September 2, 2010

Devil in A Blue Dress

September 2, 2010

This is the slow season for movie lovers like me who prefer small and smart over big and loud, subtle and unexpected over broad and formulaic. Not that these categories don’t bleed into one another. They do. Just not often enough.

I guess that’s why DVRs were invented—to make dry patches like this one bearable. Last week, I recorded and saw again the terrific 1995 adaptation of Walter Moseley’s first Easy Rollins mystery “Devil in a Blue Dress.”

How can you not love a movie that starts with Denzel Washington’s heartfelt narration? “It was the summer of 1948, and I needed money,” he says. Therein lies the central motivation for everything that occurs afterwards.

Here’s a review by L.A. Times critic Kenneth Turan that basically describes the plot. It’s a fairly traditional noir “find the girl” story. Here’s a trailer, too.

The movie makes liberal use of Moseley’s dialogue. “Everyone's peeing on my head and telling me it's raining," Easy opines after a rough night with the LAPD.

As great as Washington is, Don Cheadle as his best friend Mouse nearly steals the show. In the book, Mouse was scarier. Here he’s played for comic effect. In his first appearance, he shoots a man in the shoulder, but only after the man has carved a “smile” in Easy’s neck with his shiv.

With his two gold teeth, Mouse acts first and asks questions later. A cliché? Kind of, except what Mouse does makes perfect sense from his own point of view.

Toward the end, before Easy goes inside a cabin where the bad guys are torturing the girl in the blue dress, he instructs his friend not to shoot a man who has come along for the ride and who’s responsible for a murder. Easy rescues the girl after a fierce gun battle. When he returns to the car, the man is dead.

“I told you not to shoot him,” Easy says.

Incensed, Mouse explains that he did exactly what Easy told him to. He didn’t shoot the man; he strangled him.

“How was I supposed to help you?” Mouse asks. “If I had to worry about him.”

The last we see of Mouse he’s heading back to Houston, where he and Easy come from. He tells Easy to call any time he wants to run the streets again, because his buddy sure does know how to line a man’s pocket with money. (They make several thousand dollars apiece from the caper.)

As evocative as this dialogue is, thanks to Moseley’s source material and director Carl Franklin’s screenplay, I have to say that my favorite element of this movie is the setting.

That is something films often do better than books. Moseley describes South Central LA, but to see the streets brought to life with the costumes, cars, and the varying color pallets takes you into the “lost” world in ways a novel can’t.

Here, the details seem so right, and the texture further enhances what’s happening with the characters. The brown tones of the buildings that line the sidewalks and the muted reds inside bars provide an extra depth that’s not available on the page. Of course there’s the blue dress itself. The girl who wears it stands out from the rest, but unfortunately, although she tries, she ultimately fails to transcend the color bar that circumscribes everyone in the movie.

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