All that stands between “Devil in a Blue Dress” and cinematic greatness is a cop-out happy ending and the occasional patch of stilted dialogue.
Most everything else rings true in this absorbing and convoluted detective drama, which finds Denzel Washington in top sympathetic form as a dedicated private eye.
Even the time setting is vintage film noir: Postwar America was fissured by racial bigotries and Cold War paranoia even as it reveled in a population boom amid general prosperity.
The era retains a charge of troubled intensity that is just right for a good, foreboding mystery.
Army veteran Easy Rawlins (Washington, as the character from Walter Mosley’s novels) has tried more sedate ways of making a living, but a job dispute obliges him to accept a sleazy private-investigating commission: He will find the mysterious Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), a lady of scandalous appeal.
Easy’s search leads him into Los Angeles’ Central Avenue district, which in those days was a bustling hub of African-American community life - an area that has been re-created in loving detail for this film.
A helpful contact (Lisa Nicole Carson) experiences a setback common in movies of adventure and intrigue, and from there Easy stumbles into the grimmer implications of a case that involves political corruption, racial discrimination, racketeering and murder among other dirty deeds.
It is understood that somebody could get killed here at any moment.
The appearance of Jennifer Beals as the elusive Daphne almost makes one wish she had stayed veiled in mystery. Beals and Washington seem ill at ease with one another, and scenarist/director Carl Franklin gives them dialogue that plays like written lines, not natural conversation.
That drawback, compounded by a resolution that ties things up too neatly, compromises the worth of an otherwise dandy mystery.
Washington seems perfectly in his element, and Tom Sizemore radiates pure sleaze as the sneak who sets Easy on the danger trail. Don Cheadle has some scene-stealing moments as an old pal of the hero’s. The musical score comes alive with such postwar blues masters as T-Bone Walker, Roy Milton & His Solid Senders, Pee Wee Crayton, and Benjamin “Bullmoose” Jackson.
xxxx “DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS” Location: Newport, Lincoln Heights and Coeur d’Alene cinemas Credits: Writen and directed by Carl Franklin, starring Denzel Washington, Jennifer Beals, Tom Sizemore Running time: 1:42 Rating: R
OTHER VIEWS Here’s what another critic says about “Devil in a Blue Dress:” Jay Boyar/Orlando Sentinel: Franklin is fortunate to have Denzel Washington leading his cast. An understated performer, Washington can do a lot with the slightest smile or the tiniest scowl. There’s a fundamental heroism about this actor, a basic decency that helps you overlook whatever moral lapses his character’s business requires. Washington carries himself with such nobility that you always want to believe the best about him. And with Washington in the role, you feel that Easy Rawlins has a right to believe the best too. Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: Washington’s understated performance is matched by Don Cheadle’s hilarious work as his clownish, violent friend, Mouse. Beals is not quite up to their level - the movie would be better if her mystery women were more interesting - and somehow “Devil” never quite convinces you it’s the 1940s.