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Bright moves, a dark movie Black noir: Detective story with an African-American accent goes big time as director Carl Franklin takes 'Devil in a Blue Dress' from novel to movie.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's early to tell, of course, but it looks as though director Carl Franklin has yet to make even one false move.

Here he is at 46, just about to go big-time with a $22 million studio film ("Devil in a Blue Dress") with an authentic movie star (Denzel Washington), all based on a book by President Clinton's favorite mystery writer (Walter Mosley). It's enough to take your breath away, but it doesn't seem to have taken his away. He's worked too hard.

Franklin achieved a kind of cult reputation in 1991 with "One False Move," a tough, bitter little thriller that completely transcended both its genre and its director's identity as an African-American.

The movie, all but abandoned by its producers and turned down by the Sundance Film Festival, seemed fated to head straight to video when it was discovered by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on their syndicated television show. They gave it the boost that saved it from death, and it went on to great reviews and great business, by art house standards.

"After that," recalls Franklin, who'd come to Washington with Mosley to advance "Devil in a Blue Dress," which opened Friday, "I got all kinds of offers. But I didn't want any of them. I wanted 'Devil.' "

"Devil in a Blue Dress" was at that time one of the notoriously unmakeable movies in Hollywood. Based on Mosley's first novel, it was the story of a laid-off aircraft line worker and war vet in the Los Angeles of 1948 who discovered that he had a talent for detection. Ezekial "Easy" Rawlins was tough, sharp and smart, a kind of black Philip Marlowe, who, when asked by a mysterious white man to find a woman who seems to have vanished into the mists and swirls of L.A., goes on a womanhunt that takes him into the heart of a dark political conspiracy.

The story is set on the edgy boundary between black and white Americas, in a time when racism was bald and every man knew his exact place in a rigid social order. The two races rarely mixed except as master and servant or employer and employee. But Easy is a kind of transcendent character, who's able to move between the worlds, knows the rules of each, and has the wherewithal to get things done. A generation before the civil rights workers, he's very much like Raymond Chandler's own description of a hero: a man who walks unafraid down mean streets.

"My producer, Jesse Beaton, found the book while we were waiting to make 'One False Move,' " says Franklin. "I loved it right away. When I read it, I thought Walter had been in my back yard, because I felt such a kinship. It was in some respect the story of my life. It was about people who'd come up from the South -- Texas, where my people were originally from -- and tried to regain their sense of community but found it so difficult. That was so interesting to me."

But the book was then mired in the swamp of "development," which means it was passing through the hands of various other directors and screenwriters as studio producers kept trying to put together a "package" that would attract a major star. Mosley himself took a whack at the screenplay and failed.

So throughout the entire process of "One False Move," Franklin was simultaneously tracking "Devil in a Blue Dress." He watched as he went from "One False Move" to a well-received HBO mini-series, "Laurel Avenue" ("a safe next move," he recalls), about a black family in St. Paul, Minn. Eventually, Jonathan ("Silence of the Lambs") Demme signed on as an executive producer of the project, and he contacted Franklin -- a star now because of "One False Move" -- and offered him the assignment.

"If I'd factored in the difficulty," Franklin recalls, "I might not have made it. But it was one of those projects that presented an enigma to me and that I was bound to find the answer for. That's when you know you don't have a choice."

But he also says that he was so mesmerized by the project, so swept up by it, that if he hadn't made it, "It would have been like riding at 50 miles an hour and going into reverse."

And, he says with a laugh, "Someone wanted to know what Demme's job was. And Jonathan said, 'My job is to keep the studio from [messing] with Carl!' He let us make our own movie."

The studio never did mess with Carl. He himself wrote the screenplay and directed the film as he wanted it to be directed.

"[The film] is never 'just like the book,' " says Mosley. "But Carl has caught the essence, the heart of it. But it is from a different point of view. There's a tension between the book and the movie. Each shows you more."

"When you adapt a book," says Franklin, who was a well-known television actor during the '80s, appearing on such shows as "The A-Team," "you try and find the essential theme of the novel, the most cohesive thrust of the book. It's not easy. There was a love story in the book, but that didn't come through. My job was to find some way to translate the book, not representing it in a line-by-line reading, but to represent its spirit."

But again, nothing has been easy. The film was originally planned for release six months earlier, but was pulled off Tri-Star's list and rescheduled for last Friday.

"Well, we had to wait for Denzel," says Franklin. "Then it was a real rush to get it done by spring. I decided I needed a few more days of re-shoot. Finally, there was a shake-up at Tri-Star. At least this way, we get time to set up a good campaign for it. There's no way it could have been a summer movie."

Indeed, "Devil in a Blue Dress" has one distinction up front, something that puts it in league with others of the private eye genre, from "The Big Sleep" to "Chinatown": You have to pay attention to its convoluted plot; you have to concentrate. It assumes you're not an idiot.

Both Franklin and Mosley feel it meets a need in black America.

"We are looking for our history," Mosley says, "which hasn't been told. We're cut out of the main story. I wanted to tell part of that story."

"And when our stories intersect," says Franklin, "that's when we begin to uncover a universal. That's when we're getting information together that's worth taking to other people."

The movie has a strong sense of a lost past. One of its most remarkable accomplishments is a physical one: the way it creates a vibrant portrait of black Los Angeles in the late 1940s.

"We used more vintage cars than any movie ever made," says Franklin with a laugh.

The cars are featured in an epic re-creation of Central Avenue, the main artery of African-American culture at that time and place, and it's a great shot: block after block of black businesses, black theaters, black night clubs, thriving black enterprises.

"I was there in the '50s," recalls Franklin, "but that was right at the end. I think in a lot of ways, it was a loss. We were able to go to work, to have good, solid families where everyone knew everyone else's business. But then there came a period of divestment, when the companies and factories all moved to the suburbs and blacks couldn't follow because of prejudicial real-estate practices. The cohesive Southern families disintegrated. I don't know what the answer is. I just feel enormous sadness and nostalgia."

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