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‘Devil in a Blue Dress’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 29, 1995


Carl Franklin
Denzel Washington;
Jennifer Beals;
Tom Sizemore;
Don Cheadle;
Maury Chaykin
sexual situations, profanity and violence

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"DEVIL IN a Blue Dress," director Carl Franklin's smartly atmospheric adaptation of Walter Mosley's popular detective novel, pulls you into familiar, Chandler territory. But in this smoky gangster picture, there are significant, engaging differences.

"Devil" slums elegantly through L.A.'s Central Avenue, the speakeasy strip where blacks and whites once mingled in dark, jazzy corners. It's as much about black America as it is about Maltese falcons. And as lead character Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, Denzel Washington is no card-carrying detective. A Houston transplant, fresh from an army stint in World War II, he's a regular Joe trying to buy into the American dream.

When we meet him, Rawlins has just lost his job. Unemployed, and with his next house payment coming right at him, he's easy prey for shady Dewitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) who offers him $100 for a quick job. All Rawlins has to do, Albright tells him, is find a dame called Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), a white politician's moll who's reportedly camped out on the dark side of town.

"She likes jazz and pig's feet and dark meat—you know what I mean?" Albright tells him.

Rawlins—whose sole qualification is his ability to move through the black section without raising suspicions—accepts Albright's offer. As might be expected, the mission isn't quite as simple as he'd hoped. Rawlins gets caught in compounded trouble, running afoul of Albright, the cops, a mayoral candidate called Terell (Maury Chaykin), and Monet herself, who proves to be (of course) a slippery dame. During this quasi-comedy of errors (in which violence and comedy do a memorable fandango), Rawlins is beaten, wooed, led around the garden path and bounced around. He also finds himself implicated in two murders. Unfortunately, he's in too deep to change course.

"Everyone was peeing on my head," he laments in voice-over, "and telling me it was rain."

Washington, one of the country's most likable stars, exudes a wonderful combination of dignity and gullibility. He falls for almost every trick laid at his feet, but it's because he's new to this game—not stupid. As Monet, Beals leans more on beautiful fragility than technique, but she's fetching and mysterious enough to warrant Rawlins's romantic interest.

The real show-stopper, however, is Don Cheadle as Mouse, Rawlins's all-but-psychopathic, gun-crazy pal from the old days (Rawlins has a bit of a past in Texas). Mouse, who's devoted to protecting his buddy, has a problem: He loves popping people, plain and simple, and like a precocious child, he has to be reminded to behave. With a mouth full of gold teeth, a deadpan voice and wildly expressive eyes, he steals every scene he's in.

Franklin, who made the elegant, chilling "One False Move," refrains from period-movie attention-getting. Although he has painstakingly re-created the Central Avenue storefront-nightclub world, he doesn't push it into your face. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto's evening browns evoke the past in an understated, faded-photograph way. The characters are lightly stylized, rather than loud, flashy and up-tempo; their feet are firmly anchored in realism. And although the racial undertones are an integral part of the story, they're hardly intended to be shocking revelations. At one point, when Monet and Rawlins drive together through a white section of town, she asks him if he's nervous.

"Nervous?" says Rawlins in voice-over. "Here I was in the middle of a white neighborhood with a white woman next to me. I wasn't nervous, I was stupid."

In "Devil," folks like Easy Rawlins have long since learned to roll with the racial punches. It's precisely that kind of offhand profundity that makes the movie so memorable. Franklin's picture is effortlessly wise beneath its entertaining surface.

DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS (R) — Contains sexual situations, profanity and violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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