Devil in a Blue Dress
1995, R, 100 min. Directed by Carl Franklin. Starring Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals, Don Cheadle, Maury Chaykin, Terry Kinney, Lisa Nicole Carson.
REVIEWED By Robert Faires, Fri., Oct. 6, 1995
Mean streets. They are what you expect to see in a detective thriller, streets paved with corruption and washed in blood, streets on which a good man doesn't belong. What you don't expect to see -- and what Devil in a Blue Dress shows us, with great results -- are not-so-mean streets, streets with homes and shops, streets paved with hard work and washed in sweat, streets on which a good man may find a home. The story, adapted from Walter Mosley's novel, centers on Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, a WWII vet whose pride and joy is his own home in 1948 L.A. Desperate to keep up the payments after he loses his job, Easy agrees to find the missing sweetheart of a mayoral candidate, which sends him down dark roads. Much of Devil in a Blue Dress follows the detective fiction formula: Its thugs are brutal, its events are driven by men of wealth and power, and the key to its secrets are held by an alluring woman. Where the story differs is its shading: Rawlins is black, and his world is black. This marginalizes our hero not only for his morality but for the color of his skin. It also offers us a milieu rarely seen, a world largely lost. Reviving that world may have been the most important thing about this film for screenwriter-director Franklin (One False Move). While he stages the genre material efficiently enough -- the obligatory slugfests and gunfights are crisp and the scenes of confrontation are adequately tense -- he doesn't give them the spark of other, less plot-oriented sequences: making small talk in a store below a speakeasy, sharing food and drink at a kitchen table with a grieving man, panning past crowds of African-Americans bustling along Central Avenue. These moments flash. In them, Tak Fujimoto's cinematography seems to catch the light especially vividly, the sounds of Franklin's exquisite soundtrack of period jazz seem particularly evocative of time and feeling, and the fine players (with Don Cheadle a standout as Easy's loyal but trigger-happy pal) seem to display an electric vitality. Even the supremely reliable Washington, whose fit into Rawlins is -- what else? -- easy, comes to life a touch more in these scenes. When he is at home, his pride in this place, in a good neighborhood of good people, is something to behold. On the mean streets, Devil is okay; but it's something special when it gets to Easy's street.