Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Devil With A Blue Dress (1994) Soul Noir in the City Of Angels

Walter Mosley has written fourteen Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins mysteries to date. I've read about ten of them. Easy Rawlins was contemporary with Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, and Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer, and Devil With A Blue Dress was Mosley's first novel in the series, and believe it or not, one of the ones I haven't gotten to yet. I suppose it was seeing this film fifteen or so years ago that got me reading the rest of series and I just never got around to picking up number one.

It's a crying shame that director and screenwriter, Carl Franklin and star Denzel Washington didn't team up for more of the Easy Rawlins novels, they are quite good, and also quite unique in that Easy ages through time and local historical events as the series progresses, so it's not as if it's too late for another one. White Butterfly from 1992 was a particularly good standout.

The excellent cinematography was by Tak Fujimoto (The Silence of the Lambs (1991)), the music was by Elmer Bernstein, with a soundtrack with a lot of soul, that includes performances by T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Witherspoon, Duke Ellington, Roy Milton, Brian O'Neal, Pee Wee Crayton, Joan Shaw, Lucienne Boyer, Bull Moose Jackson, Kay Kyser, Thelonious Monk, Amos Milburn, James Cleveland & The Angelic Choir, Memphis Slim and Night Train International.

Details above and full painting "Bronzeville At Night" below

The film starts with a nice opening credit sequence tracking over artist Archibald John Motley Jr's, "Bronzeville at Night" (1949).

1948 Los Angeles. Wartime aircraft production boom is rapidly ramping down. Easy Rawlins (Washington), originally a Texas native who moved to L.A. for work, is let go by Champion Aircraft. Out of a job with house payments to make, he's scoping out the want ads in Joppy's Bar, a second story booze joint that overlooks South Central Avenue.

Easy Rawlins (Washington)

Albright (Sizemore)

Joppy's Bar, Joppy at lt (Mel Winkler)
While so engaged, a sketchy white acquaintance of Joppy's, Dewitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), makes an appearance. After jawing with Dewitt, Joppy calls Easy over. Dewitt is offering a bill for Easy to find a white girl who goes by the name of Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals).

This Daphne Monet is the fiancee of Todd Carter (Terry Kinney), the sicon of a wealthy L.A. family. He was the frontrunner in the upcoming mayoral race before dropping out. Albright, tells Easy that Carter dropped out because he was concerned about Daphne's whereabouts. She's been known to frequent the West Coast Jazz and Blues clubs of South Central's Little Harlem.

It would be much easier for Easy to slip in and out of them than for than a jive ass honky like Dewey. It's "easy" money, and Rawlins jumps at the offer. Though they are not actually named places like the historical Down Beat Club, The Lincoln Theater, The Dunbar Hotel with it's Turban Room piano bar, The Club Alabam, and The Last Word are obviously alluded to in the film.

So Easy, lookin' fly, heads out into the South Central hood nightlife. With a bunch of dead presidents in his pockets, Easy's out to see what's crackin' and if he finds a good time while looking for Daphne it's all gravy. At one spot Easy meets with some Texas homeys, Odell (Albert Hall), Dupree (Jernard Burks), and girlfriend Coretta (Lisa Nicole Carson). During the course of the evening Easy finds out that Coretta is Daphne's gal pal. But Coretta ain't tellin' nothin' for free.

Odell (Albert Hall)

Dupree (Jernard Burks) and Coretta (Lisa Nicole Carson)

Easy has to cut the rug with her. Cart her drunken boyfriend Dupree home to her crib. With ol' Dupree sawin' logs in the bedroom, where they dumped him, Coretta is gettin' Easy all hot and bothered on the couch. She's pumping him for the skinny as much as he's pumping her. She makes Easy play hide sausage with her "hittin' her hot spot" all night long before she gives him an address for Daphne. It's the address of a South Central gangster named Frank Green, and it's first light before he can dip.

Hittin' the spot

Easy's 1941 Cadillac Series 61 
So Easy calls Albright telling him he's got info. Albright sets up a meeting at the Malibu Fishing Pier, where Easy gives him the address. When Easy gets back to his house he is arrested by two LAPD dicks and hauled downtown. He finds out that Coretta was murdered after he left her crib, and he is the main suspect. After some rough interrogation he's cut loose.

While he's hoofin' it home he is followed by a limo. It turns out the car belongs to Matthew Terrell (Maury Chaykin), the remaining candidate in the mayoral race. Terrell asks Easy into the limo. Inside he finds Terrell with a young hispanic boy Jesus.

Terrell (Maury Chaykin)
Jesus is supposedly his adopted son. Terrell says he's also very interested in finding Daphne. Easy back at home gets a call from the elusive Daphne. She meets him at the Ambassador Hotel. She needs him to drive her up to an address in the Hollywood Hills to pick up a letter from Richard McGee that got delivered to the wrong address. Getting there they find the place ransacked, furniture tossed about and a dead man. Daphne runs out and drives off in McGee's car. Easy finds an empty pack of Zapata Cigarettes

Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals)

When Easy gets back to his place, he finds Albright and his crew of hooligans making themselves at home. It appears that Daphne wasn't at the address. Frank Green moved out a year ago. Thinking they were scammed they are about to do Easy some serious damage, when he tells them about Daphne and the dead man, and about how Daphne took off in McGee's car.

Albright buys his story but now he wants Easy to find Frank Green. Easy wants out but Albright tells him he's connected to two murders, and he's gonna do what he tells him to do.

Now that they done Easy wrong, he puts a call through to Houston, Texas, and gets his old "crazy as a shit house rat" partner in crime, Mouse Alexander (Don Cheadle), to scoot on out to L.A. to give him some backup.

Easy, wanting to know what he got himself into is looking for some answers. He visits Todd Carter. Carter tells him that Albright is not working for him. But now, Todd is interested in the fact that someone is looking for Daphne. He thought that she was hundreds of miles from L.A. Carter tells Easy that they were going to get married but had a fight. He then asks Easy if he thinks he can find her again. Easy asks for a grand. Carter agrees.

The Carter Mansion

Todd Carter (Terry Kinney)
When Easy get's back home Frank Green (Joseph Latimore) is waiting and a fight ensues. When Frank gets the upper hand and is about to cut Easy's throat Mouse shows up opportunistically and puts a gun to Frank's head. When Mouse shoots Frank it all goes convolutedly Noirsville.


Mouse Alexander (Don Cheadle)

The film depicts the Los Angeles of the Classic Film Noir Era. It hits pretty much on all cylinders.  Good story, with convolutions worthy of a screenplay based on a Chandler Novel. Excellent cast all around. Beautiful cinematography, that evokes a heady atmosphere. Excellent period music. Great soundtrack. Being a heavily visual blog as well as a review/research/noir style ramble, I'm going to notice the visual aspects of a film. It's the main vein of Noir and like miners we follow it and it takes you to interesting films and places. So, One noticeable, slightly off, observation, to me, is the vehicles in the film. I used to own a 49 Chevy Pickup, a 46 International, and  52 Chevy sedan, plus ran a wreckin' yard in Montana, so I seen a lot of these period cars, in natural conditions so I have a feel for how they should look.

In this film they all have a shiny new penny look. Living out West for 24 years and sitting under that almost relentless sunshine for three seasons of the year, cars that are parked on the street day in and day out or in rows in a wreckin' yard aren't going to all be that shiney. Paint jobs oxidize in the sun, all the vehicles seem to have showroom/collector car paint jobs and look as if every car in the film is garaged and waxed often. Yea, you can see the two mayoral candidates limos having chauffeurs do the waxing and garaging, and a certain percentage of the cars in traffic, but where are the beaters, the family sedans, the hot rod projects spotted with primer, the low income junkers, the goin' fishin' rigs?

But maybe SoCal is a different planet. But it's just me, most people wouldn't notice it. Enjoy the film, it can take it's place along with Chinatown, Farewell My Lovely, Hammett, Union City, Angel HeartA Rage In Harlem, The Public Eye, Mulholland Falls, L.A. Confidential, This World, Then The Fireworks, The Man Who Wasn’t ThereThe Black DahliaHoneydripper, and The Killer Inside Me.  Screencaps are from the  TriStar DVD 9/10.

Shorty Long - was an American soul singer, songwriter, musician, and record producer for Motown's Soul Records imprint. He was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1980.

Devil with a Red Dress

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