Easy's Streets ZTC


Smoky and sultry, she draws you in and makes you hers. She promises you everything, then with a haughty laugh, betrays you, hurts you, dumps you. Still you come back for more, loving your degradation.

She is the heroine and central figure in Carl Franklin's winning adaptation of Walter Mosley's 1990 novel, "Devil in a Blue Dress."

And who is this devil in a blue dress? Is it Jennifer Beals? Like, no way. No, the lady of the title and the lady of the film is the lady who walks in beauty not like the night but of the night; she is night itself, with a promise of action and sex, a sense of mystery, a hint of conflict. She's also the shadowy noir look, of alleys lost in inky blackness, of the gleam of rain on bricks or the flicker of neon at the end of the avenue, or the orange OPEN ALL NIGHT sputtering incandescently in the blink of the just-arrived police strobes.

And that, really, is what lures Easy Rawlins out and into it, for the ride of his life and the revelation he may not want to face, which is how close, under the cosmetics of skin coloration, we all are.

Rawlins, played with graceful star authority by Denzel Washington, finds himself (though he can't know it) at the high-water mark of a style. The place and time is Los Angeles in the late '40s, when the raw West Coast rube city, grown fat and sassy with the war, was beginning to discover the riches of the night.

On the white side of town, Raymond Chandler was chronicling it all with his Philip Marlowe novels. It took a while, but in the 1990s, along came Mosley for a retro-look at the same period with Easy Rawlins.

Easy doesn't want to be a detective.

He only wants what any soldier returning from the wars would want: a nice little house, a place in the community, a bar to drink in, a job that promises security. He's killed enough Germans to earn such a thing, but it's America in the '40s, a decade before the heroes of the civil rights movement would begin to change all this, so Easy's place is melancholy. Plus, he needs to pay his mortgage.

Thus when a white man comes offering a hundred bucks for Easy to look for a politician's fiance -- named, and how's this for an old-fashioned moniker, "Daphne Monet" (Beals) -- who has disappeared in the black area, it seems like a no-sweat kind of deal to Easy.

All he's got to do is mosey around, asking this question or that. But the no-sweat deal almost instantly becomes a big-sweat deal when the woman who tells him where to find Daphne ends up dead and Easy is one of the suspects.

The cops, then as now, don't show much patience when the suspect is black. The guy who set him up now suddenly wants to play puppet master. And Daphne Monet, ever tantalizing, appears to be hovering just out of view.

If you've seen "The Big Sleep" or "Chinatown" or "D.O.A.," you'll know where you are. The plotting is densely coiled through a complex society, in which blacks serve whites and gunmen serve the rich and the cops serve the concept not of justice but order. Mean streets? The whole damn place is mean.

A Bible's worth of sins are eventually evoked: Besides murder and the ubiquitous racism, there's homosexual child molestation, political corruption, bad hair and harsh language. Perhaps the strangest thing that happens is the arrival of Mouse (Don Cheadle). Franklin plays Mouse for laughs, but the concept isn't really very funny. Mouse, like most of the other characters, is up from Texas. He's a shooter. He'll ventilate anything regardless. His only virtue is an unswerving loyalty to Easy.

He's a handy guy to have around when mobsters are looking for you, but he never really feels organic to the story. He feels more like a symbol of the author's ambivalence about violence: People need killing in his story, but Mosley doesn't want Easy turning into Dirty Harry, so Mouse shows up, almost like a creature from Easy's id.

As a bit of plotting, "Devil in a Blue Dress" isn't a patch on either "Sleep" or "Chinatown," and indeed the complexity feels fake and the Big Revelation is easy to see a mile away. But what does work brilliantly in the film is Carl Franklin's evocation of the time and place; it's so good, I wish he'd thrown out Mosley's Chandleresque story and come up with one of his own.

What endures in the memory after the petty plot details vanish, however, is what the film is really all about. It's an evocation of a lost world of black America, like a lost black empire in Africa. Much of the action takes place on a restored Central Avenue in L.A., a panorama of black accomplishment that's truly something to behold.

The film therefore has such a sense of loss, it's almost palpable. It's not about boyz n' the hood but men in the neighborhood and what became of them when they tried to make their way in a country that didn't care a lot.

'Devil in a Blue Dress.'

Starring Denzel Washington and Jennifer Beals.

Directed by Carl Franklin.

Rated R (Violence, sexual innuendo, profanity.)

Sun Score: ***

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