September 29, 1995
Web posted at: 11:45 p.m. EDT
From Movie Reviewer Carol Buckland
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Set in L.A. in 1948, this engrossing film prowls film noir territory with a special style. It tells the complex (sometimes just plain convoluted) tale of how a laid-off black machinist named "Easy" Rawlins gets sucked into tracking down the runaway girlfriend of a rich and powerful white guy.
There's low-down dirty doings in high places. There's lies told like truths and truths that are the ultimate in corruption. There's sex and smoke and struggle. Sure, the strokes are familiar if you've spent any time in Hammett or Chandler territory (much less if you've seen the classic movie, Chinatown). But the perspective -- noir from a black man's point of view -- is fresh.
Carl Franklin (One False Move) is a good-and-getting-better director. Reteamed with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, he creates a ripe and riveting atmosphere. You can practically taste and smell and feel the images you're seeing on screen.
Franklin (who scripted in addition to directing) also knows how to handle actors. Denzel Washington does some of the best work of his already strong career as Rawlins. He's a smart, strong black man trying to function (survive, really) in a segregated society, and he reveals the balancing act this requires. This is a rich role, and Washington is terrific in it. Word is, he'll be playing Easy again. That's something to anticipate!
Tom Sizemore is scary as a vicious white gangster who uses and abuses Rawlins. He comes on friendly one moment, then switches gears and becomes a racist enemy.
The scene-stealer in the proceedings is Don Cheadle who plays a wormy friend of Easy's who turns out to be a stone-cold psycho. He's as funny as he is frightening. Some of the best moments in the film involve Easy trying to persuade this little guy that killing is not always the optimum form of communication.
One casting weak spot: Jennifer (Flashdance) Beals. She's the femme fatale Easy is seeking. She's got the so-ripe- she's-gotta-be-rotten look, but her acting skills aren't quite up to the challenge of her role. Her presence doesn't linger or convince.
In addition to director Franklin and cinematographer Fujimoto, this picture sports a lot of behind-the-camera talent. Elmer Bernstein delivers yet another richly evocative score, Carole Kravetz does effective-but-not intrusive editing, and Gary Frutkoff's production design is first-class.
Devil in a Blue Dress isn't perfect, but it's a powerful period piece and given the current doings in L.A....it resonates beyond the usual limits of its genre.
Devil in a Blue Dress is rated R. That's for violence, foul language and sexual situations. Running time: 102 minutes.
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