Directed by Carl Franklin
Screenplay by Franklin, based on the novel by Walter Mosley
Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto
Music by Elmer Bernstein
Starring Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals, and Don Cheadle
USA, 1995

Among the pleasures that slipped by me in my year of rather odd moviegoing habits was this unconventional detective thriller. What's so unconventional about an old-fashioned murder mystery? Unlike most of the "thrillers" I've seen recently, this one is quite good. It seems de rigeur in Hollywood today that thrillers and action pictures will try to outdo themselves, upping the stakes in wearisome surprise endings that just drone on and on. But Devil in a Blue Dress is so low-key that it actually captures the cool intrigue of a decent film noir.

But contrary to what you may have read, Devil in a Blue Dress is not a noir. It shares some of the trappings of noir, but it does have a pretty happy ending, the sort that's avoided by any noir worth its salt. The denouement has been much altered from the source material, the acclaimed 1990 novel by Walter Mosley that launched a series of Easy Rawlins mysteries, but it remains intriguing and plausible, if a little more hopeful. Most importantly, the attitude is correct, from Denzel Washington's star turn on some mighty clever dialogue to director Carl Franklin's jazzy sense for atmosphere (his last feature was One False Move). The atmosphere of L.A. in the late 1940s is one subject of Mosley's novel, and Franklin's got atmosphere down pat.

Washington is Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, a black war veteran who's settled in L.A. but finds himself in financial trouble after his white supervisor fires him from his factory job through a mouthful of sandwich. Before he really knows what he's getting into, a white guy named DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) has offered Easy $100 to find Daphne Monet, a white woman with a well-known soft spot for black men. Rawlins visits the club where Monet was last spotted, and after asking a few questions of the right people, he finds himself helping an acquaintance named Coretta James drag her stone drunk boyfriend home, and then spends the night underneath her while Dupree snores in the next room. Turns out Daphne Monet is a friend of Coretta's, and once Coretta whispers Daphne's current whereabouts into Easy's ear, he figures he's just earned his hundred bucks.

Well, it's hardly that simple. After Coretta turns up dead later on that day, Easy finds himself negotiating with everyone from the cops and assorted L.A. lowlife to the two Mayoral candidates and Daphne herself. And even as he trips over another dead body, he decides that this private investigation business is a pretty good racket, as long as he can stay alive long enough to finish his investigating. The movie takes its time feeding the viewer clues about who's doing what to whom and why, and the audience stays just about up to speed with Easy, whose mind is usually racing. Taut and gripping, Devil in a Blue Dress takes its own time dropping clues. When guns are finally drawn the tension is amplified, and when triggers are pulled the effect is explosive.

The film is all the more involving for its chilling matter-of-factness toward nasty issues of murder, politics, and racism. As Easy learns more about asking the right questions of the right people -- even when they're the richest people in the city -- he becomes more assured as he travels across the color line from black L.A. to white society and back again. Even so, these characters are far from perfect, and they're given their freedom. Easy may have a code of honor, but he's never painted as some noble black man fighting a racist society. When he calls an old friend from Houston named Mouse (the terrific Don Cheadle) into the fray for a little help, the moral high ground drops a little lower, since Mouse is the type of guy who uses bullets to solve his problems. Still, he's a friend, and it's clear as soon as he shows up that Easy's going to need that brand of help if he plans to survive (not to mention stay out of jail, since the police are eager to hang two killings around his neck).

A major liability is Jennifer Beals, who apparently campaigned at some length to get the part of Daphne. This woman should be the stuff of back-room legend, but Beals' performance is utterly flat and inconsequential. She may be a femme in the strictest sense of the word, but she's hardly fatale, and while she does show up in a blue dress, she doesn't seem to have any devil in her. (I'm not one to cavil much about a screenplay's changes to a book's storyline, but Daphne certainly has more to do in the novel.)

Fortunately, the story's not really about Daphne. It's about Easy Rawlins, and the peace he makes with his new lot in life. He loves his house, and indeed he's one of the few black men who owns property in L.A. He's got friends, and he's figured out how to make good money as a private dick. At the end of the movie, he finally tells us in voiceover how happy he is. Easy isn't really meant to be a role model, but impressionable youngsters could certainly do worse. As a black man who's first put down by white L.A. and later paid off because he's smart and moves in circles they can't penetrate, Rawlins is figuring out how to make the best of a mean old world.

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