#Noirvember: “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995) starring Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals, & Don Cheadle

In a world divided by black and white, Easy Rawlins is about to cross the line. -A tagline for the film

In 1948 in LA, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Denzel Washington), a Black WWII vet, is looking for work. At his friend Joppy’s bar, he’s introduced to a white man, DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), who is looking for someone to help him locating a missing white woman (perhaps hiding in the Black community). Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) is the fiancée of a wealthy “blue blood,” Todd Carter (Terry Kinney), the fave to become mayor. Daphne is known to frequent Black jazz clubs and spend time w/ a gangster- Frank Green. Easy accepts Albright’s offer; however, he soon finds himself amidst murder, crooked cops, ruthless politicians, and brutal hoods.

Easy: A man once told me that you step out of your door in the morning, and you are already in trouble. The only question is are you on top of that trouble or not?

I recently re-watched this movie (on Hulu). The source novel for this story is by Walter Mosely; the screenplay was written by Carl Franklin (who collaborated w/ Mosely). Jonathan Demme was the main producer of the the film; he’d directed Washington in Philadelphia (1993). At one point, Demme considered directing this film himself, but deferred to Franklin on the strength of his work on One False Move (1992). Washington also helped produce here; we fans know of his production company (Mundy Lane). The cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto, also worked on Star Wars VI: A New Hope, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Sixth Sense. Elmer Bernstein (then in his 70s) composed the musical score- wow! Of course, the score is supplemented with jazz music from that era.

The 1st thing I noticed was the production design; it looks like we’re actually dropped into the late 1940s in the opening scene. We see period-accurate cars, humble/well-kept houses, and Black working-class people of all ages/shades/sizes. We learn (via a friend/neighbor) that Easy is one of the few Black men who owns a house and isn’t a private detective by training; I’d consider him a reluctant hero. Washington (in one of his rare “regular guy” roles) simply inhabits his (non-showy) character. Easy has charm and carries himself w/ dignity. Washington is also looking hot (and sometimes shirtless- wearing just a white tank, suspenders, and khaki dress pants).

Mouse: Easy – if you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?

Beals (5’8″) is NOT intimidated to go toe-to-toe (wearing heels- of course) w/ Washington. I thought she was dressed and made-up to look like Linda Darnell (an actress who appeared in several noir films). We can’t forget Easy’s friend- Mouse (Don Cheadle- in an early screen role)! The young actor (who trained in the theater) makes a great impression; Cheadle brings some (much needed) humor to the dark story. Sizemore creates an unapologetic/dangerous villain who enjoys causing fear and pain.

[1] Franklin’s greatest achievement here is the way he brings the period to life, albeit with a certain amount of nostalgic love for the idea.

Overall this is a solidly enjoyable detective story with all the twists and turns that you could expect from that genre. However, it also benefits from a great sense of place and time that is all through the film, not merely painted on with sets or soundtrack. A class act from Washington and others just adds to the feeling of quality.

[2] It can be argued that Beals as the titular femme fatale of the title is under written, but the character comes with an air of mystery that serves Franklin’s atmosphere very well. Tech credits are high, something of a given with Bernstein and Fujimoto on the list, while Washington turns in another classy show of subtlety and believability.

Lovers of film noir should get much rewards from Devil in a Blue Dress.

[3] The atmosphere is a major asset here; director Carl Franklin has done a magnificent job not only of recreating the Los Angeles of the late forties, but also of showing the story from the black perspective, a rarity in film. All the sights and sounds are there, and if you concentrate real hard you can even detect the smells, too. […] Fans of Washington should watch this, but really anyone who likes film noir will approve.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

#Noirvember: “One False Move” (1992) starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Cynda Williams, & Michael Beach

There was no crime in Star City, Arkansas. No murder. And no fear. Until now. -A tagline for the movie

After a drug rip-off which involves 6 murders, the LAPD are on the hunt for a dangerous trio: a sadistic genius- Pluto (Michael Beach- best known for ER), his volatile former cellmate- Ray (Billy Bob Thornton- also co-wrote the screenplay)- and Ray’s 20ish gf- Fantasia (Cynda Williams). Evidence indicates that these fugitives are headed to the small town of Star City, Arkansas. Detectives Dud Cole (Jim Metzler) and John McFeely (Earl Billings) contact the local Chief of Police- Dale Dixon (Bill Paxton)- then head to Star City to continue their investigation. Dale, an energetic cop/family man, is excited by the chance to participate in a nationwide manhunt.

Can something from 1992 look fresh and unexpected (to modern/jaded eyes)? Every element is firing on ALL cylinders in this (lesser-known) indie film: acting, directing, editing, sound/music, sets/production design, costumes/hair, etc. I kept hearing about how great it was on movie podcasts, so decided to check it out (Amazon Prime). This is NOT a typical action/crime/drama, as it’s more interested in character development. None of the main ensemble is what he/she seems at 1st glance. I was a BIT surprised to see Paxton in a complicated role; he is perfectly cast and able to show his range. Thornton (sporting a few extra lbs. and rat-like ponytail) is an immature/sloppy/volatile villain; his trigger finger is itchy. Beach (pressed/polished) is a calm/calculated villain; he is more dangerous than his partner. Williams (who was married to Thornton: 1990-1992) is NOT the strongest of actors, BUT she does well here, being paired w/ seasoned actors. Like MANY women (incl. women of color), Williams didn’t have much of a career after her 20s. She is also known for her supporting role in Spike Lee’s ‘Mo Better Blues (playing a singer/one of the love interests of Denzel Washington’s character).

The issue of race adds another layer to the story. The director Carl Franklin (a former actor) is a Black man; I 1st heard of him in 1995 (when I saw another great neo noir- Devil in a Blue Dress– starring Washington). The racism depicted in this movie is casual/subtle. The contrast between life/values of the city vs. the small town/country are shown also. For those who want danger, I admit that I was on my the edge of my seat during several scenes. The tension builds… and builds… until the (emotionally powerful) climax! This film was considered “too violent” when it premiered at Sundance; it was produced by a company that makes movies that go direct to video. Luckily, One False Move did get a (limited) big screen release, after critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel spoke of its merits. Siskel put this movie as his fave of 1992; Ebert placed it in 2nd place- WOW! Some of you may recall that 1992 was an esp. strong year for movies; these are some titles: A Few Good Men, Damage, Howard’s End, Malcolm X, The Last of the Mohicans, and Unforgiven.

[2[ The film starts off quite violently, but once it gets going, the emphasis is on good old fashioned character study.

[1 Franklin has a wonderful way with his camera, only revealing enough for us to fill in the blanks, and often his camera is used as a character POV device, with close ups and cuts blending seamlessly with mood of the story.

[3] The script deals with the themes of the contrast between the country and the city, racism, and the mask that many people wear to hide the complexities of their lives and their past. Somehow, all these themes come together in the most seamless and nuanced manner to enhance the poignancy of the film.

[4] I have seen this movie twice. The first time, for the whole movie I was on the edge of my seat. This was an intense film. From the extremely brutal beginning to the climatic end, I couldn’t relax once.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

#Noirvember: “State of Grace” (1990) starring Sean Penn, Ed Harris, Gary Oldman, & Robin Wright

A family ripped apart by violence. A love corrupted by betrayal. A friendship stained by blood. -A tagline for the movie

This is the month when ALL of us film noir fans celebrate the genre; I’m starting off w/ a neo noir which MANY won’t know about. A young Boston patrolman, Terry Noonan (Sean Penn), is recruited to go undercover in his old neighborhood (Hell’s Kitchen in NYC) and infiltrate the Irish mob run by the older brother- Frank Flannery (Ed Harris)- of his childhood best friend, Jack Flannery (Gary Oldman). To complicate matters further, Terry’s 1st love that he is still pulled toward- Kathleen (Robin Wright- in her early 20s)- is the younger sister of the Flannery brothers. Penn and Wright became a couple during the filming; they have good chemistry here. Several incidents in this movie are based on testimony given by captured NYC mobsters, incl. the meeting in the restaurant w/ the Italian mafioso and the dead man’s hand sequences.

I never heard of this film (shot partly inside one of Trump’s hotels) until recently; it was released in the same year as the (now mob classic) Goodfellas! Who could live up to that comparison!? The director, Phil Joanou, was in his late 20s (like some of his actors) when this movie was made. Though the (then up-and-coming) actors are hungry (and doing their best), the script is NOT very strong. As MANY experienced actors have commented over the yrs: “If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage.” I stopped the movie 3x while watching it last weekend to do chores (which I hate doing – LOL); this proved that it lacked momentum. It is also too long- 2 hr. 14 mins. When this happens in a movie categorized as “action/crime/thriller,” it’s NOT a good sign.

Though Penn would go on to become a big name 1st, I was more impressed by Oldman (who has long-ish hair and a grungy look). His NYC accent is flawless and he seems to totally inhabit his volatile, hard-drinking character. In the few quiet scenes, Oldman gets to show the hidden insecurity/vulnerability of Jackie, such as when he and Harris share a hug. Oldman hails from an area of London which is known to be tough. Fun fact: Oldman fell in love w/ Uma Thurman while working on this film; she was the former gf of the director. I learned that Penn and Oldman performed a (fiery/dangerous) stunt themselves- yikes! Harris has long been a character actor that I admired; Wright is also good (as I expected), though early in her career. Look out also for John Turturro and a V young/skinny John C. Reilly in (smaller) roles. If you like neo-noirs, the ’90s aesthetic, mob movies, and/or the gritty side of NYC, then check it out (free for Amazon Prime subscribers).

Modern Film Noir: The Dark Side of Life (In Color)

Body Heat (1981)

This film is considered to be an erotic thriller; it is (obviously) inspired by classic noir. So, maybe we can consider this to be neo-noir? Matty (Kathleen Turner) is the femme fatale; she has a secrets in her past. Ned (William Hurt) is the not-so-smart/playboy/lawyer who gets caught in her web.

Read my review.

Blade Runner (1982)

Many critics consider this to be the first sci-fi noir. It is a deep film that makes us wonder re: the nature of humanity. Many have wondered if Deckard (a young-ish Harrison Ford) was a human or a replicant. If you find this interesting, you may also like the sequel- Blade Runner 2049 (starring Ryan Gosling).

Dir. Ridley Scott and D.P. Jordan Cronenweth achieved the “shining eyes” effect by using a technique invented by Fritz Lang (“Schüfftan Process”) where light is bounced into the actors’ eyes off of a piece of half mirrored glass mounted at a 45 degree angle to the camera. Lang is known as a titan of the noir genre.

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

This is a lesser-known Coen bros film w/ young-ish Gabriel Byrne and Marcia Gay Harden (who I saw on the NYC subway years ago) that I really enjoyed. You see fine character actors in a world of their own which is very engaging (as expected from the Coens).

Read my review.

Cape Fear (1991)

This is the remake of the classic film dir. by Scorsese; the stars are Nick Nolte, Robert De Niro (sporting long-ish hair and fake tattoos), Jessica Lange, and a teenaged Juliette Lewis. You will also see cameos from Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum (I got a kick out of that). It’s NOT as good as the original, but still worth a look.

Heat (1995)

This film is loved by many who like action films, but also want strong character development. Fans of De Niro and Pacino will definitely want to check it out!

Read my review here.

The Usual Suspects (1995)

I haven’t seen this movie in a long time- think will give it a re-watch soon! It’s been on “modern noir” lists I looked up.

Fargo (1996)

Perhaps the Coens’ most well-known/loved film; we find quirky characters, dark humor, crime, moments of lightness, etc. Frances McDormand is the pregnant cop who you just can’t help but admire and root for, as she works to investigate some shady events in her small/snowy/usually safe community.

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Three young cops w/ different approaches to their work: Russell Crowe (looking hot), Guy Pearce (also looking hot), and Kevin Spacey investigate a series murders in 1950s LA. Kim Basinger revives her career w/ a strong (supporting) role. I will re-watch this soon.

Se7en (1997)

I’ve only seen this film once; I didn’t like it that much (aside from Morgan Freeman’s role). You get to see a young/lonely wife (Gwenyth Paltrow) and her hubby/rookie detective (Brad Pitt); they are newlyweds starting their lives in the big city (Chicago). Of course, the baddie (Spacey) steals the show, as many of you know. We know dir. David Fincher made a big splash w/ this controversial/bloody/creepy film.

Training Day (2001)

You all probably know I’m a big fan of Denzel Washington; I also really like Ethan Hawke. They make a great/unlikely duo in this film, which has good supporting actors, action, dark humor, crime, etc. Denzel is really good as a baddie, though he’s NOT a one-note villain!

No Country For Old Men (2007)

Wow, the Coens really hit it out of the park here! I recall many/diverse viewers commenting that they enjoyed this film; they were also scared (or at least, on edge). I became a fan of Javier Bardem (who they ugly-fied for his baddie role). I also enjoyed seeing Tommy Lee Jones; also, I think Kelly Macdonald should’ve gotten even bigger roles (as she’s good in everything).

Gone Girl (2014)

I saw this film w/ a group of (mostly) single gal pals in one of our local theaters; we were NOT expecting what we saw (LOL)! Is this a farce (as some critics have noted)? Is the depiction of dysfunctional marriage meant to be taken (mostly) seriously? You can hate exurban life in the Midwest (BUT not as much as the wife played by Rosamund Pike)! Ben Affleck had his Batman physique then; I found that somewhat distracting (he’s supposed to be a underemployed teacher/writer). I liked the detective (Kim Dickens) and the defense lawyer (Tyler Perry); they were the ONLY characters that seemed somewhat normal/relatable. Maybe I’m just NOT a fan of Fincher’s cold/slick style? Thank goodness for my single life!

Hell or High Water (2016)

This is a Western neo-noir set in the Southwest starring the (always great) Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine (in a rare non-glam/anti-hero role), and Ben Foster (a fine character actor I’ve admired since he was a teen). The two working-class bros at the center of the story can’t seem to get ahead, so they take a (criminal) turn. A must-see for fans of smart films!

Read my review.

“Heat” (1995) starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, & Val Kilmer

[repeated line]

Neil McCauley: Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.

This movie (written/dir. by Michael Mann) is considered a neo-noir; it’s slick, stylish, BUT also has plenty of substance. It was filmed in L.A. (which looks esp. beautiful in the night shots, thanks to cinematographer Dante Spinotti). You may have heard that this is the 1st time that Al Pacino and Robert De Niro shared a scene- wow! Rather than dubbing in the gunshots during the pivotal bank robbery/shootout, Mann had microphones placed around the set, so that the audio could be captured live. This added to the impact of the scene- it sounded like no other gunfight onscreen!

Eady: You travel a lot?

Neil McCauley: Yeah.

Eady: Traveling makes you lonely?

Neil McCauley: I’m alone, I am not lonely.

Career thief Neil McCauley (De Niro) and LAPD Lt. Vincent Hanna (Pacino) are BOTH great at their jobs and strong leaders who command respect. However, they are NOT so self-assured when it comes to their personal lives; they are facing loneliness (something that is NOT hard to relate to after surviving quarantine life). Hanna’s marriage w/ his 3rd wife, Justine (Diane Venora), has become strained; Justine’s teen daughter Lauren (Natalie Portman- in a small, yet touching role) is emotionally troubled b/c of her absentee father. McCauley meets an introverted/younger woman, Eady (Amy Brenneman); she works at a bookstore and as a graphic designer. He lets her talk about herself, but doesn’t reveal much about his life; he says he’s a traveling salesman. At first, Brenneman disliked the script and refused her role, saying it was too filled w/ blood with no morality; Mann told her that with that mind set, she would be perfect for Eady.

Vincent Hanna: I gotta hold on to my angst. I preserve it because I need it. It keeps me sharp, on the edge, where I gotta be.

McCauley’s crew includes Chris Sheherlis (Val Kilmer), Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore), Trejo (Danny Trejo- who’d spent time at Folsom), Waingro (Kevin Gage- who later spent time in jail), and eventually- Donald Breedan (Dennis Haysbert). Hanna’s crew from Robbery/Homicide Division includes Drucker (Mykelti Williamson), Casals (Wes Studi), and Bosco (Ted Levine). In preparation for their roles, those playing criminals spent time w/ former criminals and their families; those playing cops did the same. Unlike most heist movies, there are domestic scenes here, so we get to know McCauley’s crew. Chris is still in love w/ his wife Charlene (Ashley Judd); his gambling problem and quick temper are the issues that are driving her away. They have a baby son and live in a ranch-style suburban house. Michael has a wife, two young kids, and some savings; he stays in the game (even when things get dangerous) b/c of the thrill. Trejo has a wife who he dotes on. Donald, recently out on parole, thinks he doesn’t deserve his loving/loyal wife; he chafes against his job cleaning up a greasy diner (and disrespect from his boss).

Vincent: So you never wanted a regular type life?

Neil: What the f**k is that? Barbeques and ballgames?

Mann made the movie as tribute to a detective friend of his in Chicago, who tracked/killed a thief (named Neil McCauley), who he had once met under non-violent circumstances. The scene where McCauley and Hanna meet face-to-face has some great dialogue; it was shot at a real restaurant known for its late-night dining. Pacino and De Niro decided NOT to rehearse before they did this scene, so it would seem fresh; Mann agreed to this also. If you like your action films w/ something extra, then check it out.

[1]… Heat is a cinematic banquet of intense imagery and pulse-pounding action. Come hungry.

[2] The cops are similar to the robbers and vice-versa. Perhaps Mann is telling us were all the same. Except in what we do. Every speaking part holds substance in this movie…

[3] It seems one of Michael Mann’s main priorities was to make a film with a dreamlike feel to it, to portray LA as a dusty oil-painting on which complex characters could play out their lives. One of the main themes is the similarity of the career criminal and the street-wise cop. It is fascinating to find yourself really feeling for De Niro’s tragic bank-robber, a man of philosophical merit who realises he’s stuck in a life of crime he doesn’t want to lead. Pacino’s cop is less easy to sympathise with, but he too leads an in-escapable life of guns and crime.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews