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Devil in a Blue Dress

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4

*Also starring: Tom Sizemore, Don Cheadle, Maury Chaykin, Terry Kinney, Mel Winkler, Lisa Nicole Carson, Albert Hall

Review by Steve Rhodes
2½ stars out of 4

"It was the summer of 1948, and I needed money," begins Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington) in DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS. In a loving and lush recreation of black Los Angles of that era by set designer Gary Frutkoff, this film noir starts. Think of any of the Raymond Chandler mysteries. Now switch the characters so that most are black, and voila, DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS.

The sets and the sepia toned images by famous cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (PHILADELPHIA, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and SOMETHING WILD) form a picture that is a delight to your eyes. Easy owns a home in a black middle class suburb of LA that Frutkoff has created with wide streets, tall cool palm trees, and green lawns. Although Easy has a nice house and a long, new Pontiac, all is not easy for him as he has just lost the lucrative job in the aircraft industry that he migrated years ago from Texas to get. He was fired because of the color of his skin. Racism interlaces the story as a subtext, but it is a mystery more than a morality play.

While he is down on his luck and two mortgage payments behind, a strange white figure called DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) makes him an offer too good to pass up. It seems that in the midst of the LA mayoral campaign, mayor Todd Carter (Terry Kinney from that great old TV series "thirysomething") has dropped out of the race claiming he is despondent over the mysteriously disappearance of his girlfriend Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals). DeWitt says that the mayor has hire him to find her.

The complication is that Daphne is white, but likes to hang around with black men so DeWitt wants to pay Easy $100 upfront to locate her. He says that Easy could be more inconspicuous in black nightclubs than he would be. Easy has no idea why he is picked but needs the money so he takes the job. Along the way he runs into Coretta James (Lisa Nicole Carson) who claims to know Daphne. Soon however people start getting killed and the police want to pin the murders on Easy. The mystery is who is doing it and why. Is it Todd Carter? Is it Daphne Monet? How about the other mayoral candidate Matthew Terrell (Maury Chaykin from UNSTRUNG HEROES)? Perhaps it is Easy after all? Or could it be DeWitt? A police frame-up? A mysterious stranger? Who?

I thought the script by the director Carl Franklin, based on the novel of the same name by Walter Mosely, was too much of a period and mood piece and too little of a mystery. Although I did not guess the outcome, I did not try nor care much. I liked the show because of Denzel Washington's acting and not the totally forgettable mystery. There were several memorable lines. One of my favorites was Easy's philosophy: "A man once told me that you step out of your door in the morning, and you are already in trouble. The only question is 'are you on top of that trouble or not?'" The dialog as delivered, on the other hand, was frequently so thick that you almost needed subtitles to understand it.

As much as I liked Easy, there is a minor character named Mouse (Don Cheadle) that I liked even more. Mouse is a smalltime gangster that likes to kill people whenever possible. He is a firecracker with a short fuse that may explode at any moment, and yet he is extremely funny. One of my favorite lines of his is: "You said don't shot him, right? Well I didn't; I strangled him. If you didn't want me to kill him, why did you leave me alone with him?"

The director Carl Franklin also did ONE FALSE MOVE which was much more innovative and daring. In comparison, DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS is a nice little formula picture. It has some excellent performances in it by Cheadle and Washington, but the script rarely draws in the audience and the less said about the pathetic non-acting by Jennifer Beals, the better. Perhaps Beals should just sign up to do remakes of FLASHDANCE for the rest of her life since that is the only decent movie she ever made. Oh yes, the music by that old movie music master Elmer Berstein is effective as always. Of the over one hundred and fifty movies he has scored, my favorite of his remains THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.

Copyright 1995 Steve Rhodes

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