Devil In A Blue Dress

1995, Movie, R, 102 mins

Review

DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS
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You could call DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS a mystery. There's a sexy lady with a secret. There are bad guys with guns and vicious intentions. There's the threat of political scandal, and a pervasive whiff of corruption. Strictly speaking, though, there isn't much mystery here -- Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins (Denzel Washington) has barely started sniffing at the trail of shady lady Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) when she calls him up and invites him over to talk. And her deep, dark secret doesn't come as much of a surprise -- it's written on her face. Rawlins isn't so much solving a puzzle as negotiating a minefield, hoping to find his way out without losing his skin. And because he's black in an overtly racist town, his skin is always an issue.

Los Angeles, 1948. Rawlins has lost his job and desperately needs cash to make a mortgage payment on his little bungalow-style piece of the American Dream. Joppy, the gruff proprietor of a local bar, sends some work his way in the form of smiling, blue-eyed reptile Dewitt Albright (Tom Sizemore). Rawlins ignores the voice in his head that tells him he's about to make a big mistake when Albright asks him to find a white woman, Daphne, who's known to "enjoy the company of Negroes." Her fiance, rich mayoral candidate Todd Carter, wants her back. Rawlins is no detective, but he doesn't have to be -- all he has to do is show his face in some "colored dives," ask some questions and report back. Naturally, it's not that easy. Hard-boiled narrative complications develop in short order, but director Carl Franklin, who also adapted the screenplay from Walter Mosley's prize-winning novel, isn't particularly concerned with the machinations of mystery plots. Nor is he seduced by the temptations of noir visual style (although Tak Fujimoto's camera work is plenty stylish). Rather, he's interested in the faces behind the swirling cigarette smoke and the emotions beneath the chic period clothes.

DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS starts out looking like an exercise, a straightforward re-creation of genre conventions with a series of clever twists, most of which follow from the race of its protagonist. But somewhere amid the conventional dirty dealings and bloodied knuckles, the film becomes a subtle and unsettling character study, much like Franklin's first critical success, the low-budget ONE FALSE MOVE.

Meanwhile, Franklin explores the racial realities of a Los Angeles in which no one even pretends to be surprised that cops use the word "nigger" and routinely frame African-American suspects. Ultimately, DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS rests on the shoulders of star Denzel Washington, an actor who's controlled, capable and normally not much fun to watch -- no one does moral outrage the way he does, but he's always verging on priggishness. Here, however, his stoic demeanor eminently suits his character. Unlike the archetypal noir detective, a ruined romantic who wallows in the horrors of a world that exists solely to disappoint him, Rawlins has stolidly ordinary aspirations: He really does want to come home from work and sit on his porch, drink beer and play dominoes with his friends. And just when all that common decency is in danger of becoming dull, DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS introduces Rawlins's hometown buddy Mouse (Don Cheadle), a volatile bundle of tics and hipster mannerisms. Monstrously funny and truly scary, Cheadle is handed a scene-stealing role and never hesitates to do it justice.

Unlike many neo-noir narratives, DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS truly is a moral journey. Rawlins starts out an innocent man and ends up compromised. When he announces he's given up on honest factory work and intends to become a full-time private investigator, it's a sad moment. He's destined to develop a cynical skin and a knowing manner, doomed to become a more conventional character than he is. Even so, it's impossible not to look forward to sequels. And since Franklin and Washington have the rights to two more Mosley novels, the inevitable Easy Rawlins cycle should remain in capable hands. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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