Easy Rawlins Denzel Washington DeWitt Albright Tom Sizemore Daphne Monet Jennifer Beals Mouse Don Cheadle Matthew Terell Maury Chaykin Todd Carter Terry Kinney Joppy Mel Winkler Odell Albert Hall Coretta James Lisa Nicole Carson Dupree Brouchard Jernard Burks Junior Fornay David Wolos-Fonteno Miller Beau Starr Mason John Roselius Shariff Nicky Corello
An engrossingly atmospheric dip into the dark waters of postwar urban intrigue, “Devil in a Blue Dress” ushers in the welcome subgenre of black noir. First screen adaptation of a Walter Mosley mystery novel featuring private detective Easy Rawlins, this long-awaited follow-up feature from “One False Move” helmer Carl Franklin navigates a complicated story of blackmail, race and politics in confident fashion and serves up a tartly evocative view of a side of LA, life largely ignored by Hollywood. Some key narrative elements don’t quite cut it, but with Denzel Washington toplining in a fully realized sympathetic role, TriStar entry should do solid biz with both mainstream and ethnic audiences through the fall.
The immediate post-World War II period remains one of the most fascinating but least explored times in 20th-century American history, when the euphoria of military victory, new-found world supremacy and financial boom times quickly gave way to political paranoia and social and cultural retrenchment. “Devil in a Blue Dress” takes full advantage of this rich backdrop, with the added element of black-white relations in a relatively relaxed Western town unburdened by the sorry legacies of Eastern and Southern cities.
Still, it’s the United States, 1948, and just because Easy (Washington) distinguished himself in the Army and is able to buy a nice little house on the GI Bill doesn’t mean, so to speak, that he’s on Easy Street. Bounced out of his aircraft-industry job in a dispute, he’s got a house payment to make and accepts $ 100 from the shady De Witt Albright (Tom Sizemore) to find Daphne Monet, a mysterious lady who’s been involved with a wealthy mayoral candidate but also is known to hang out in the local neighborhood.
Central Avenue, the commercial center of black life at the time, reps the magnet to which the action returns time and again. Vibrantly recreated for the film (virtually nothing remains today of its glory days), it’s a pulsating, exciting promenade bordered by numerous night spots and shops catering to all manner of people, including some of questionable repute.
When Easy goes there looking for Daphne, the woman he meets (Lisa Nicole Carson, in a spunky turn) and with whom he enjoys a very funny dalliance mysteriously ends up dead. In time-honored mystery fashion, this murder is merely an appetizer to the full meal of scandal, blackmail, hypocrisy, racial intrigue, underworld competition and cutthroat bigcity politics that Easy is forced to consume once he sits down at the table. As the title indicates, the centerpiece is Daphne (Jennifer Beals), a glamorous young lady who straddles the worlds of both L.A.s in ways that may be tragic but aren’t all that surprising.
In fact, it’s in the first meeting of Easy and Daphne that the film begins to flag; the scene is stiffly staged, and absolutely no heat is generated between the two characters. With this femme fatale, as well as in the way the story sends Easy on missions into the heart of the white power structure, inevitable parallels to “Chinatown” start cropping up, which cannot work to the advantage of the newer picture.
On its own terms, the plotting of “Devil” is absorbing, and the pieces actually fit together pretty decently. On the other hand, when scenes directly call to mind similar ones in “Chinatown,” this effort’s stepchild relationship to the classic is forcibly demonstrated. This is true in the writing, which could have used one more pass to further punch up the dialogue; in the portrait of dirty polities, which lacks the kind of true-to-life resonance that “Chinatown” had;’ and in the ending, which is too pat and upbeat for a genre that thrives on moral ambiguity and equal measures of personal courage and cosmic despair.
That said, director Franklin nudges the action along with lively, sometimes unexpectedly funny flair. The tone is less edgy and mordant than in his indie break-through “One False Move,” but pic nonetheless has flavor all is own, thanks variously to its sharply observed cast of characters, astutely re-created setting, adherence to novelistic details and solid p.o.v. Easy is very much at home in the vicinity of Central Avenue, but one is made to share his feeling of conspicuousness and potential danger whenever he ventures into the white world.
Washington’s performance is alert and subtle, as he mixes a simmering desperation over his deepening involvement in nasty doings with a laid-back quality that communicates his awareness of the wisdom of keeping his own counsel.
Entering the main flow of the story relatively late, Don Cheadle steals all his scenes as a live-wire, trigger-happy old buddy of Easy’s from Texas, while Sizemore and Mel Winkler, as colorful underworld figures, make strong impressions. Unfortunately, nothing about the Daphne character works — from the writing to her costumes and coiffure to Beals’ undimensional performance — leaving the picture with something of a soft spot at the center.
The period re-creation — of an area that isn’t even properly documented in still photographs, much less in motion pictures — stands as one of the film’s chief pleasures, and as a result, many viewers will no doubt be filled with nostalgia for a time and place they never knew. Gary Frutkoff’s production design deserves major kudos for both research and imagination, with high marks also going to Sharen Davis’ mostly spiffy costumes, Tak Fujimoto’s pleasingly straightforward lensing, Elmer Bernstein’s lush score and Carole Kravetz’s economical editing.