Two, the Hard Way

A black Philip Marlowe: It's an idea so simple you wonder why nobody thought of it sooner.

Writer-director Carl Franklin's sensational Devil in a Blue Dress casts Denzel Washington in the role of hard-boiled, soon-to-be private investigator Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins in the film adaption of Walter Mosley's absorbing debut novel of the same name. It's 1948; Rawlins has relocated to Los Angeles from his native Texas after fighting in World War II. He takes pride in his house, his car, and his work as a machinist at an aircraft company. But Easy quickly realizes the tenuousness of his middle-class status when he loses his job over a dispute with his white foreman. Suddenly the beloved house and car are just a payment away from being repossessed. As his character puts it in voice-over narration: "It was summer, 1948, and I needed money."

When a shifty white man named DeWitt Albright offers Easy big bucks to track down Daphne Monet -- a mysterious beauty who has run off from her rich and powerful boyfriend and has been seen keeping company on the black side of town -- Rawlins reluctantly accepts. "Walk out your door in the morning and you're mixed up in something," Easy philosophizes. "The only thing you can really worry about is if you get mixed up to the top or not." Easy walks out his door and directly into a web of murder, blackmail, racist cops, and dirty politicians. Mixed up right to the top.

Denzel Washington is the perfect choice for Mosley's protagonist. Washington may not have the world-weary charm of Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep or the volatile, cynical edge of Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, but he's a fine actor and a damn handsome man with a gift for playing Everymen with hidden reservoirs of strength. Easy Rawlins, for example, is an honest man who once killed people for his country but now prefers simple pleasures such as puttering in his yard or sitting on his porch and watching the world go by. Washington was born to play the role.

As good as Washington is, however, his performance is not the film's most memorable. That distinction belongs to the heretofore little-known Don Cheadle. Every now and then a supporting actor comes along and just nails a part so perfectly that it catapults him to stardom. Think Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, Samuel L. Jackson in Jungle Fever, or Ray Liotta in Something Wild. Cheadle, who has previously only nibbled at motion picture success with bit work in The Meteor Man, Colors, and Hamburger Hill, gleefully bites into Devil in a Blue Dress as Mouse, Easy's trigger-happy sidekick from Texas. The screen lights up every time Mouse appears on-screen. If you have read Mosley's novel, then you already knew that while Easy was the hero, Mouse was the man. But upstaging Denzel Washington at the top of his game is no mean feat; Cheadle brazenly steals this movie from its acclaimed star.

In fact, from Tom Sizemore's slippery, sadistic DeWitt Albright to Lisa Nicole Carson's voluptuous temptress, Coretta James, the performances here are uniformly excellent -- with one glaring exception: Jennifer Beals as the devil of the title. The role calls for an exotic, drop-dead looker, the kind of woman who could cause honorable men to commit unspeakable crimes just to curry her favor: Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not; Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity; Kathleen Turner in Body Heat; Jessica Rabbit in anything. Jennifer Beals just doesn't cut it.

Without splitting hairs about the differences between book and movie, suffice it to say that Carl Franklin's film faithfully captures the mood and, for the most part, re-creates the characters that made Mosley's mystery novel such a pip. But he takes liberties with the plot that make for a more linear story at the expense of a few interesting shades of gray. In the book Rawlins, in keeping with the conventions of the private detective genre (Easy is not yet an investigator when the story opens but takes a liking to the sleuthing business and considers making it his full-time occupation by book's end), falls hard for the charms of femme fatale Daphne Monet (Beals); but he wards off her advances in the motion picture. Perhaps the decision to cast Beals had something to do with that. (Or, conversely, perhaps it was decided that since no sparks would fly between Easy and Daphne, the production could make do with a less-than-gorgeous actress.) Additionally, Franklin turns one character into an N-word-spouting racist in order to amplify his evilness; Mosley avoided such black-and-white characterization and obvious button-pushing.

But Franklin succeeds in creating a vibrant picture of black Los Angeles in the postwar era, from the illicit gin joints and backroom nightclubs right down to the traffic lights, parking meters, and bus benches.

Easy Rawlins walks the streets of a once-vibrant community, battling crooks, cops, and racism every step of the way. On balance, Franklin, whose riveting One False Move was one of the best films of 1992, has done Mosley proud. This Devil is a hell of a movie.

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