Devil in a Blue Dress
The bone-deep disillusionment of postwar film noir becomes a powerful vehicle to explore America’s racial injustices in Carl Franklin’s richly atmospheric Devil in a Blue Dress, an adaptation of the hard-boiled novel by Walter Mosley. Denzel Washington has charisma to burn as the jobless ex-GI Easy Rawlins, who sees a chance to make some quick cash when he’s recruited to find the missing lover (Jennifer Beals) of a wealthy mayoral candidate in late-1940s Los Angeles—only to find himself embroiled in murder, political intrigue, and a scandal that crosses the treacherous color lines of a segregated society. Featuring breakout work by Don Cheadle as Rawlins’s cheerfully trigger-happy sidekick, this stylish mystery both channels and subverts classic noir tropes as it exposes the bitter racial realities underlying the American dream.
Carl Franklin’s adaptation of Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress receives not only an all-new 4K restoration but also gets a 4K UHD courtesy of The Criterion Collection. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a triple-layer disc with a 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition presentation with Dolby Vision. Criterion also offers a 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation for the film on a standard dual-layer Blu-ray disc included with this release. The 4K restoration comes from a scan of the 35mm original camera negative.
The new restoration, and seeing it full resolution here, is a sight to behold after the lackluster master both Indicator (in the UK) and Twilight Time (in the US) were stuck with for their respective Blu-rays. Not only is damage not an issue but the film comes out looking significantly sharper and cleaner through this digital presentation, thanks no less to the improved rendering of the film’s grain and fine-object details that aid in delivering a terrific film texture that those other presentations had no hope in hell of ever achieving. Colours look bolder with blacks looking richer, despite what is now more of a lean towards green. I’d say this doesn’t impact things much, and I think it does end up looking a bit closer to what Franklin mentions in the included commentary, particularly for the night scenes. Jennifer Beals’ blue dresses also end up looking bluer compared to how they come out in previous presentations, where they end up having a bit of a violet tint.
All of these improvements still hold true for Criterion’s standard Blu-ray presentation, which ends up being encoded nicely itself, but where the 4K presentation really amps things up is in the application of HDR. I found the colours were a rendered a little smoother in the shadows while the neon lights deliver a brighter pop in comparison to what the Blu-ray was able to render, which I still found impressive in and of itself. Range within blacks is wider, helping in the shadows, and I felt the final shootout in the dark woods was a bit easier to see in comparison to the other releases of the films, including Criterion’s own Blu-ray. The smokey interiors are even rendered in a cleaner, smoother manner.
The presentation manages to likewise enhance details in the highlights and I was especially impressed with how the light could reflect off surfaces. The reflection off the chrome that decorates the classic cars in the film looks especially slick, and I also like how it bounces off of objects in some interiors. But it was ultimately one small detail that I was most impressed with, and it was how the light from car headlights would bounce off of the reflectors of the road signs along the darkened streets, the word “END” gorgeously shimmering back off of a Dead-End sign in one otherwise very dark scene. It’s just a wonderful polish to an already solid base presentation.
[SDR screen grabs have been taken from the source disc and converted to JPG files. They are presented in full resolution and may not properly fit some monitors. While the screen grabs should offer a general idea of quality, they should not be used for reference purposes.]
Criterion includes a 5.1 DTS-HD MA surround soundtrack for the film. The notes suggest the audio has also been newly restored but I can’t say I noticed too much of a difference compared to the previous presentations. The mix isn’t overly aggressive, music and some background effects that include gunshots in one scene making their way to the surrounds, but it all sounds crisp and sharp, and range can be very wide. Dialogue is also still easy to hear and understand with no excessive filtering sounding to have been performed.
Criterion’s edition more-or-less ports over all supplements from previous editions before adding their own new content. The 4K disc is devoted to the film and only includes one special feature as an alternate audio track: Carl Franklin’s original commentary recorded for the 1999 Columbia/Tri-Star DVD. I had listened to it when going through Indicator’s release but ended up only sampling it this time around, my previous comments on it presented here:
[This track ends up being] one of the better directors tracks I’ve listened to. Franklin's incredibly passionate about filmmaking and he's eager to share, providing a substantial amount of detail about the decisions he made for the film, everything from the film’s music to casting to the general look, where he even gets into the film’s colour timing[ with Criterion’s edition coming closer to what he was describing, even more so than the previous Blu-rays and DVD]. He also talks about the original novel, explains the changes he made and why he made them, then talks about the editing process and how he discovered certain aspects of the film during that process. Impressively he keeps the track going, rarely falls for just talking about what’s happening on screen and loves to just share his thought process behind the big picture and every little detail within it. It's a very engaging track that probably benefits from being initially recorded only a few years after the film's theatrical release.
Criterion includes the remaining features on the standard Blu-ray disc that also features the 1080p presentation for the film, which also includes the optional audio commentary. As a sort of follow-up and update to that track Criterion has recorded a brand-new conversation featuring Franklin and actor Don Cheadle recalling their memories about the production. The two spend a bit of time talking about Cheadle’s casting, which sounds to have almost never happened. Franklin touches on this in his commentary but he had a fear Cheadle was too young for the role and this led to his hesitation, despite the two having worked together previously on Franklin’s AFI thesis film, Punk. Cheadle’s audition (included on this disc as it has been on all previous releases but missing Franklin’s introduction) convinced the director Cheadle was perfect for the role, and he explains here what changed his mind. Following this Cheadle then shares the preparation he put into the role, which includes the research he put in (he air-quotes “research” but it sounds as though he really did dive deep into things).
Their conversation ventures out into other areas, including some discussion around the other cast members, both throwing a lot of praise at Tom Sizemore and how he approached the role. They then get into the casting of Jennifer Beals and why Franklin was also hesitant in casting her despite how perfect she was. The problem ends up being she was too perfect for the role. But the conversation takes a more engaging turn when the two talk about Franklin recreating post-war L.A. and presenting it, and the detective genre elements within the story, exclusively through the perspective of a former Black serviceman. This all then leads to a conversation on the film’s social aspects, what constitutes noir (Franklin’s not entirely sure if the film can be considered a noir), and then that period in the 90’s where there were a number of films coming out of Hollywood by Black filmmakers, though usually within specific genres.
I was ultimately expecting a general reflection on the film and its production, which it delivers, but it turns into an insightful conversation about 90’s Hollywood and conventions of the detective genre. It’s a shame the two couldn’t record a new commentary together.
The disc also features an excellent new 25-minute discussion between authors Attica Locke and Walter Mosley, the latter of course being the author of the film’s source novel and the series of Easy Rawlins detective novels that followed. Fascinatingly it sounds as though the first Rawlins novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, was written as a standalone novel that was a detective story second, Mosley more concerned about using genre to approach history and social issues. It sounds as though his publisher was the one that pushed the idea around a series of novels. The two then get into the film adaptation, Mosley first recounting his failed attempt at adapting his own novel before they discuss Franklin’s approach and what was changed, Mosley even pointing out the changes he most admired. With some discussion around the publishing world thrown in it’s another insightful and engaging addition to the release.
It doesn’t end there, though, Criterion throwing in footage from a 2018 Q&A featuring Franklin with Eddie Muller that follows a screening of the film (One False Move may have also been screened a day or so prior). Indicator also made use of the same footage for their UK edition, but Criterion has created their own edit for this release and it ends up using material not found in Indicator’s presentation. As with my trying to locate my copy of the disc for Indicator’s The Beast Must Die when I wanted to double-check a supplement on Criterion’s new edition for Summertime (still surprising how those titles managed to cross paths) I could not locate my copy of Indicator’s disc for Devil in a Blue Dress, so I was only able to compare with the notes I had taken for that release. Criterion’s version runs 4-minutes longer at 26-minutes and edits in clips from the film to reference what’s being discussed, which may play into the increased runtime. The focus is also placed more on this film where Indicator’s did feel to split the difference between it and Franklin’s One False Move, mentioned more in passing here. He again talks about working for Roger Corman and even tells the same story around how a psychic told him he’d become a director, all before taking questions from the audience around some of his decisions behind specific scenes. There’s also mention here about why he couldn’t make more films from the Rawlins novels, despite having optioned the two novels that followed Devil in a Blue Dress (this could have been mentioned in the Indicator presentation but I didn’t note it). I’m not sure why all of the footage from the Q&A wasn’t used (Indicator’s notes also mention they’re using excerpts) but I’m hoping in this case it’s because Criterion plans on using more from it in an edition for another one of Franklin’s films, and hopefully a certain one that just seems to continually get overlooked in North America.
The disc then closes with the film’s theatrical trailer while the insert features an essay by Julian Kimble who writes about the film subverting the genre in an entertaining manner to address social issues, best summarized when he writes the film is a gem that “isn’t merely Chinatown painted black; it’s a taut story about Black people’s ongoing struggle to belong […].” It’s an astute appreciation and write-up for the film with the aim of giving it its due all these years later, something which the supplements as a whole all seem to be striving for.
The film ends up being a perfect candidate for the 4K format, its photography receiving a sharp boost thanks to the higher dynamic range.