Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Devil In A Blue Dress Finds Exciting New Creative Directions to Take The Film Noir Genre

By the time the mid-1990's rolled around, American cinema had seen plenty of new takes on the classic film noir genre, whether they be serious neo-noirs like Blade Runner or more comedic takes on the same genre like Carl Reiner's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. But in adapting a 1990 Walter Mosley novel of the same name, writer/director Carl Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress managed to make a motion picture that certainly stood out among a massive pack of noir homages. This would be the rare neo-noir to feature a cast predominately comprised of people of color as well as centering on a story that touched on elements like interracial relationships that were previously forbidden from being discussed in film noirs made in the era when the Hayes Code reigned supreme.

The lead of this story is Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington) and in a departure from conventional film noirs, he's not an individual who works as a private investigator or who has had an extensive background in that occupation. He's just a normal everyday individual living in Los Angeles who would love nothing more than to have a job supplying enough income for him to pay the mortgage. DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), a mysterious stranger, offers him an easy to get money, all he has to do is find the location of a woman named Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals). While trying to find where Daphne could be, Easy spends the night with a woman who is soon murdered, a crime that the cops think Easy is responsible for.

While trying to clear his name, Easy Rawlins gradually becomes wise to a larger conspiracy that Daphne, DeWitt and Los Angeles mayor candidates. In discussing the plot of Devil in a Blue Dress, my Film Noir in Historical Context professor, taking inspiration from the writings of James Naremore, noted how this movie isn't so much a deconstruction of traditional film noirs as it is an examination of characters who, at best, existed only in the background of those movies. Devil in a Blue Dress is telling a story that older entries in this genre only hinted at or even just ignored outright all while maintaining classic storytelling and visual elements that are inseparable from the domain of film noir.

Such conventional traits do tend to get a more post-modern approach in Carl Franklin's screenwriting in Devil in a Blue Dress, particularly the character of Daphne Monet. Though initially, everything from the dialogue deliveries of Jennifer Beals to her costume indicates that she's inhabiting a classic version of the femme fatale archetype, it's revealed by the end that she's enough of a complex figure that she no longer qualifies as a traditional femme fatale. Meanwhile, the primary adversary of DeWitt is an even greater departure from film noir norms. Classic foes in this genre are, among other behavior traits, coded as "queer" in their behavior and mannerisms to signify them to viewers as both being "immoral" and as contrasts with the typical film noir protagonists that serve as human encapsulations of classic definition of masculinity.

DeWitt, on the other hand, is shown early on to be a vicious individual whose nastiness is defined by engaging in extremely violent behavior. He resembles more the hyper-violent macho lead of many past film noirs than film noir villains found in, say, Laura. Devil in a Blue Dress finds plenty of clever ways to subvert genre expectations in its take on a film noir, though I wish it found more time to incorporate a heavier presence of female characters into the proceedings considering how male-centric this genre has predominately been. That does feel like a missed opportunity for Devil in a Blue Dress to further subvert genre expectations while the death of a thinly-sketched female character being the event that sets the plot into motion is a similarly disappointing story element in a movie that typically deals with more creative storytelling.

Thankfully, those details are the exception rather than the norm in Devil in a Blue Dress, which is otherwise an entertaining thriller whose plot not only has plenty of clever subversions of film noir norms but also has a mystery plot that's rife with exciting tension. Carl Franklin's smart screenwriting also delivers a lead character that the always reliable Denzel Washington excels in. Like the script, Washington's performance finds a nice balance between homaging film noirs of the past while bringing something new to the table. Washington can deliver the various pieces of voice-over narration (a common fixture of film noirs) in a convincing manner but his lead performance doesn't just come off as an imitation of Humphery Bogart or Fred MacMurray. Instead, Washington brings his own personality to the past, one relying on a more everyman version of conviction rather than weariness, that makes his excellent work in Devil in a Blue Dress stand out as far more than just an imitation of film noirs past.

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