Devil in a Blue Dress is the whip-smart and sexy film version of Walter Mosley’s acclaimed 1990 debut novel. Set in Los Angeles in 1948, Devil puts a spin on Chinatown to provide a black perspective on the layers of corruption that stretch from the streets to the corridors of power. Denzel Washington is flat-out perfection as Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, a private detective almost by accident. Easy, a decorated soldier from Houston, came to Los Angeles to share in the postwar boom. He didn’t figure on getting canned from his defense-plant job and having to scrounge to pay the mortgage.
The house in South Central L.A. and the garden he tends are Easy’s pride. He listens sharply when his bartender friend Joppy (Mel Winkler) sets him up with DeWitt Albright, played by Tom Sizemore as a great white shark in a suit. The thug will pay him well to ask around about Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), a white woman with a yen for “the company of Negroes.” Easy takes the bait, taking the audience into a world of back streets and jazz clubs that exudes a dangerous allure.
Writer and director Carl Franklin (One False Move) scores a triumph in using the brooding atmosphere and racial tension of the sun-kissed, seedy City of Angels to reveal character and reclaim a neglected past that ace cinematographer Tak Fujimoto brings to vivid life.
Mosley, the son of a black father and a Jewish mother, grew up feeling the closeness of the South Central community and the alienating displacement of the L.A. outside. Easy feels it, too. He senses that getting paid to snoop is putting him at risk, but the quick money gives him dreams of independence. Easy is decent but hardly a saint; he’s willing to fuck Coretta (Lisa Nicole Carson), a friend’s woman, while the drunken friend sleeps next door. “Oh, daddy, you hittin’ my spot,” moans Coretta, and Easy willingly keeps hittin’ it. But when Coretta is killed and Easy tries to find the culprit, the reluctant detective is pulled into a world of blackmail, political corruption, kidnapping, child abuse and murder.
Easy’s humanity, fully captured in Washington’s richly detailed portrayal, is what makes the character’s crisis of conscience so compelling. You can see him wince at the impunity with which his bantam-size buddy Mouse (Don Cheadle) pulls a trigger. Cheadle, of Picket Fences, is a knockout as this gold-toothed, baby-faced killer.
The movie simmers with pungent suspense, humor and eroticism, so go figure why Franklin lowers the flame on Easy’s relationship with the mysterious Daphne. Though Beals looks the femme fatale in her slinky blue dress, Franklin limits her chances to cut deeper. He also limits the book’s torrid sex (in a bathtub, Daphne washes between Easy’s toes and scrubs his erection) to an occasional hot look that fails to get at Easy’s need to lose himself in her pale beauty. An odd choice for a film that hinges on questions of identity. Still, the damage is minor. Devil in a Blue Dress is smashingly effective at bringing the past alive as entertainment and pointed social history. Mosley has written three other novels (A Red Death, White Butterfly and Black Betty) that track Easy Rawlins into the ’60s. You exit Devil eager to see Washington and Franklin take them all on.