Easy Rollins, the smooth private eye at the heart of four Walter Mosley novels, occupies the same city (Los Angeles) and the same period (the fertile 1940s) as his celebrated counterpart in the detective trade, Philip Marlowe. Both of them are stained by the violence of their antagonists and, quite often, immersed in the uncommon treachery of their own clients. Both can knock down a shot of whiskey without blinking, and they both get that world-weary look in their eyes.
But Easy works the other side of town.
It's startling to hear the word "Negro" bouncing around a movie theater after all these years. But the time of Devil in a Blue Dress, the first of three Easy Rollins novels snapped up by Hollywood, is 1948, and that's just who Easy is--a smart, Texas-born Negro come west to the boomtown of L.A., a combat veteran looking for a good, steady job, a neat house with a nice porch and maybe some peace--in other words, his share of the American Dream. But appearances (and the promises of democracy) are deceiving, and Mosley has a gift for showing what it was like to be black in segregated, postwar L.A. that's even more profound than his facility for creating femmes fatales, baffling us with tangled motives and littering the stage with corpses. His work has as much in common with Native Son or Invisible Man as it does with The Big Sleep.
The road from page to screen is always full of bumps, especially for a book this good, but director Carl Franklin and dashing matinee idol Denzel Washington have come up with a movie version of Blue Dress that's as fluid and fluent as anyone--including the author--could hope for. Former actor Franklin first attracted attention three years ago with a compelling little crime drama called One False Move, then directed the groundbreaking HBO miniseries Laurel Avenue. Here he shows that neither a big budget nor a major movie star can take the personal edge off his work: Blue Dress is a little slicker than One False Move, and the moviemakers seem a little too proud of the beautiful Forties automobiles and vintage fashions draped around the cast, but there's a hard core of social truth--Mosley's conscience via Franklin's style--in this hugely entertaining, often hilarious film that never goes away. Some of it's the truth private eyes must face; most of it's the truth black men must live with.
When he's laid off at an aircraft plant and his mortgage money runs short, easygoing Easy Rollins is inadvertently pulled into a new line of work. A closemouthed little fixer named Dewitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) slides around, offering Easy a cool $200 to help track down a white mystery woman who ostensibly has a taste for the black night clubs of Central Avenue (beautifully re-created, we might add) and all that goes along with them.
Having reluctantly made this Faustian bargain, Easy is quickly swept into the kind of murderous intrigues, heavily tinged with municipal politics and sordid romance, that moviegoers have long associated with detective movies and film noir. The big difference is--to use L.A.'s most overburdened cliche--the race card. Easy Rollins, ex-soldier and unemployed machinist, walks into the minefield of the city's white power structure as an innocent. As he unearths the most personal secrets of two competing mayoral candidates and a squad car full of Mark Fuhrman prototypes bludgeon him with the "n" word and their pistol butts, his best bit of detective work is what he detects inside himself.
So he doesn't run. Among other things, Easy Rollins is a black hero, so there's an early stirring of black rage in him that fits perfectly with his ever-enlarging savvy and his deepening insight. By the time he finds the femme fatale, whose name is--what else?--Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) and who wears--what else?--a series of cool blue dresses, we already have the inkling that Easy is getting the hang of this private-eye business. By the time he's implicated in a couple of murders and finds himself squeezed between the cops, the crooks and the women (but just before he finds the crucial dirty pictures), we see that he means to conquer the game.
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Opportunity is where you find it, and we leave the theater secure in the knowledge that while Easy's role as street-smart detective may have been thrust upon him, he's capable of bending it to his own will, maybe even using it to fulfill his dream of achievement. This is a personal ethic quite different from Philip Marlowe's, of course: In the shadowy reaches of his upstairs office, old Phil is far too busy reaching into the bottom drawer for a pint of Old Fitz, and the philosophers are far too busy refashioning him as a kind of existential loner, to let much sunshine into the room. But in the last scene of Blue Dress, which really marks the coming-out of Easy Rollins at the movies, the wiser and warier version of the fellow we met two hours earlier looks at the graceful trees and freshly painted houses and sun-splashed, rope-skipping kids in his neighborhood, and he smiles. Stick around for the sequel, it says here.
But first we get a pretty good look at L.A.'s seamier side--complete with laughs. The two guys running for mayor, an oily slob (Maury Chaykin) and a dandy in a mansion (Terry Kinney), are just about perfect, as are the punchy old fighter turned saloonkeeper (Mel Winkler) who gets Easy into the pickle in the first place, the steamy Coretta (Lisa Nicole Carson) and Beals's Stanwyckian, smoke-blowing Daphne--although the carnal sizzle between Easy and Daphne that heated up Mosley's novel has been doused.
Meanwhile, Washington is as seamless as ever. So, too, is the film's superb period soundtrack, which features everything from Amos Milburn's rollicking "Chicken Shack Boogie" to Thelonious Monk's jazz classic "Round Midnight." And if you're looking for a show-stealer--who isn't?--look no further than Don Cheadle, a veteran TV actor who lights a cold comic fire inside Mouse, Easy Rollins's stone-faced, trigger-happy sidekick up from Texas. Armed to the teeth and topped with a natty bowler, Mouse keeps Devil in a Blue Dress happily illuminated for the entire third act.
Even without that kind of miracle, the film is a deft and beautiful piece of work: Catch it.