Devil in a Blue Dress is a neo-noir, which is to say, it is made in the film noir style but after the period in which such movies were originally made, the decades of the 1940s and 1950s. Furthermore, it is set during the film noir period, in 1948 to be exact. Many such movies featured a private detective who is hired to do what seems to be a simple job but soon finds things are more complicated than he was originally led to believe. In this movie, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Denzel Washington) is not a private detective as such, but is hired to do some detective work, and by the end of the movie has decided to make a career of it.
He is hired by DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) to find a white woman, Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), who has a “predilection for the company of Negroes.” She is assumed to be hiding out in the black neighborhood, which is why Albright cannot just look for her himself. The story Easy is told is that Todd Carter, her boyfriend, has dropped out of the mayor’s race on account of her disappearance, and Albright offers the unemployed Easy $100 to find her.
At this point, anyone reading this who has not seen the movie is advised to stop reading and watch it: first, because the movie is quite enjoyable, and second, because the plot is so complicated that it would be tedious to try to reproduce it in detail here. For those who are familiar with the movie, only enough detail will be provided to point out an unfortunate inconsistency in what is otherwise such a good movie.
The story told to Easy turns out to be a lie. Actually, Albright is working for Carter’s opponent, Matthew Terrell, a pedophile, who is trying to recover some incriminating photographs of him with children. The real reason that Carter dropped out of the race, as we eventually discover, is that Daphne’s mother was Creole, a fact known by Terrell, and Carter’s relationship with a woman with “Negro blood” would have been enough to cost him the race.
The man who is in possession of the photographs is Richard McGee. Supposedly, he sold them to Daphne, who says she paid $7,000 for them (adjusted for inflation, this would be about $70,000 in 2017 dollars). However, she does not have the pictures. In other words, we have to assume that McGee and Daphne met somewhere, and she handed him seven big ones, even though McGee did not give her the pictures at that time. That does not make sense.
But wait a minute. McGee does not know where Daphne is, which is why he was trying to get into the black nightclub, to see if she was there. Now, if Daphne paid $7,000 for pictures on the promise that McGee would give them to her later, she would have made sure McGee knew where to find her, which would have been the hotel room she was staying in, and she would have given him her phone number as well. So, the fact that McGee does not know where Daphne is does not make sense.
Because McGee did not know where Daphne was, he handed the pictures, disguised as a letter, to Junior, giving him $50 to give the letter to Coretta, who was supposed to give it to Daphne; but Coretta, who looked inside and discovered the pictures, decides to sell them to Terrell, so in the meantime, she hides the pictures in her Bible, which she hands to Dupree on his way to his sister’s house. The reason McGee is so desperate to get the pictures to Daphne, even though he has already been paid for them, is presumably that he believes that the pictures are too dangerous to hold on to. But passing the pictures on to Junior to pass on to Coretta to pass on to Daphne does not eliminate the danger, because he is murdered soon after. Similarly, the danger Coretta knew she would be in once she tried to shakedown Terrell was not eliminated by hiding the pictures in her Bible and giving it to Dupree for safekeeping, and she is soon murdered by Joppy.
Roger Ebert coined the expression idiot plot, which is a plot that only works if everyone in the movie is an idiot. This movie almost fits that definition. Daphne would have to be an idiot to pay $7,000 for photographs until she could actually take possession of them. And, if she were idiot enough to pay that kind of money on the promise of receiving those pictures later, she would have to be an idiot not to make sure McGee knew where he could get in touch with her. And McGee and Coretta would have to be idiots to think that if Terrell’s henchmen caught up with them, their not having the pictures on their person or in their house would keep them safe.
But Alfred Hitchcock coined the expression icebox scene, which refers to a scene in a movie that does not make sense, but you don’t realize it until you have already left the theater, gone home, and opened the icebox looking for something to eat. By then it is too late, because you have already enjoyed the movie. A movie with a true idiot plot is known to be such while we are watching the movie, while the absurdity at the heart of Devil in a Blue Dress can more properly be said to occur in an icebox scene.