Wednesday 28 March 2007

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) Carl Franklin

Walter Mosley wrote a number of books about Easy Rawlins, black detective in southern California in the era following World War II, and this movie is based on the first of them. It's 1948 and Ezekiel Rawlins is a black machinist from Houston a couple of months behind on his mortgage payments and looking for work. He finds his way into the seedy side of employment through a bartender who introduces him to DeWitt Albright, a man who's in the business of 'doing favours for friends'. This time he needs to find a woman by the name of Daphne Monet, a white woman who prefers the company of those with much darker skin. Naturally he finds plenty more than he thought he was looking for.

Denzel Washington had very much arrived when he made this film, with Malcolm X and Philadelphia behind him, among others. He's very good indeed here, which is hardly surprising now that I've seen a good deal of his other films, somehow at once thoroughly able, ballsy and controlled yet still vulnerable and out of his element. Tom Sizemore may be even better as Albright, not just believably sleazy and open to do anything for a buck, but believably crazy both as a fox and a loon. When things get dangerous Rawlins brings in an old friend called Mouse who matches Albright on the lunatic fringe. There are two mayoral candidates slugging it out and both are looking for Daphne. Terry Kinney plays the one bowing out of the race quietly and suspiciously, half nervous as hell and half the man in charge. Maury Chaykin plays the other reeking awesomely of fake honesty.

This is a film noir through and through, and in fact given the colour of the skins involved this is more of a film noir than any other film noir. It's a good one too: complex, dangerous and ugly, just as it should be. Of course wherever there's a film noir there isn't just ugliness but a beautiful leading lady too and this one is no exception. Jennifer Beals has a few key parts to play in this one and she lives up to all of them. It's Washington's show but the rest of the cast are too fine to let him steal it.

The only other great character here is the subject. There are a lot of race films out there and to be honest most of them overdo the whole thing because they're racial stories. This is a detective story, a film noir, that just happens to be a racial story as well. It all works so much better when it's not being done as propaganda.

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