Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The release of both Nightcrawler (to theaters) and Thom Andersen’s seminal essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself (to Blu-ray) has us thinking back on other films about the City Of Angels.
Devil In A Blue Dress (1995)
Denzel Washington’s redo of The Equalizer was reportedly developed with a franchise in mind—his first such attempt in a long and ultra-successful career. As many have pointed out, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, hero of Walter Mosley’s series of detective novels, makes a great alternate what-if choice for a Washington-fronted series. The first Easy Rawlins book, Devil In A Blue Dress, was adapted by Carl Franklin in 1995, with Washington perfectly cast in the lead, but the movie didn’t do much business and follow-ups never materialized.
It’s a shame, because the first try more or less nails the origin story. Rawlins doesn’t start out as a private detective; he’s just looking for work to pay the mortgage on his Los Angeles home when Albright (Tom Sizemore) hires him to find the missing girl, Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), at the behest of a Los Angeles mayoral candidate. Much of Devil In A Blue Dress is textbook noir: A shadowy figure approaches the detective with a seemingly straightforward case that has more dimension than meets the eye. Soon he’s forced to work multiple angles and sort out who, if anyone, he can trust, as various parties—cops, politicians, sexy dames—try to use him for their benefit.
As a genre workout, Devil is compelling, and crisply made by Franklin. He navigates the audience through 1948 Los Angeles with unobtrusive tracking shots, and nods to the genre’s roots with a few old-fashioned visual touches, like slow dissolves and superimposing images to convey thought. (Another old noir trope isn’t so well used: A few seemingly crucial scenes happen offscreen, with Washington nonchalantly summarizing the salient information from them in voice-over.) What gives the movie extra dimension, though, is its casual portrayal of a dual Los Angeles, depicting a white underbelly that wouldn’t be out of place in classics like Chinatown, and a black community where Easy makes his home. It’s tough to recall another noir with a hero taking so much pride in home ownership.
The conflicts of the central mystery grow from the intertwining of those two cities, and in doing so the movie also subtly plants seeds of more direct racial conflict to come. Mosley’s books follow Easy and Los Angeles through time as the city grows and changes throughout the ’50s and ’60s. If Franklin and Washington had been allowed to do the same, they might have produced a definitive series of Los Angeles crime stories, instead of a single very good one.
Availability: Devil In A Blue Dress is available to stream on Netflix. It’s also on DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix or your local video store or library.