ZOOT SLEUTH

Director Carl Franklin's 1992 crime thriller One False Move was a complex, fascinating and scarily unpredictable exploration of the tensions between the urban and the rural, between black and white, between criminals and police. While maintaining a harsh and violent moral tone, Franklin didn't allow himself the luxury of any stereotypes.

Franklin's new effort is Devil in a Blue Dress, which he adapted from the first of Walter Mosley's swift, proficient mystery novels featuring Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, a black private investigator going through his hard-boiled, Philip Marlowe-ish paces in Los Angeles in the years just after the Second World War. (President Clinton has called Mosley his favorite mystery writer, probably hoping it would create the same sort of vogue that JFK's casual comment about James Bond gave to Ian Fleming's books.)

Black detectives go back further in American movies than is generally realized--black sleuths were cracking cases in the early, poverty-row African-American cinema decades before Sidney Poitier's Virgil Tibbs or Richard Roundtree's Shaft. Indeed, Easy Rawlins could have seen some of these pictures before 1948, the year in which Devil in a Blue Dress is set.

What really makes Easy unusual among hard-boiled movie detectives is that he's a novice--the movie is about how he finds his calling. The special charm of Denzel Washington's smooth, likable performance is that he lets us see Easy's dangerous slip-ups and miscalculations as he shows us his essential shrewdness and aptitude for the work.

When the story begins, Easy, a combat veteran of the European theatre, is out of work, having lost his position at an aircraft factory. At the recommendation of a friend, he gets a job offer from a sinister white man (Tom Sizemore). He's asked to track down the vanished lover of prominent politico (Terry Kinney).

Easy's no fool; he can see that the deal must be shady on some level. But the money is too good to pass up. Easy has a mortgage payment due on his small suburban house--in the same sort of tidy L.A. suburb that now serves as a backdrop to drive-by shootings in films like Boyz N the Hood--and his need to be a homeowner is intense.

Pretty soon Easy tracks down the woman (Jennifer Beals), and, sure enough, she's wearing a blue dress. The title turns out to be a bit misleading, however; she's a femme fatale more sinned against than sinning. Shortly after meeting her, Easy realizes that the intrigue into which he's stumbled--which hinges on sex and race, and the political ramifications of both--has turned murderous, and that he's been intended either as patsy or additional victim.

Devil in a Blue Dress doesn't have the troubling depths of One False Move. The plot and its resolution are expertly crafted, but somewhat conventional--there are moments that recall Chinatown a bit too closely. The main pleasure of the film comes less from the plot than from Franklin's sense of period atmosphere, which is richly detailed and convincing, never corny or ersatz.

The other great pleasure is the acting. Washington's fine performance, poised and commanding yet touched with self-deprecating wit, carries the film, but many of the minor players are also strong. Beals is of no particular distinction, but Don Cheadle, who doesn't appear until the second half, is a riot as Easy's pal Mouse, an affable sociopath whom Easy reluctantly brings into the case for protection.

Cheadle, an impressive supporting regular on Picket Fences, is the wild card in the cast. He plays Mouse as a fellow for whom killing is no more difficult a job than delivering telegrams, yet who's so boyishly unassuming and engaging you can see how Easy looks past this failing. Because Mouse isn't frightening, he's terrifying.

 
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