More than a decade after his debut as a TV actor, Carl Franklin tried his hand at directing films. His fifth big-screen production, 1995's Devil in a Blue Dress, might just be remembered as one of his best: filled with a great cast and based on the entertaining source novel by Walter Mosley (his first of 13 installments), our story follows Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins (Denzel Washington) around the streets of 1948 Los Angeles. He's one of the few black property owners in the neighborhood and takes pride in his home, and doesn't want to lose it after his job at an aircraft manufacturer dries up. He receives a new job offer while drowning his sorrows at a bar owned by fellow Houston native and veteran Joppy (Mel Winkler): the mysterious DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) is looking for a missing white woman, and Rawlins seems like a good enough candidate to help out. Cash payments are usually enough to persuade any out-of-work man, but Rawlins has a gut feeling that he'll probably regret what the job will eventually entail.
If you love great performances and terrific production design, Devil in a Blue Dress has got you covered. Denzel Washington carries most of the weight with his magnetic and entertaining presence alone, giving his character weight as a central figure who's easy to root for: as "Easy" Rawlins, he's a relatable man who oozes charisma. He's strong and determined, but someone who still makes mistakes along the way. Likewise, Tom Sizemore turns in a fine performance as the sleazy DeWitt Albright; he's every bit as two-faced and tricky as he needs to be. Jennifer Beals shines in the title role of Daphne Monet, especially the handful of scenes she shares with Washington. Meanwhile, future A-lister Don Cheadle scored a breakout role here as "Mouse" Alexander, Rawlins' violent and unpredictable right-hand man, and it's easy to see why he'd be moving on to bigger and better things soon enough.
Add in some of the best production and costume design you'll see for a modestly-budgeted period piece, and you've got a detailed and believable world for these memorable characters to inhabit. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (The Silence of the Lambs) captures the atmosphere perfectly: many outdoor scenes are bathed in hazy, orange light, while indoor and night sequences are lit well enough to ensure that nothing of importance gets lost in the shadows. The score by Elmer Bernstein and period-specific hits by the likes of T-Bone Walker, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington also do their part to create the proper atmosphere, so at least your eyes and ears will appreciate the ride.
My main gripe with Devil in a Blue Dress is that, while there's an obvious attempt to distance itself from film noir cliches, it never fully commits to the task. The film's voice-over narration is its biggest handicap: though Washington's delivery is fine enough and it rarely dominates any given scene, this kind of hand-holding speaks down to the audience and serves no purpose aside from clarifying details that couldn't be explained otherwise. As a whole, the story itself is a little by-the-numbers but still intriguing as a whole; either way, there's not enough meat here to make Devil in a Blue Dress a film you'll revisit often. When you do, it'll probably be for the performances and production design...and while that's still a valid reason to appreciate any film, it prevents Devil in a Blue Dress from crossing into "memorable classic" territory. Still, this is a very good effort overall, and sometimes that's more than enough.
Devil in a Blue Dress was released once on Special Edition DVD by Columbia/Tri-Star all the way back in 2000, sporting a decent 16x9 A/V presentation and a handful of well-rounded bonus features that showed faith in a film that barely earned back half of its budget at the box office. Twilight Time's new Blu-ray package shows improvement in all areas, which will hopefully bring the film to a whole new generation of viewers...or at least 3,000 of them.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Devil in a Blue Dress looks mighty fine on this new 1080p transfer from Twilight Time (presumably on license from Sony). While there's a certain something that makes Devil in a Blue Dress look like a product of its time, that's by no means a complaint. The film's excellent production and costume design are really given a chance to shine here thanks to strong image detail, texture, and shadow depth, and the color palette looks fantastic, too. No obvious digital imperfections could be spotted along the way...which isn't surprising, as this 101-minute film is allowed to fill out an entire dual-layered disc almost by itself. Overall, I can't imagine that any seasoned fans of the film will be disappointed at all, and first-timers should be suitably impressed, too.
DISCLAIMER: This images featured in this review are promotional in nature and do not represent this title's source image.
Twilight Time doesn't skimp on the audio, either: all four tracks are presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. The first three include a full-bodied 5.1 mix, a more traditional 2.0 option, and an excellent Isolated Score featuring Elmer Bernstein's score and plenty of period-specific classics, plus an audio commentary discussed below (yes, even the commentary is lossless). I enjoyed the default 5.1 option during the bulk of my viewing; it was easy to appreciate its fine balance of dialogue and music, as well as the solid amount of rear channel activity and strong separation effects. The 2.0 track was briefly sampled too; it appears to be a two-channel quasi-surround track rather than a mix-down of the 5.1 option, but it's good to have both either way. English SDH subtitles are also included.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The interface is plain but perfectly functional, with quick loading time and the bare minimum of pre-menu distractions. This one-disc release arrives in a clear keepcase with two-sided artwork and a nice little Booklet
featuring production stills, vintage promotional artwork, and the usual essay penned by TT regular Julie Kirgo.
Not much on paper, but what's here is certainly worth a once-over. The best is a feature-length Audio Commentary
with writer/director Carl Franklin; it's not clearly mentioned when
exactly this session was recorded...but it was included on Columbia/Tri-Star's respectable Special Edition DVD back in 2000, so any retrospective comments were obviously fresh in his mind. Franklin provides plenty of well-organized comments detailing the casting process, production design, adaptation and changes from the source novel, music, costume design, the on-set experience, and much more. He also has a warm, easygoing delivery that definitely makes this commentary easier to listen to than most; aside from possibly adding Washington, Sizemore, or Cheadle, there isn't much room for improvement here.
The rest of the tidbits (aside from the Isolated Score track, mentioned above) are also recycled from the previous DVD, including a Don Cheadle Screen Test (14:51) and the film's original Theatrical Trailer (2:30). Overall, it's definitely a little disappointing that we couldn't get any new supplements here, but at least nothing's been lost.
Devil in a Blue Dress is overlooked but not exactly underrated; during the last 20 years, it's aged better than most and should be easy for genre and cast fans to jump right into. The film's top-notch production and costume design create a terrific sense of atmosphere, and performances are strong all across the board. But the actual story and the way it's presented is a little by-the-numbers, even though there are obvious attempts to set it apart from typical crime and suspense noir-style films set during the time period. Either way, it's still an engaging and entertaining production that has held up well over the years; likewise, Twilight Time's new Blu-ray serves up a solid A/V presentation and a handful of thoughtful supplements (most of which are recycled from Columbia/Tri-Star's 2000 Special Edition DVD). New viewers may want to rent it first, but there's enough here to warrant a purchase. Firmly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.