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CRIME FICTION:Putting the black into film noir

Devil in a Blue Dress
Tristar Pictures
Written and directed by Carl Franklin
Based on the novel by Walter Mosley
Starring Denzel Washington, Jennifer Beal and Don Cheadle
Released nationally on February 8
Reviewed by Norm Dixon -- 7 February 1996

Devil in a Blue Dress is a taught, gripping, atmospheric gumshoe thriller set in segregated Los Angeles circa 1948. The film has its quota of corpses, gun fights, crooked politicians, dirty coppers, red herrings, the mandatory femme fatale, and a hero with dry wit and wry observation. But there much more to this film than your average tough, hard-bitten private dick pic. Devil is a parable of 20th century African American urban history in a noir wrapping. It's the context that makes the film so compelling and, it should be noted, the novels of Walter Mosley compulsory reading.

Director Carl Franklin consulted left activist Mike Davis' social history of LA, City of Quartz, to get the racist structure of '40s LA down pat. He meticulously reconstructed the barber shops, record stores and clubs that lined Central Avenue, once the "West Coast Harlem", although Walter Mosley's mum complained there were too many cars in the film, and I would add that they were too new and shiny.

The soundtrack full of great '40s r&b, criminally pushed far into the background, is spellbinding. With millions of other African Americans, soon after the second world war, Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins (Denzel Washington) joined the "great migration" from the south to the cities to find work. It was a time of great hope. The US had won a war for democracy in Europe, and blacks were going to share in the prosperity and liberty so loudly promised by their rulers. Easy believed the promises. He moved to LA, found a job in an aircraft factory, borrowed enough to buy a neat little house with a lawn, fruit trees and a front verandah.

But Easy's stake in the new order, like that of most blacks, is tenuous and at the whim of the white powers that be. Easy loses his job when he refuses to grovel to the cracker boss. He's behind in his house payments, and his precious home is on the line. It's then that Easy is confronted with an almost Faustian choice when a shady white carpetbagger offers him $100 to find Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), who has gone missing in the black part of town.

Easy knows there has to be a catch, but to maintain his little patch of America he decides to do a deal with this white devil. Easy is convinced he can maintain his dignity, his sense of right and his commitment to his community despite it all. Remarkably, by and large, he succeeds. By the end of the film, Easy's illusions in democracy and prosperity are severely tested. The irony is that he survives only because of the loyalty of his best friend, Mouse (Don Cheadle). Mouse is everything that Easy is fighting to avoid becoming: a person without a shred of morality, who can kill and injure without the blink of an eye, whose only goal in life is to survive. It is a paradox that perplexes Easy throughout the film and into Walter Mosley's next three novels.

The release of Devil in a Blue Dress casts a brilliant spotlight on the work of Walter Mosley, whose novels follow in the tradition of the great African American crime writer Chester Himes. During a recent visit to Sydney, Watts-born Mosley explained in a newspaper interview, "I'm interested primarily in poor black people. That's my roots. I write about us -- our lives, our history and the issues which even in today's so-called enlightened society are still murky."

Mosley's novels -- beginning with Devil, then A Red Death, White Butterfly, and finally Black Betty -- are set between 1948 and 1961. As time passes, reflecting the mood of the black population as a whole, Rawlins becomes increasingly conscious and militant. Mouse becomes increasingly desperate and dangerous. See the film, read the books.

This article was posted  from Green Left Weekly --7 February 1996

4 Com:

ADMIN: | June 24, 2009

JIM Jay on The Daily Maybe blog: Radio Seven is broadcasting Devil in a Blue Dress and I really wanted to flag this up for people. Walter Mosley's classic detective novel had been made into a film with Denzel Washington in the starring role but as is so often the way it never quite lived up to the book. Partly because, in my opinion, the casting didn't quite get Denzel's right hand man, Mouse, quite right.

This radio version is read by Paul Winfield who has a lovely bourbon gristle in his voice. Of course no production will ever be as good as the book, but it's nice to hear it read with a smile in the reader's voice.

I'm not sure what it is about Walter Mosley's books that I love so much - possibly the mixture of cynicism, hard bitten poverty and moral center. Maybe it's the tight writing and authenticity. As someone might have said once; authenticity, once you can fake that you've got it made.

Devil in a Blue Dress was Mosley's first book of dozens, many featuring the same core characters of Easy Rawlins and Mouse, two black toughs who are always finding trouble whether they're looking for it or not.

This first book finds Easy, a war veteran, laid off from the Los Angeles aircraft factory and down on his luck. Along comes the opportunity to make easy money - but it turns out easy money comes at a price.

The books explore race, gender, poverty, the nature of the state, a changing political landscape and the character of fear. However, whilst there's plenty of political reasons to enjoy these books (and the radio play of course) actually it's the mellow smokey taste of the narrative that makes them such a joy.

Gold star quote; "You said don't shoot him, right? Well I didn't. I choked him. If you didn't want him killed, then why did you leave him with me ?"

glparramatta | June 24, 2009

Great review. that Norm Dixon is really something. Whatever happened to him?

Dave Riley | June 24, 2009

When Easy Rawlins was retired by Mosely, Dixon apparently went looking for a new noir edge and was last seen wondering drunk down Bourbon Street New Orleans two hours before Katrina hit.

I just hope he bequeaths his collection of Black Soul to me....

Dave Riley | June 24, 2009

But hey! Devil in a Blue Dress is a near perfect film...

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