore) that’s too good to pass up, even though he knows it’s trouble.
One of the eternal problems of the detective story is how to account for your protagonist’s involvement in whatever shady dealings are about to unfold. The easiest route is to make him or her a cop or a private investigator. There are other options: I’m partial to the amateur sleuth, even though that device has more or less gone out of fashion; or you can tell the story from the point of view of the criminal, but that takes away the most obvious locus for suspense since we already know whodunit. Once in a while you get a story in which a regular guy (or gal) gets drawn into a mess and has to untangle it and save the day, which is what happens here. Coen brothers fans will recognize this device from The Big Lebowski, where it heightens the absurdity of the hero’s situation rather than his humanity, as it does here. The trick is to convince your viewers that your hero or heroine is the perfect person for the job, whether or not they have any formal training.
Easy shows a knack for digging up information and following a lead. He’s not superhuman, but he has connections and he knows how to exploit them. When he walks around his neighborhood, everyone greets him by name, and when his life is threatened, his childhood friend with a predilection for violence (Don Cheadle, in a wonderfully funny performance) is only a phone call away. In addition to being savvy, Easy has to be charming in a way Sam Spade and Bulldog Drummond never are, which is why Denzel is such an inspired casting choice. It reminded me of another great regular-guy-turned-detective movie, Fletch, also set in California, in which Chevy Chase’s snarky reporter has to charm his way out of Joe Don Baker’s web of lies. (Incidentally, Joe Don Baker’s Web of Lies is going to be the name of my all-girl rockabilly band.)
The other standout bit of casting in a movie without a single weak performance is Jennifer Beals as the femme fatale, Daphne Monet. This is always the hardest role in a detective story to pull off—anyone can be a gumshoe or villain or Girl Friday, but the femme fatale has to hit so many notes at once that it takes a real pro to sell it, especially for a movie made in 1995 but set in the late 1940s. Beals knocks it out of the park. She’s sexy, vulnerable, and dangerous, all without reading like a caricature of Lauren Bacall or Gene Tierney. She fits into the time period like a hand in a glove and is completely magnetic every second she’s on screen.
It’s impossible to talk about this movie without also touching on the way it handles postwar racial tensions. Which is to say: expertly. Director Carl Franklin (and producer Walter Mosley, on whose book the movie was based) keep the focus on the action, and all the racially charged plot points (some of which are very pointy indeed) are in the service of the story. Which isn’t to say anything is swept under the rug. Easy is repeatedly harassed by the cops and by garden-variety street thugs; Jennifer Beals has to have the bellboy of her hotel sneak him up to her room via the service entrance, since the main entrance is “whites only.” And without spoiling anything, the movie’s big third act reveal also has to do with race. As viewers we don’t get to forget about the racial inequalities of the late 40s any more than Easy does. But first and foremost he’s a man trying to solve a mystery and keep body and soul together, and that’s what makes this a classic detective story.
Your turn! What is your favorite detective movie? You can be creative with the definition; the only requirement is that someone must be trying to solve a mystery.
– Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.