Devil in a Blue Dress

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Synopsis

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.

Picture 9/10

The Criterion Collection presents Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress on Blu-ray through a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. The master is sourced from a brand new 4K restoration scanned from a 35mm original camera negative. I am working off of the standard Blu-ray disc included with Criterion’s 4K UHD edition. Outside of a lack of a 4K UHD disc the editions are the same.

Previous editions for the film released by Indicator (in the UK) and Twilight Time (in the US) used the same serviceable master but there was more than a momentous amount of room for improvement. The presentations were laced with artifacts, including (but not limited to) buzzy and clumpy grain, shimmering effects and jaggies, and weak—if ultimately adequate—detail leves. For their edition Twilight Time ended up softening the image a little bit in what I assume was an attempt to hide these artifacts, yet it all still made its way to the surface in one form or another.

This new presentation is yet another example of how much a fresh new scan and attentive restoration can improve over an older video master, even for a film that’s not really all that old itself. It ends up having a cleaner film-like texture that can be attributed to an improved rendering of the film’s very fine grain, which in turn is possible thanks to another one of Criterion’s latest, stronger encodes. And where the previous releases were laced with other artifacts like shimmering and jaggies there is nothing of the sort here. The digital presentation itself is about as clean as one can hope, best evidenced in the numerous smoky interiors that litter the film, that smoke looking more natural thanks to the cleaner gradients.

The colours also end up coming out a bit more vivid and bright here in comparison to the previous editions, the neon lights of the nightclubs having a gorgeous pop to them. The colours do end up leaning a little more on the green end of things but it’s subtle and I feel this comes even closer to what Franklin wanted based on comments in his commentary, more than the previous releases. The shift in the colours also ends up lending Jennifer Beals’ blue dresses a bluer look where they had a violet tint to them in previously, which of course better fits the title. Black levels are richer and allow for more shadow detail, though I felt some aspects of a final shootout could still come out a little flat and hard to see.

There’s no damage to speak of but then I can’t really say there was much, if any, in the previous presentations so that aspect isn’t too big a surprise. Still, just based on the digital upgrade alone, Criterion’s new presentation manages to deliver an astonishing improvement over all previous releases.

Audio 8/10

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.

Extras 9/10

Criterion’s edition more-or-less ports over all supplements from previous editions before adding their own new content, starting things off with 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 director 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.

To follow that 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.

Closing

Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition for Carl Franklin’s film perfectly covers its production and the significance of the series of books that influenced it while also managing to deliver a sharp new digital presentation.

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Directed by: Carl Franklin
Year: 1995
Time: 102 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 1135
Licensor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Release Date: July 19 2022
MSRP: $39.95
 
Blu-ray
1 Disc | BD-50
1.85:1 ratio
English 5.1 DTS-HD MA Surround
Subtitles: English
Region A
 
 Audio commentary featuring Carl Franklin   New conversation between Carl Franklin and actor Don Cheadle   New conversation between Walter Mosley, author of the novel on which the film is based, and novelist and screenwriter Attica Locke   On-stage conversation between Carl Franklin and film historian Eddie Muller, recorded at the 2018 Noir City Film Festival in Chicago   Screen test for Don Cheadle   Trailer   An essay by critic Julian Kimble