Devil in a Blue Dress

CrimeCrime, Law and JusticeMoviesEntertainmentCarl FranklinBlackmail and Extortion

Friday September 29, 1995

     Hard-boiled fiction is a been-around genre about done-that individuals, so the pleasant air of newness and excitement that "Devil in a Blue Dress" gives off isn't due to its familiar find-the-girl plot. Rather it's the film's glowing visual qualities, a striking performance by Denzel Washington and the elegant control Carl Franklin has over it all that create the most exotic crime entertainment of the season.
     There's an irony about "Devil's" exoticism, because its setting isn't some remote overseas locale but right here in Los Angeles, the circa 1948 streets surrounding a vibrant Central Avenue. It says quite a bit about the nature of Hollywood and the history of American race relations that that time and place are as remote as Burkina Faso as far as mainstream movie audiences are concerned.
     For writer-director Franklin, adapting the first of Walter Mosley's popular series of Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins detective novels for a major studio also had its exotic aspects. Franklin's last film was the acclaimed and accomplished low-budget thriller "One False Move," and carrying off the transition to larger budgets without the loss of creative edge could have presented a problem.
     Instead, "Devil in a Blue Dress" turns out to be a major accomplishment, a fluid, persuasive piece of movie-making graced with the considerable visual sophistication of Tak Fujimoto, executive producer Jonathan Demme's favorite cinematographer. Starting with its mood-setting credit sequence--a slow pan over a gorgeous Archibald Motley Jr. painting of "Bronzeville at Night" while a T-Bone Walker blues plays on the soundtrack--this is a film in smooth control of its ways and means.
     Also in complete charge of his resources is Denzel Washington, who establishes himself once again as a superb leading man. Coolly handsome, able to project a sly humor and a measurable sexuality as well as dignity and strength, Washington can also play confusion and uncertainty when the story demands it. And no one since Marlon Brando's "A Streetcar Named Desire" days has looked better in a tight T-shirt.
     Washington also has the sensitivity to play Easy Rawlins as a man of his era, a 1940s Negro who must of necessity leaven his heroic qualities with the kind of circumspect behavior demanded by those more overtly racist times, when it was risky for black men to venture north of Wilshire Boulevard at night and even the Ambassador Hotel was segregated by color.
     "Devil" opens with Easy in trouble. Fired from his job in a defense plant, he has an overdue house payment and a lack of prospects. Then a bartender introduces him to the mysterious Dewitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), whose living consists of "doing favors for friends." He asks Easy to help him find a white woman named Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), the fiancee of one of the city's most powerful men, who fancies jazz and likes to hang out around Central Avenue. It sounds too easy, which, of course, it is.
     With its frequent twists and references to corruption at the highest levels of Los Angeles' power elite, "Devil" owes a good deal to Robert Towne's script for Roman Polanski's classic "Chinatown." To no one's surprise but his own, Easy is soon in way over his head in the usual world of murder, blackmail and betrayal, where all his attempts to do the right thing only get him into more and more trouble.
     Fortunately for Easy, Mouse, a pal from his past who would truly as soon kill someone as look at them, shows up and helps out. Played with a picture-stealing bravado by Don Cheadle, Mouse is a more comic character here than in Mosley's book, but that change, like the others Franklin has made to the novel, turns out to be an audience-friendly alteration.
     Though "Devil's" plot is a standard one, the same is not true of its setting. Production designer Gary Frutkoff and his team have superbly re-created not only Central Avenue (which was shot on an appropriately dressed section of downtown's Main Street) but the interiors of loud bars, smoky jazz clubs and all the rest of Rawlins' milieu. To watch this film is to feel like a privileged visitor in an unfamiliar world that ought to be gone but, "Brigadoon"-like, unexpectedly lives again.
     Making "Devil's" world worth visiting is the way Carl Franklin presents it. It's a brutal place, but Franklin, as "One False Move" showed, knows how to make on-screen violence effective without overdoing things. It is also rife with prejudice, and Franklin refuses to shortchange that while insisting on his characters' dignity and humanity. If there were more films like this, to lean on Raymond Chandler one more time, movie houses would be safer places to visit without becoming too dull to be worth the trip.

Devil in a Blue Dress, 1995. R, for violence, sexuality and language. A Clinica Estetio and Mundy Lane Entertainment production, released by TriStar Pictures. Director Carl Franklin. Producers Jesse Beaton, Gary Goetzman. Executive producers Jonathan Demme, Edward Saxon. Screenplay Carl Franklin, based on the book by Walter Mosley. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. Editor Carole Kravetz. Costumes Sharen Davis. Music Elmer Bernstein. Production design Gary Frutkoff. Art director Dan Webster. Set decorator Kathryn Peters. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Denzel Washington as Easy Rawlins. Tom Sizemore as Dewitt Albright. Jennifer Beals as Daphne Monet. Don Cheadle as Mouse. Maury Chaykin as Matthew Terell. Terry Kinney as Todd Carter.

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