Since the global George Floyd protests in 2020, the Collection of criteria has redoubled its efforts to showcase the artistry of African American directors, writers, stars and their stories. For a canon that has always leaned towards European, white, male and classic in the history of cinema, the effort is both welcome and overdue.
First, Criterion has made dozens of its films available for free; then, over the past two years, new Criterion releases have included a slew of African-American voices, standalone editions by Charles Burnett sleep with angerGordon Parks’ The learning tree and Tree, of the Hugh brothers Society Threat IIBill Duke’s Deep coverageSpike Lee’s Bamboos, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s love and basketball by Garrett Bradley Time, and Regina King’s One night in Miami, as well as boxes bringing together the work of Marlon Riggs and Melvin Van Peebles. The collection’s newest spine issue, #1135, is a 4k remaster of the long-neglected Devil in blue dressLA noir by Carl Franklin with Denzel Washington, a film highly worthy of the “Criterion treatment”.
Released in 1995 and adapted from Walter Mosley’s novel of the same name – the first of what is now number 15 to feature aviation mechanic turned private investigator “Easy” Rawlins –Devil in blue dress seemed on the way to success. Its star was the Oscar-winning actor soon to be “the sexiest man alive”, the novel a perfect vehicle for exploring the racial tensions of postwar LA and neo-noir and dark-themed narratives both enjoying box office vitality. Along with Washington’s smoldering performance and Franklin’s dexterous direction (including stellar wardrobe work from Sharen Davis and cinematography from Tak Fujimoto), the film also featured a sensational supporting performance from a young Don Cheadle as that Mouse volatile and unpredictable.
Unfortunately, the film underperformed at the box office, perhaps in part due to the attention given to the OJ Simpson not guilty verdict his second weekend of release— and faded into relative obscurity, failing to recoup its $22 million budget. It’s already been released on physical media, with a thoughtful director’s commentary track, on DVD and Laserdisc, and a few years ago on a hard-to-find boutique Blu-ray, but never, until now, the undergoing a restoration, let alone the Criterion cinephile treatment. So Spine #1135 is a welcome addition.
Last fall I published a lengthy analysis of Devil in blue dress here on 25YL/Film Obsessive, focusing on the film adaptation of Mosley’s novel, its neo-noir aesthetic, Washington’s performance, and the racial tensions heightened by the film’s central mystery: Daphne Monet’s character’s racial shift, the literal movie “devil in a blue robe,” and casting Jennifer Beals in the role. Please check it out for my more in-depth comments on the film’s settings, storytelling, themes, and reception.
Here, Criterion presents the film in a new Franklin-approved 4K digital restoration with DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtrack, on two discs. The 4K UHD disc is presented in Dolby Vision HDR; the Blu-ray includes the movie and special features listed below. Both discs feature Carl Franklin’s audio commentary recorded in 1998 for the laserdisc version of the film and which has been regularly included in previous physical media releases of the film.
The movie is wonderful. While the film never looked bad, even on DVD or streaming, the 4K version brings out the film’s subtly shaded color palette with detail. Perhaps the finer detail can be seen in the film’s few exterior and daylight scenes, where Fujimoto’s detailed street scenes lovingly recreate a post-war Los Angeles with an emphasis on social realism as Easy Rawlins’ investigation leads him through juke joints and tony mansions. Comparing 4K and Blu-ray discs, there’s little obvious contrast between the two that I can notice on my mid-tier system, but 4K seems to offer slightly deeper blackness in the many nighttime scenes as well as a Slightly more accurate rendering of muted film colors. Viewers hoping to save a few bucks by purchasing the single-disc Blu-ray probably won’t be disappointed.
Devil in blue dress is a movie well worth watching. It may not have captured the public imagination like other African-American feature films or neo-black narratives of the time, and some of Franklin’s casting and adaptation choices, though certainly defensible, are not necessarily a more invigorating experience. But his depiction of an era that is just beginning to build its vast middle class — and separate it from the upper and lower strata it borders — is compelling, and Washington and Cheadle brood and crackle in two distinctly opposing roles.
- Audio commentary by director Carl Franklin, recorded in 1998. This audio track is likely familiar to any owner of one of the film’s earlier versions of physical media, which isn’t to say it’s not a great commentary track. Franklin describes and in some cases defends his choices regarding the adaptation of Mosley’s novel and the casting of Beals as Monet. He also provides some choice trivia about the production: Washington, for example, had set up a private gym on set and arrived early each day for training, knowing he’d be spending much of the shoot in an undershirt. . While I’m glad to see – or hear – that great commentary track included, I also wish I had something new on the side. Perhaps a round table between Franklin and the other interviewees (Cheadle, Mosley, novelist-screenwriter Attica Locke) or other participants (notably Beales and Washington); or, alternatively, a more scholarly commentary track from one of the many excellent film scholars whose specialty is African-American cinema. The film’s racial politics – it’s consummate, even obsessed with the “true” racial identity of a mystery woman – is complex, and some of Franklin’s choices in Mosley’s rewrite make it even more so. Here’s a place where I wish Criterion could take their efforts a little further and supplement a decades-old commentary track with something newer and from a more collaborative or scientific point of view.
- Carl Franklin and Don Cheadle. One of three new to this version of the record is this beautifully staged, shot and edited conversation between the director and supporting actor. The two sit in a covid-remote arrangement that feels a little awkward but is nonetheless thankfully much more enjoyable than the ubiquitous Zoom interface interviews that appeared on other records made during the height of the pandemic. Cheadle is his typical affable and engaged self and the two enjoy a wide-ranging discussion, tracing back to the history of black cinema through the Blaxploitation movement and the influence of Spike Lee. Although Cheadle is obviously not the star of the film or the icon that Denzel Washington has become, his contribution to the discourse on Devil in blue dress.
- Walter Mosley and Attica Locke. Novelist and screenwriter Locke leads an enthusiastic discussion with novelist Mosley, tracing the origins of the character of Easy Rawlins, the composition of Devil in blue dress, the sleuth’s later appearances in the novel series that followed, and the sadly aborted plans for a film franchise. Locke is exuberant, Mosley outspoken, and the discussion is broad and pleasant, even in discussing the changes Franklin made to Mosley’s plot.
- Black City Chicago: Carl Franklin and Eddie Muller. Recorded onstage at the 2018 Noir City Film Festival in Chicago, this pre- and post-screening conversation between the director and film historian Muller is – for a live event – beautifully shot and carefully recorded, as well as tightly edited for the time. and interspersed with film stills, clips and poster images. Even the questions from the audience — or at least those selected for inclusion — are excellent, talking about some of Franklin’s directing decisions.
- Etc. Unfortunately, none of the new features above include subtitles. Neither is the 14-minute screen test for Don Cheadle, which is an enjoyable watch as the actor slips in and out of character. The original movie trailer is also included.
- The two-disc edition is housed in a single transparent case, as is now standard Criterion practice, with nothing indicating its 4K UHD+ Blu-Ray status other than a single note on its back cover. A new cover by James Ransome features Washington in his signature undershirt, with a smaller image of a blue-tinted Beals with a cigarette, in pearls, and of course, a blue dress. It’s a significant improvement over the rather silly and inaccurate neon-black poster that adorned the previous DVD cover.
- A handsome flyer lists the cast and crew alongside a dozen stills from the film and Julian Kimble’s essay, ‘Crossing the Line,’ which discusses the novel, director, pre-production, style and the themes of the film. Concise and unambiguous, it begins: “The American dream has always been a spectacular lie.
The Criterion Collection strives to expand and diversify its canon of “the greatest movies from around the world” by including more works by African-American stars, directors, and writers, and Devil in blue dress is an important, if flawed, film that directly addresses the racial caste system inherent in post-war America. Its embrace of the black idiom, filtered through a classic approach to cinematography and told from the perspective of a black man turned unwitting detective, asks viewers to confront the politics of race and gender in film noir. in particular and post-war America more generally. While Criterion’s treatment could have gone even further in dealing with the film’s complex themes, this package’s combination of an excellent remaster and new interview content makes it a welcome, if not necessary, inclusion in his expanding collection.