I know it's film noir made with great skill, but it's hard to care about anyone in this self-conscious period piece.
"Devil in A Blue Dress" is a serious effort that is self-conscious in its worthiness. Cameraman Tak Fujimoto's dark film is rich in atmosphere, so much so that it becomes an end in itself. The cars of 1948 may be right, but they are shiny, new, and clean--collectors' items cruising a Los Angeles set.
Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington), a downtrodden war vet, tries to make a buck as a newly minted detective prowling a landscape of alleys, bars, and treachery. It's all here: the one-dimensional gangsters, the honest guy seduced by quick money, the telephones that ring with ominous lure. The movie tips its hat to the grand genre and then trips, because nothing makes us care much, one way or the other, about the characters.
In a detective story, we need to root for someone, or at least hope for the defeat of his enemy. But in this one, people sneak in and out of each other's lives and houses brandishing clubs, fists, and guns at people they don't even know. They surprise each other and beat each other to pulp--especially poor Easy who bleeds continually throughout the movie.
Easy's assignment is to find Daphne (Jennifer Beals), who has escaped from her life as mistress to a sleazy state politician and disappeared into the labyrinth that is postwar black Los Angeles. When DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) offers Easy a hundred bucks to find her, he is hiring a tour guide for territory a white man could never negotiate. Easy's only qualification for the job is that, because he is black, he will know where to look. It's a clever, if utterly cynical, twist.
But when a character says of racial prejudice and police brutality that "we fought two world wars to get rid of this," we watch a writer make a bad mistake. Neither world war was fought for America's commitment to racial equality. Americans willing to march and work for that belief surfaced in numbers only in the 50s, and we can't pretend our favorite detectives from the 40s embraced the moral imperatives of a much later time.
There's more to the credibility problem: Jennifer Beals's Daphne has none of the style or pizzaz essential for the centerpiece. She is the lightning rod, the character who has to be a firecracker to explain the motivations of the people swirling around her. Instead, she fizzles and brings the movie down.
Just as we feel mired in darkness, the film introduces Mouse (Don Cheadle), Easy's loyal co-conspirator. With his golden teeth and quirky values, Cheadle goes all out and succeeds--too late.
I know it's film noir made with great skill, but it's hard to care about anyone in this self-conscious period piece. Anyone with a hankering to see this era through a sentimental prism might do well to turn to the tube and look for Bogart and Edward G. Robinson.
Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 491
Studio : Tristar
Rating : R
Running Time: 1h42m
Copyright (c) Illusion
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