Devil in a Blue Dress
Once we get a few more years between us and the 90s, will it be considered one of America’s greatest decades of film? Once time has ironed The Matrix (1999), Fargo (1996), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and many other great movies into a neat little package, we can hold it up against the current predominant belief that the 70s is the greatest decade in American film history. Maybe the real reason the 70s is considered so great is because most gainfully employed critics that get to do the widely visible considering are boomers. As I write, it seems inevitable that as millennials and Gen Z take over, fond remembrance of Denzel will begin to dominate the landscape of American film criticism.
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995). Released 28 years ago now, set in the year 1948, opens with Denzel Washington looking his best and delivering the following voiceover in true noir detective fashion: “It was summer 1948, and I needed money… The newspaper was going on and on about the city elections, like they was really going to change somebody’s life. My life had already changed when I lost my job three weeks before.” A short setup, of its time, and of every time.
The film that follows is a razor-sharp origin story for what could have been a franchise of Easy Rawlins detective thrillers. Razor sharp because it takes eleven minutes to set up the plot and send it off to the races. You get all the information you need in those eleven minutes to feel like you know where Easy comes from and what motivates him. Yes, he needs money, as we all do, but the screenplay softly hammers home the point with a few choice lines. Easy needs the money for his mortgage payment, and for a Black man in the 40s, a mortgage payment is more than a mortgage payment: it’s his claim to freedom.
The detectives of classic noirs can be incredibly gullible: they politely go with the flow. Maybe Shane Black better understands the core of the detective genre than anyone in naming his film after nice guys. Easy’s curiosity and willingness to help people lead him further and further into the heart of darkness, and while it’s easy to imagine being in a situation where someone’s asking you for a suspicious favor, and you say “hard pass,” we still believe while watching the best of these stories that the curiosity of a detective will lead them to say “yes, I’d be happy to follow you to a second location.” Maybe this is what it takes to be a great detective: a willingness to go with the flow.
This brings us to the sublime turn of any detective story: when the detective decides he’s tired of getting the runaround. He’s tired of going with the flow! Fans of Dashiell Hammett or Agatha Christie will know these types of scenes well (imagine Hercule Poirot taking charge of the party in any third act, or more contemporary Benoit Blanc making a grand speech of revelation), but there’s nothing like Denzel Washington, as a detective, taking charge.
Devil in a Blue Dress is a quintessential movie night movie: it’s entertaining, but it’s not insulting: don’t pay attention, and you’ll miss the complex web of motivation that drives all of the characters in the directions they’re going. This is a movie that respects the audience and rewards them for their attention. It will only grow in esteem as time passes and the 90s move closer to American film history dominance.
Devil in a Blue Dress
Written and Directed by Carl Franklin
Recommended way to watch (at time of publication): Streaming on Amazon Prime
You’ll like this if you like: Knives Out (2019), The Nice Guys (2016), or The Maltese Falcon (1941)