Margaret Murphy on Devil in a Blue Dress

Critically acclaimed crime author Margaret Murphy delves deep into the neo-noir classic Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley.

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This took a while to write because, revisiting the film and the book within days of each other, I found myself more critical of the film than I’d expected.

That said, Devil in Blue Dress is far from an average celluloid noir offering.  Adapted for screen and directed by Carl Franklin from Walter Mosley’s neo-noir novel, Devil in a Blue Dress layers a standard noir plot – PI charged with finding beautiful but elusive dame – with historical, political, social and ethnic themes.

I saw the film before I read the book, back in the 1990s, and loved its visual sumptuousness. It establishes its credentials from the off: the title sequence is a montage of images from Archibald John Motley’s painting Bronzeville By Night, which depicts Chicago’s ‘Black Metropolis’ in a blue and red palette, while T-Bone Walker sings ‘West Side Baby’. Motley, like the Daphne Monet, the femme fatale at the centre of the mystery, was of mixed race and – like Daphne – he struggled with his racial identity.

Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography is impeccable on the period detail, style and look of the 1940s. The opening scene shimmies through a busy night scene in the LA district of Watts; the street is populated by shopkeepers, couples and families and lovers – all black – all perfectly got up to fit the 1940s jazz-and-blues vibe of the film.

In the bright, hot palette of the daylight scenes, we feel the heat of an LA summer. The night scenes are split between city backstreets, tinted sepia and grey, and the out-of-town sequences, shot in deep blue tones. In the bars and night clubs, Fujimoto creates seductive tableaux that might have been lifted from an Archibald Motley interior.

So when Easy opens the door into the illegal ‘juke joint’ fronted by EttaMae’s grocery store, he walks in on a fog of cigarette smoke so thick you get dizzy from the nicotine high.

You will have gathered that, for me, the photography was pretty much flawless. I loved Denzel Washington as the charismatic Easy Rawlins (of course) and Don Cheadle as Mouse Alexander. They say that good things come in small packages, but so does poison. And gelignite – and Don Cheadle is so convincing as the explosively unstable Mouse that I held my breath through most of his scenes.

Racial inequality is a constant hum in the background of Franklin’s adaptation, but apart from an early scene that provides a rather heavy-handed explanation of Easy’s joblessness, Franklin wisely treats the racial elements as a given.

Rawlins pushes against the establishment’s barriers to independence and autonomy for African Americans, but there is no sly wink to the audience, no implied prescience of the changes to come in American society.

Which is not to say that Franklin is coy – at least, not in his depiction of police attitudes to black interviewees. Here, he is clear-eyed and uncompromising: a black man, whether victim, witness or perpetrator, is always suspect, and is always treated as hostile.

In a truly shocking sequence, and with no explanation, Easy is handcuffed, taken to the station house for questioning, told to sit and is almost immediately knocked out of the chair and halfway across the room. This is not the neatly choreographed, hard-boiled knockabout of 1940s film noir – you believed those cops really could take Easy into the alley out back and beat him to death, with no qualms and no fear of comeback.  

And when they finally release him, he doesn’t hail a cab and head back to his office, Philip Marlowe-style, for a stiff drink. He walks home, because what cab driver is going to stop for a bloodied black man in LA in 1948? Easy, harassed on his long walk home by uniform cops, sleeps feverishly, and when the phone rings by his bed, he wakes afraid and with blood on his pillow.

The best dialogue in the film is lifted straight from the novel, as in the electrifying scene in which Mouse, in a drunken fugue, points a gun at Easy’s heart and mutters to some unseen demon,  ‘I kill ‘im!’. Easy talks him down: ‘Let him live,’ he says, the gun barrel bruising his chest, ‘he be scared ‘a you whenever you walk in the room.’ And we know that Easy is talking about himself.

Critics of the film were disappointed with Jennifer Beals’ performance as Daphne Monet, but to be fair, under Franklin’s writing and direction she really wasn’t given much to do.  In the novel, Monet is constructed over several chapters; a complex, mysterious character; a beauty, but a chameleon, too.

Like her mythological namesake who metamorphosed to escape a rapacious god, Mosely’s Daphne is constantly changing; she shifts from strong and earthy to soft and vulnerable, from innocent to sex siren, being what men need her to be.  Much of this depth and ambiguity is lost in a rewriting of the plot that I felt weakened the story.

The novel’s central secret – that Daphne is a black woman passing for white – is sidelined. Oh, it’s there in the film all right, but in the novel, the real shocker is that Daphne is so ashamed of her racial origins that she cannot bear any man to know it. She turns down her rich (white) suitor’s offer of marriage and flees with his money, unable to live with the prospect of facing him every day, knowing that he knows she isn’t white.

The film adopts a simpler (and for me, less interesting) storyline: Daphne’s money is a payoff, funded by the family of her weak fiancé, Todd Carter, who tacitly colludes in their decision, and the shocking secret is shifted to a subplot involving a child abuser who is running against Carter for mayoral office.

A tit-for-tat blackmail spat ensues between the two mayoral candidates, with Carter emerging as victor after he obtains incriminating photographs of his rival.

Jennifer Beals, like Daphne, is of mixed race, and has described herself as ‘living on the outside’; the novel’s entire focus is on race and colour, and Beals must surely have a greater insight than most actors into what it is like, in her own words, to be ‘the other in society’.

It’s a difficult subject, but one that Hollywood has tackled before, notably in the 1934 and 1959 film adaptations of Fannie Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life. I won’t second-guess writer-director Franklin’s reasoning, but it seemed like a missed opportunity to me.

The film ends with Easy chatting on his own front porch in the sunshine with his friend Odell. Kids play in the street, some are having their picture taken on a pony across the way. Easy chases a nuisance ‘gardener’ from hacking down a tree in a neighbour’s garden; on the way back, he dodges a car and has some laughing banter with the driver. It’s an optimistic, ‘things gonna change’, Hollywood-style ending.

But here’s a little context: Devil in a Blue Dress, published in 1990, was the second Easy Rawlins novel. The first, Gone Fishin’, was completed two years before. Gone Fishin’ introduced Easy and provided some of the backstory for Mouse, his morally wrecked and psychologically twisted sidekick. It was turned down by publisher after publisher, and remained unpublished until 1997, when Mosley gave the publishing rights to Black Classic Press, a small indie company in Baltimore.

Why was this novel shunned for nine years? Novelist John Baker posits the theory that publishers ‘assumed that white folks didn’t want to read about black folks, and that black folks didn’t buy books.  The result was nine years of obscurity for a modern masterpiece.’ 

Finally, a personal story from a crime convention in Manchester in the late 1990s. This was a couple of years after the film’s release. Walter Mosley was an honoured guest. I was newly published, thrilled to share the elevator with Mosley up to the convention floor; a tall, imposing man in a dark overcoat and a black fedora.

That night, word went around that Mosley had been racially abused by youths riding that same elevator, later in the day. No doubt things had changed in the fifty years since 1948 – just not enough.

Margaret Murphy has written nine psychological thrillers – both standalones and police series. Her novels have been shortlisted for the First Blood critics’ award for crime fiction, and the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Dagger in the Library; she was the joint winner of the 2012 CWA Short Story Dagger. Her books are available on The Murder Room. You can follow her on Twitter @Crimin8

Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books are available in all formats from Orion.