Directed by Carl Franklin

Starring Denzel Washington, Jennifer Beals

"Devil in a Blue Dress"

Opened: September 29, 1995 | Rated: R

Easy Rawlins is the hero and narrator of a series of detective novels by Walter Mosley set in the late 1940s. He is a carefully concocted character -- a black World War II soldier who has recently returned to Los Angeles and is looking for work, but Easy also harks back to the great private eyes like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade.

"Devil in a Blue Dress," which opened yesterday, stars Denzel Washington as Easy Rawlins, and he more than does the part justice.

While mixing in ample amounts of urban black culture, Washington shows a flair for the traditional '40s detective. He has a talent for the prerequisite voice-over, the tough-guy dialogue just rolls off his tongue and he could hold his own in a fight with Robert Mitchum.

Not to mention he looks smashing in a fedora and a double-breasted suit.

In this, the first of four Mosley stories about Easy Rawlins, Easy is hired by a mayoral candidate's muscle man to find Daphne Monet, a mysterious femme fatale (of course) played by Jennifer Beals (known best for "Flashdance"). She is the girlfriend of a candidate who has been blackmailed into dropping out of the race.

Daphne has gotten her hands on incriminating photos of her lover's opponent and now she is on the run, with Easy and both candidates in hot pursuit.

"Devil in a Blue Dress" never passes on an opportunity for darkly funny dialogue or sexual tension, so when Easy later finds Daphne in the middle of this back-and-forth blackmail scheme, she tries to seduce him and our stars are afforded a chance to try their hands at Bogart-Bacall style banter on the topic of guns: "What do you prefer to use as your weapon," says Easy. "Why don't you search me and find out?" Daphne responds.

With the exception of her delivery of this one line though, Beals isn't quite up to the job of fleshing Daphne out into something deeper. She carries the fashions of the day well, but she doesn't have the snap or charm of her "dangerous woman" predecessors. Although to be fair to Beals, with the little screen time she gets as the title character, the role of Daphne must have been considerably diluted in the translation from book to film.

"Devil in a Blue Dress" is the first of Mosley's novels put to film, and director Carl Franklin ("One False Move") has given the film the gritty, moody look established as the genre standard by directors like John Huston and Howard Hawks.

The flavor of the '40s is so prevalent that several scenes almost beg to be in black and white. Especially close-ups of Washington while he's driving that cause involuntary Bogart flashbacks.

Because of it's successful mix of fresh elements and dedication to the detective genre, "Devil in a Blue Dress" is a triumphant big-screen return for the pulp fiction private dick. Producing studio Tri-Star knows it, too -- they've optioned two other Easy Rawlins books to shoot as sequels.

This review appeared in the Daily Republic, Fairfield, CA.

©1995 All Rights Reserved.

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