Brooding, isolated, conflicted – qualities we expect of the traditional private detective protagonist type in film noir, a man on a mission. But Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins (Denzel Washington) of Carl Franklin’s neo-noir Devil in a Blue Dress isn’t your conventional noir hero, despite being caught up in a tangled plot of sex, violence, and illegal booze – a plot in league with the likes of Raymond Chandler, adapted from the 1990 mystery novel by Walter Mosley. A WWII vet, down-to-earth Easy is just looking for a way to keep up with his mortgage payments after losing a job: “He also owns a house- just like you people,” remarks barman Joppy (Mel Winkler) to the mysterious Mr Albright (Tom Sizemore), whose interventions turn Easy’s world upside down as he’s tasked with finding the white socialite girlfriend Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) of a mayoral candidate for a sizeable sum of money. But 1948 Los Angeles, Daphne is revealed to have been precariously crossing the race boundary, which Franklin keenly accentuates through the repeated invasion of Ezekiel’s home.
What does Easy’s house mean to him? It means somewhere to call his own, a small slice of hard-earned American prosperity after having fought for his country, which was not so easily available to black Americans at the time. It also means a clear cut distinction of class difference in the black community, despite all being subject to the same racial prejudice of late 1940s LA, it positions his character among the few actually succeeding at what little residential betterment was made attainable for the black working class. In the pre-civil rights movement setting, Ezekiel himself has crossed physical boundaries being originally from Houston Texas, and a part of a mass migration of black people across state-lines to the west in search of more progressive living.
He worked hard to get it and he’s willing to work hard to keep it, hence his care and attention in it’s upkeep, in both maintaining the foliage and keeping meddling neighbours from cutting it down.
Not only is his privacy invaded by marginally comical axe-toting locals, but by law enforcement, and criminals alike. The LAPD accost him outside his home and subject him violent questioning and beating, referencing the racist police brutality of the time with unsettling realism. At the sight of Albright and his men in his kitchen, Easy’s understandable distress is audible in cries of ”What the hell are y’all doing in my house?!”, with soft lighting and filters contrasting with the unnerving presence of the men who threatening him at knife and gun-point. Easy is warned in the nick of time that gangster Frank Green is in his house just before he is attacked, only to be saved somewhat reluctantly by his quick-drawing, sometimes-friend Mouse (Don Cheadle).
Easy’s house is a symbol of his hope for a secure future, hence their crossing of his threshold without his consent acts as illustration of this hope’s fragility, and how with such ease it may be taken from him during the hectic investigation, which he entered into under false pretenses, unaware of the veiled manipulation of the white elite through the shady Albright’s real boss, perverted mayor candidate Matthew Terell (Maury Chaykin) and competitor to Monet’s fiance.
But most fascinating of all is the scene where Daphne has breaks into his house preceding the narrative climax of the film, after Easy discovers the true reason behind his continued domestic disturbance all along (see clip below).
She appears from behind the corner to his surprise, and in a series of close up shot-reverse-shots they converse across the physical borders of the doorframes they are positioned within. As Easy relaxes at the sight of her, she entreats that he not be angry, him replying softly with ”Now why should I be angry with you?”, a loaded question. This sequence details her supposed encapsulating charm with which she subdues all she encounters (but is however not enough to protect her once the truth of her black heritage is made known, no amount of charm and bewitching blue outfits can save her from ingrained societal racism), an air of mystery attained through her act of ‘passing’ and the secrecy surrounding her identity.
In this low-key lit, shadowy scene, Daphne blows out a puff of smoke in true fatale fashion, laughing out of relief when she finds out Easy has the incriminating photographs she covets in order to bring down Terell, but she looks wooden, her hold over Easy waning, demonstrated in her failure to obtain the photographs from him with sex appeal. Donald Bogle writes that the pair ‘are tepid and glaringly unsexy… because the characters don’t get sexually involved (as they do in the novel), making the movie lack the sensual kick characteristic of many past noir dramas.”. Is Bogle right? the performance of Beals as Daphne is indeed one much critiqued. Or is he simply missing the alteration of tone in their exchange in this scene, marking Easy’s brief awakening from Daphne’s spell as he begins to suspect she knew more about the complex situation than she previously claimed. He is no longer sexually intrigued, because her dishonestly briefly repulses him, having come with the cost of so much death and infringement on his personal comfort zone. He denies her access across a physical boundary, as she leans in to kiss him and he pulls away, evident of a directorial decision on the part of Franklin to reduce the explicit sexual entanglement to suggestive rather than outright.
She is both femme fatale – beautiful, misleading, vampish – and tragic mulatto, due to the naivety of her character, adamant that securing evidence to incriminate her fiance’s competitor for mayor will allow her to marry him despite the large pay off from his family already sent, and her black blood. So not just is she crossing colour lines, but class lines too, with her intended being a member of an upper class white elite family, and her wanting to access that privilege denied to people of colour from her act of passing.
It is in this scene that Daphne reveals to Easy her true racial identity, after a struggle in which the pair become physically violent with one another before as she tries to stop him from calling the police as he reaches for the phone, her hair becomes mussed up and she loses all guise of composure, attempting to slap Easy when he accuses Frank of being her pimp. She confesses that Frank is her brother by her Creole mother, making her black by the one-drop rule in the contextual remnants of the jim crow law. It is upon this web of secrecy that the complicated narrative rests.
By this point the near obliteration of boundaries, racially, socially, physically – both intimately and in terms of residence – illustrates Franklin’s linkage of Easy’s extrinsic struggle with being saddled with the private detective role in the film. As Rogert Ebert says, ‘he is made not born’, for the noir hero life. The position is put upon him, and Washington flexes his talents with prowess within the restrictive confines of the unconventional neo-noir character. In the end, Easy wants nothing more than to pay his bills and shut his door on the not-so-easy outside world, after having to adapt and become a part of it when he is thrust the chaos of Daphne’s ‘devilish’ making, all because of her crossing of racial borders, rupturing his dreams of comfortably defined privacy.