DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS (1995)

Devil in a Blue Dress, director Carl Franklin's new film noir, stunningly evokes the look and feel of Los Angeles in the 1940s. But, despite the best efforts of both the immensely talented Denzel Washington, who stars as down-and-out citizen turned gumshoe Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, and the set designer, the film eventually falls flat, as its creators seem satisfied with simply making a black Chinatown.

From the Norman Rockwell innocence of Easy's post-war neighborhood to the pre-Kerouac cool of the smoky jazz club where Easy begins his search for wealthy socialite Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), Devil succeeds in recapturing the mood of an extinct city of angels. Easy's relentless pursuit takes him and us through a variety of L.A. locales, each more exquisite (and dangerous) than the last. Along the way, Denzel's superior handling of the confused, abused, and steadfastly defiant Easy Rawlins just manages to keep a host of talented supporting characters from stealing scenes -- characters like Easy's brutal, mysterious employer (Tom Sizemore) and Easy's old comrade-in-arms (and L.A.'s original gangster), Mouse (Don Cheadle).

Unfortunately, Devil ultimately suffers from a weak script and direction that is entirely too derivative of Roman Polanski's classic, a fact made even more depressing by director Carl Franklin's brilliant first film, One False Move. Everything from plot twists to camera angles mimics the Jack Nicholson-Faye Dunaway hit -- if only the setting and the voice-over matched, perhaps the similarities could be overlooked. At a climactic moment, Daphne's tearful screams of "He's...my...my brother!" are enough to make any copyright lawyer wince. And Denzel sports a swollen jaw through the second half of the film just as Nicholson did his slashed nose.

The film shines in the few scenes where it leaves Chinatown behind and focuses on the difficulty of being a black gumshoe in racially divided L.A. While Nicholson's Jake Geddes had an ex-partner on the police force to aid him, Denzel must contend with abusive L.A. cops who would do Mark Fuhrman proud. Most of the time, however, the movie is trapped in the precedent of its film noir forebear. Though succeeding in paying homage to a classic genre, Devil in a Blue Dress fails to resurrect or transcend it.

[First Draft appeared in Harvard Independent, 1995.]

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