Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Easy Does It: Devil in a Blue Dress

By Odienator (Click here for all posts)

Had all things been equal in Hollywood in the days of noir, we would have seen something like Devil in a Blue Dress, the Carl Franklin adaptation of the first book in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series. Perhaps it would have been directed by John Huston, who set the bar with The Maltese Falcon, or by Billy Wilder, who leapt over it with Double Indemnity. Imagine a great boxing noir like Robert Wise’s The Set-Up done with a Black lead. What would be different today if one of the other directors of noir like Jules Dassin or Jacques Tournier could have put the noir in Film Noir? Consider Nina Mae McKinney as a femme fatale (see Hallelujah for an example of her seductive power) or Dorothy Dandridge directing her gorgeous layers of sin at something other than a lip-synched musical. Such wasted opportunity by Hollywood.

Even with the emergence of neo-noir brought on by Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (“you aren’t that smart are you? I like that in a man”) and Bob Rafelson’s horrible remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, there still weren’t any major roles for us Noir folks. The 70’s had the Shaft series, but that was more like a police procedural. I had to wait until 1994 for a bruva to tangle with a femme fatale. Bill Nunn had his moment with Linda Fiorentino’s brilliant heffa, Wendy Kroy, in The Last Seduction, and he wound up letting his dick get him thrown through a car windshield.

A year later, Devil in a Blue Dress attempted to rectify decades of neglect, presenting us with the first in a planned series of movies based on (at the time) four Easy Rawlins books. Franklin directed a cast featuring Denzel Washington perfectly cast as Easy. Mosley served as one of the producers, along with Jonathan Demme who loaned his fellow Roger Corman alum his cin-togger, Tak Fujimoto. Providing the score are a series of blues singers and Elmer Bernstein, a guy who knew something about scoring the seedier side of life (see Sweet Smell of Success). Toss in Jennifer Beals and Lisa Nicole Carson as sexy femmes, and a scary, violent Bama as the hero’s partner in crime, and you’ve got a sweet throwback to the days of Chandler and Hammett. How can it fail?

I started reading the Easy Rawlins series after the third book, White Butterfly, came out. That was the first Mosley book I read, and I’m partial to it. I read Devil next, followed by the second book, A Red Death. Nine of the eleven books have colors or descriptions of colors in their titles, which is appropriate for a private dick whose career started in 1948, back when he was cullud himself. I devoured each book because I’d often fantasize about being a private detective, shot in black and white, with hard-boiled narration and a series of women coming into my office needing my help. I even wrote a detective story featuring me, but I couldn’t keep a straight face. Perhaps the only hard-boiled narration I’m proud of writing was “Baby, put your dress down. Private dick means detective, not private dick.”

Far better dialogue awaits you in Devil in a Blue Dress, courtesy of the pens of Mssrs. Moseley and Franklin. The film opens with Easy Rawlins (Washington), a World War II veteran, being let go from his job in Los Angeles. In need of work, he takes on a missing persons case brought to him by DeWitt Albright, a sleazy and twisted man played by uber-creep Tom Sizemore. Easy must find Daphne Monet, a White woman who likes her men the same way that lady in Airplane liked her coffee: Black. Easy needs to pay the mortgage on the house he so proudly bought after the war, and the $100 will give him a few months of security. Albright promises no harm will come to Monet, and all Easy has to do is find her and tell him where she is. Easy’s street smarts warn him of the danger—Monet is the ex-girlfriend of a mayoral candidate—but he heads off to the Black club Albright says Monet frequents.

Every good noir has a seasoning of sex, and Devil’s seasoning comes from Lisa Nicole Carson. Carson, who once described herself as “a super bad bitch,” has the onscreen distinction of having more Black men between her sheets than Ebony Magazine: Treach from Naughty By Nature, Samuel L. Jackson, even Soul Glo himself, Eriq La Salle! As Coretta, a shorty with info, she notches Denzel Washington on her bedpost. Easy runs into Coretta and her clueless boyfriend, Dupree, at the club. Dupree can’t hold his booze, which leads to Easy holding Coretta while Dupree sleeps it off in the next room. “You’re hittin’ my spot!” moans Coretta. “And I went on hitting her spot until just before sun up,” brags Easy’s narration.

Albright is at first all smiles and charm, but his sadistic side reveals itself when Easy is accosted by several young White guys itching for a fight. Albright tells Easy to wait for him on a pier, and while waiting, Easy is met by one of those White women who know damn well that talking to Black men is an easy way to get the man lynched. Uncomfortably, Easy makes small talk before those guys show up. Just as the woman’s boyfriend lunges at Easy, Albright shows up. “What do you want?” asks the hothead. “I want to see your brains,” Albright says casually, pointing a gun at the boyfriend’s head.

All his friends run away.

“I’m sorry!” says the boyfriend. “Show him how sorry you are,” demands Albright. “You made your point,” begs Easy, but Albright is just getting warmed up. “Suck his penis,” Albright orders the boyfriend, who is now kneeling in front of Easy. “Do it!” When the guy reaches for Easy’s zipper, Albright is quite amused. “You were actually going to do it!” he says before brutally kicking the boyfriend. Easy realizes that Albright is worse than he ever imagined.

After Albright gets the location of Daphne, given to Easy by Coretta in mid-spot hitting, Albright makes another down payment for Easy’s services. Meanwhile, Coretta winds up dead and Easy winds up at the violent hands of two White officers who want to charge him for the murder.

After a few other altercations with dangerous people, including Albright, Easy decides he needs the help of his fellow Texas native and friend, Raymond “Mouse” Alexander. Mouse is a great character, created by Mosley and embodied by Don Cheadle in one of his first notable roles. Mouse is more violent and unstable than most of the bad guys, and Cheadle steals the picture whenever he’s on. With his gold teeth and his countrified speaking voice, Mouse seems like a goofball until he pulls one of his numerous guns on you. Watch how Cheadle interrogates one of Easy’s attackers. “Frank,” he says nicely, before turning to Easy and asking “his name, Frank, right?” Easy nods. “Frannnk,” Mouse says again, as if greeting a friend, before stealing the scene from Denzel, and pulling the rug out from under us. It’s a funny and horrifying introduction to this character. We have no idea what he’ll do after this.

I’ll let the film sketch in all the details for you. It’s safer to describe everything else, starting with the acting. The performers inhabit their characters well, from Oz’s Terry Kinney as Monet’s ex to Maury Chaykin as Kinney’s sinister rival in the mayoral race. As Monet, Flashdance’s Jennifer Beals is surprisingly good, sexy one minute and falling apart the next. Her character’s big secret must have been one to which Beals could relate. Albert Hall has a nice, small role as my namesake, Odell, and Carson is sexy and sweaty in her one scene. If Cheadle had had more screen time, I’m sure he would have gotten Oscar consideration. He’s some kind of brilliantly absurd nihilist.

Behind the camera, Franklin directs with a sure hand, dropping in little touches for the eagle-eyed (I like how, after a beating, Easy’s pillow has blood on it when he’s awakened in the middle of the night). Fujimoto shoots in color but plays with shadow and light as if the film were in black and white. Shadows obscure faces and appear on the walls behind characters. His camera always observes the action from the right spot, lingering in closeup or taking an omnipotent view of the scene. In one sequence, the camera has, in focus, a character in a car’s rear windshield while the person in the backseat is blurred. As the car pulls away, the camera switches focus, visually expressing how the car’s occupant feels about leaving. It’s showy, but not overbearing.

Devil in a Blue Dress, like most of the other books in the series, tells a conventional noir story peppered with details of Black life during the period each story is set. We meet stock characters who have been given traits we didn’t see in films of the 40’s. Easy lives in a Black neighborhood populated with fellow homeowners, yet when the cops drag him downtown, he’s no better than any other nigger in their jail. While Easy drives her to an upper class White neighborhood to retrieve a letter, they pass a police car on the side of the road. Monet asks “are you nervous?” Easy’s narration says “No, I wasn’t nervous. I was crazy!” Just the sight of the two of them together would get him killed. Mosley also tackles Afrocentric topics like passing for White and the Civil Rights movement in his books, all of which would have made fine additions to this series had it continued.

But continue it didn’t. Lack of box office gross prevented Franklin and company from making any other Easy Rawlins movies, a shame because Franklin’s script omits items from the book that I’m sure he would have tied into subsequent movies. Denzel Washington went on to another Oscar and Don Cheadle began a career that continues to prove there is no character he cannot play. Perhaps one day we’ll see a return to the screen for Easy, perhaps on TV. HBO, are you listening?

Yes, Odie. That hit the spot.


Kevin J. Olson said...

Great explication of a forgotten neo-noir gem. I remember watching this when it first was released and wondering who the amazing actor was playing Mouse. That was the first time I was intrduced to Don Cheadle (Although I'm sure I saw him on an episode of Cosby before that). The next time I saw him he was once again stealing every scene in "Out of Sight"; what I think may be his best performance.

It's sad that they never continued the 'Easy' Rawlins stories on the big screen. I haven't read the books (I might do so now) and I would've loveed to see what they did next. I think it's a shame that Franklin never got a chance to write another picture based on Mosley's novels.

I think Franklin is an underrated director, and his "One False Move" is one of the best films of the 1990's. I never did see the film "Out of Time" where he re-teamed with Denzel.

Anyhow, great stuff as always. Really enjoyed this look at a Noir film that everyone should (re)discover.

odienator said...

Kevin, Cheadle is excellent in Out of Sight (itself based on a novel by one of my fave writers, Elmore Leonard). There is so much I like about that film, and it's a pleasure to watch.

Franklin is an underrated director, and One False Move is a picture I hope to say something about during Black History Mumf. However, let me steer you away from high expectations on Out of Time. It's not a good movie. I'll give it points for some good comic relief and a few well done scenes, but it flies off the rails of plausibility and crashes and burns. Franklin keeps it stylish and sexy, but the script is just crap.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.