In 1948 Los Angeles, Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins is a World War II veteran who has been unfairly laid off from an aircraft manufacturer, Champion Aircraft. He becomes a private investigator to pay the mortgage, despite having no training.
The film begins in noir fashion when Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington) says, "A man once told me that when you step out of your door in the morning, you're already in trouble. The only question is, are you on top of that trouble or not?"
In the summer of 1948, Easy Rawlins is recently laid off from his job at Champion Aircraft, and needs money urgently to pay his mortgage. Easy recounts how he moved to Los Angeles from Houston after serving in World War II when his friend Joppy (Mel Winkler), also from Houston, who runs a bar, introduces him to a white man named DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore). Albright is looking for someone to help him find a missing white woman, Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), assumed to be hiding somewhere in the Black community; he also learns she is the girlfriend of wealthy Todd Carter (Terry Kinney), who was the favorite in the Los Angeles mayoral race before dropping out. Albright, who says Carter dropped out because he couldn't find Daphne, offers Rawlins $100 to take the job. Easy accepts but is immediately suspicious. Daphne is known to spend time in the black juke joint clubs along L.A.'s Central Avenue and Easy begins his search at an illegal club on 89th and Central.
While waiting to enter, he sees a commotion between a bizarre white man, Richard McGee, and the club's bouncer, Junior Fornay. He then meets with friends Degan Odell and Dupree Brouchard and girlfriend Coretta James. He learns that Coretta is a confidant of Daphne. After spending the night with her, he discovers Daphne was involved with a South Central gangster named Frank Green.
Easy is called by Albright to set up a meeting at the Malibu pier. While waiting, Easy is accosted by several local white youths after a casual conversation with one of their girlfriends. Easy, trying to calm the situation, is nearly overtaken when Albright appears from the darkness. Albright viciously humiliates and beats one of the punks. Easy, uncomfortable with the situation, gives his information to Albright, who retains him with another payment and demands he continue his search.
When Easy gets home, he is arrested by two LAPD homicide detectives. They take him into custody, where he learns that Coretta was savagely murdered after his night with her. He is released after some rough treatment. While walking home, he is followed by Mathew Terell, the other candidate in the mayoral race. He gets into the car and finds Terell with a young boy, supposedly his adopted son. Terell makes it clear that he is also very interested in finding Daphne. Easy, wary of Terell's motives, asks to be dropped off and walks home.
After a nightmare about Coretta, he receives a call from Daphne. They meet at the Ambassador Hotel, where she asks for his help. She needs to go into the Hollywood Hills and meet a person with information vital to her and Todd Carter. Easy nervously drives her to her destination. The house has been ransacked and the occupant, Richard McGee, is dead. Easy finds a clue to his murder. Daphne flees in a panic, leaving Easy behind.
The next morning, Easy returns home to find Albright and his goons waiting for him; his connection to the murder of Coretta is now used to force him to resume his search for the girl. Easy enlists the help of his sadistic and trigger-happy friend, Mouse Alexander (Don Cheadle), also from Houston. Easy's goal is to uncover why Daphne is so important to so many people and, in the process, keep himself out of jail.
Now involved in two murders, Easy vents his rage at Joppy for getting him into such a mess. Joppy explains that all he wanted to do was set him up with some work. Easy is disgusted at Joppy's answer and leaves.
He meets with Todd Carter, securing money to locate Daphne. Upon learning that Albright is not employed by Carter at all, Easy returns home. He is warned by a neighbor (Barry Shabaka Henley) that an ambush awaits. Easy turns around in time to grab Frank Green. The two men fight in the house. Green gets the upper hand, cutting into Easy's throat, but Mouse comes to the rescue. Easy tries to reason with Frank but Mouse shoots him. Frank manages to escape. Easy and Mouse meet up with Dupree, get him intoxicated and find out that Coretta had been in possession of a package that was vital to the mayoral race–-pictures of Terell with "innocent, helpless, naked children." Easy finds the pictures hidden in Coretta's Bible.
Junior Fornay, the bouncer at the 89th and Central club, reveals that after Junior's altercation with McGee, he drove him home to the Hills to pick up money. He is cornered when Easy reveals the clue, a pack of Mexican Zapata cigarettes smoked only by Junior. Junior pleads with Mouse and Easy that he isn't the killer.
At home, he gets a visit from Daphne. Easy learns that Daphne hid from Carter because of her association with Frank Green, her half-brother. Daphne's Creole mother from New Orleans had given birth to two children by different fathers, and although Daphne's own father was white, her half-brother's father was black. Being the fiancée of a mayoral favorite with partial African-American heritage would ensure a loss for Carter. Terell's knowledge of this fact is the reason Carter dropped out of the race. Naturally, pictures of Terell with children would cause him to drop out, bringing Carter victory.
Daphne says McGee sold the pictures to her, and Easy infers Albright killed McGee while looking for the pictures, then Junior gave them to Coretta, who hid them in her Bible. Daphne reveals that Coretta was killed accidentally by Joppy although Daphne had only asked him to scare her into silence.
Albright and his men burst into Easy's house, subduing Easy and abducting Daphne. When he regains consciousness, Easy calls Mouse and they race to Joppy's to get a fix on Albright's location. At the bar, Easy abducts Joppy at gunpoint. He learns where Albright is, although Mouse nearly shoots them both in the process. Easy only calms Mouse down by telling him they could be rewarded $7,000 that Daphne will pay for photographs that Easy has obtained.
In the Hollywood Hills, they set up an ambush, shooting Albright and his goons while rescuing Daphne. When Easy returns to the car he finds Joppy dead, killed by Mouse.
Easy finds out the money Daphne paid him and Mouse for the photographs came from a large sum originally given to her by Carter's family as a bribe to get out of town. She had only stayed because she believed they would change their minds and allow Carter to marry her if he won. Although Carter is now certain to become mayor, he refuses her pleas, despite saying that he loves her. She leaves in tears.
Easy gives Carter the photographs that prove that Matthew Terell is a pedophile in exchange for the $800 he is owed. Carter promises Easy there will be no more trouble with the police. Easy drops off Daphne at her brother's apartment and notes that she subsequently left town with her brother.
The film closes with Easy and Odell relaxing on his porch, enjoying life, contemplating events and wondering what their future would hold.Denzel Washington as Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins
Tom Sizemore as DeWitt Albright
Jennifer Beals as Daphne Monet
Don Cheadle as Mouse Alexander
Maury Chaykin as Matthew Terell
Terry Kinney as Todd Carter
Mel Winkler as Joppy
Albert Hall as Degan Odell
Lisa Nicole Carson as Coretta James
Jernard Burks as Dupree Brouchard
David Wolos-Fonteno as Junior Fornay
John Roselius as Detective Mason, LAPD
Beau Starr as Detective Jack Mille, LAPD
Steven Randazzo as Benny Giacomo
Scott Lincoln as Richard McGee
L. Scott Caldwell as Hattie May Parsons
Barry Shabaka Henley as Woodcutter
Carl Franklin wrote and directed the neo-noir because he liked Walter Mosley's novel (Mosley served as an associate producer on the film). He thought the work was more than a detective story. Franklin said that author Mosley was able to transform an everyday guy into a detective. In the editing process Franklin had to cut a steamy love scene between Beals and Washington because he believed the scene wasn't needed to convey the story.
The film was shot mostly in Los Angeles, California. The pier shot where Easy Rawlins gets in trouble with local youths was filmed at the Malibu, California pier. Other locales in Los Angeles include the Griffith Park Observatory and the famed Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard.
The producers used the following tagline to market the film:In a world divided by black and white, Easy Rawlins is about to cross the line.
The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 16, 1995. In the United States it opened in wide release on September 29, 1995.
The first week's gross was $5,422,385 (1,432 screens) and the total receipts for the run were $16,004,418. The film was in wide release for 12 weeks (87 days). In its widest release the film was featured in 1,432 theaters across the country.
The film was released in video format on April 2, 1996. It was released on laserdisc in June 1996 and included the original theatrical trailer.
A DVD version was released on 9 March 1999 and includes an audio commentary by director Carl Franklin.
In a positive film review, critic James Berardinelli discusses the film from a sociological viewpoint, especially a 1990s one. He concludes, "The most interesting element of Devil in a Blue Dress is not the whodunit, but the 'whydunit.' Finding the guilty parties isn't as involving as learning their motivation, which is buried in society's perception of racial interaction. By uncovering the truth behind this mystery, Franklin illustrates that some attitudes have indeed changed for the better over the last forty years."
The Chicago Sun-Times film critic, Roger Ebert, did not like the story much but did like the look and tone of the film, and wrote, "I liked the movie without quite being caught up in it: I liked the period, tone and look more than the story, which I never really cared much about. The explanation, when it comes, tidies all the loose ends, but you're aware it's arbitrary - an elegant solution to a chess problem, rather than a necessary outcome of guilt and passion."
Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR, liked the film, and wrote, "Hard-boiled fiction is a been-around genre about done-that individuals, so the pleasant air of newness and excitement that Devil in a Blue Dress gives off isn't due to its familiar find-the-girl plot. Rather it's the film's glowing visual qualities, a striking performance by Denzel Washington and the elegant control Carl Franklin has over it all that create the most exotic crime entertainment of the season."
Many critics applauded Don Cheadle's performance. Jerry Renshaw said, "Cheadle steals every scene where he appears as Mouse..." Although he was disappointed by Jennifer Beals' lackluster, vanilla performance.
Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 87% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 52 reviews.
WinsLos Angeles Film Critics Association Awards: LAFCA Award; Best Supporting Actor, Don Cheadle; 1995.
National Society of Film Critics Awards: NSFC Award; Best Cinematography, Tak Fujimoto; Best Supporting Actor, Don Cheadle; 1996.
NominatedSan Sebastián International Film Festival: Golden Seashell Award, Carl Franklin; 1995.
Edgar Allan Poe Award: Best Motion Picture, Carl Franklin; 1996.
Image Awards: Image Award; Outstanding Lead Actress in a Motion Picture, Jennifer Beals; Outstanding Motion Picture; Outstanding Soundtrack Album; Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture, Don Cheadle; 1996.
Screen Actors Guild Awards: Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role, Don Cheadle; 1996.
In 2008, the American Film Institute nominated this film for its Top 10 Mystery Films list.
The original score for the film was written and recorded by Elmer Bernstein. The original music soundtrack was released on September 12, 1995, by Sony. The CD included 14 tracks, three of them written by Bernstein (theme, etc.).
- "West Side Baby" - T-Bone Walker
- "Ain't Nobody's Business" - Jimmy Witherspoon
- "Hy-Ah-Su" - Duke Ellington
- "Hop Skip And Jump" - Roy Milton
- "Good Rockin' Tonight" - Wynonie Harris
- "Blues After Hours" - Pee Wee Crayton
- "I Can't Go On Without You" - Bull Moose Jackson
- "'Round Midnight" - Thelonious Monk
- "Chicken Shack Boogie" - Amos Milburn
- "Messin' Around" - Memphis Slim
- "Chica Boo" - Lloyd Glenn
- "Theme From 'Devil In A Blue Dress'" - Elmer Bernstein
- "Malibu Chase" - Elmer Bernstein
- "End Credits" - Elmer Bernstein