Although even his supporters have to concede that Bill Clinton’s judgment is erratic, his taste in popular fiction outclasses that of his predecessors. His championing of Walter Mosley’s crime novels catapulted the then-obscure writer’s work onto the best-seller list, just as JFK helped to popularize Ian Fleming’s adolescent-snob James Bond thrillers and Reagan attracted readers to Tom Clancy’s paranoid spy-snoozers.
Caught up in the media frenzy of Clinton’s inaugural, I read Mosley’s first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, with considerable pleasure. Narrator/protagonist Easy Rawlins, a black World War II veteran struggling to survive in postwar Los Angeles, offers a fresh social and moral perspective on the hard-boiled Chandler/Cain/Ellroy terrain of Southern California decadence. Mosley’s depiction of the culture of L.A.’s Central Avenue, arguably as rich as that of Harlem’s renaissance two decades earlier but little documented and largely forgotten, recasts familiar thriller mechanisms in an unhackneyed historical context, and his economical, rhythmic prose keeps the novel moving at a smooth clip. The book’s major flaw is its author’s obtrusive didacticism. Every 20 or 30 pages, Mosley inserts minitreatises about the humiliation and exploitation endured by blacks in white, racist society. These homiletic passages, superimposed upon the narrative, become increasingly gratuitous, as though Mosley lacked confidence in his readers’ ability to empathize with the plight of his characters. Although I enjoyed the novel, I didn’t feel compelled to read the remaining books in the series, as I did when introduced to the more subversive, less uplifting books of Charles Willeford and Jim Thompson.
In writer/director Carl Franklin’s long-anticipated screen adaptation of Devil in a Blue Dress, Mosley’s moralizing has been pruned away until the foozled closing sequence. Like the novel, it’s a solid, well-crafted thriller that, for different reasons, falls short of realizing its full potential.
Following a mesmerizing credit sequence—cinematographer Tak Fujimoto’s camera floats over a panoramic mural of 1948 Central Avenue while T-Bone Walker sings “West Side Baby”—we’re introduced to Easy (Denzel Washington) at a moment of crisis. He’s just been dismissed from his aircraft industry job and now risks losing his prized possession—the modest but comfortable bungalow he’s purchased on the G.I. Bill. Threatened with impending eviction, he accepts $100 from Dewitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), a shady white stranger, to discover the whereabouts of enigmatic Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), a mayoral candidate’s paramour known to frequent Central Avenue’s jazz joints and after-hours clubs. Before his quest is over, he encounters racist cops, blackmailers, and politicians with dark secrets, and inadvertently causes the deaths of several of his friends.
There’s no denying Washington’s charismatic screen presence, nor his obvious enthusiasm for portraying a man struggling to maintain his ethical code in a ruthless environment. But here, as in other recent performances, he runs the risk of becoming this generation’s Gregory Peck—uncommonly handsome and consummately professional, but excessively dignified and a bit juiceless. (Washington’s concern about maintaining a seemly public image might explain why Easy’s sexual marathon with Daphne—the book’s erotic centerpiece—has been chastely excised from the movie.) He’s got Easy’s superego down pat, but the character’s more impulsive dimensions—represented by the “other voice” that speaks to him throughout the novel—elude him.
As in Laura, Beals’ femme fatale is discussed constantly, but does not appear until the film’s midpoint. Her eventual materialization is disappointing. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect a noir goddess like Gene Tierney, let alone the sublime Jane Greer, but it’s a major letdown when we finally meet this wan, angular, inexpressive brunette—the polar opposite of the novel’s fair-haired, blue-green-eyed temptress—who bears an unfortunate passing resemblance to Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine. Beals’ casting also spoils one of the plot’s biggest twists. Moviegoers aware of the actress’s background—and I must tread on thin ice here—are unlikely to be surprised when Daphne’s “secret” is exposed.
An energetic supporting cast partially compensates for the rectitude of the leading players. As Mouse, Easy’s casually brutal Houston homeboy, Don Cheadle walks off with every scene in which he appears; he’s the protagonist’s guardian devil, remorseless yet uproariously funny. Sizemore—a smiling cougar—oozes quiet menace, and Maury Chaykin and Terry Kinney offer brief, telling cameos as two politicians—one perverted, the other spineless. Lisa Nicole Carson contributes some lovely moments as Coretta, the fun-loving, ill-fated girlfriend of Easy’s plump, God-fearing buddy, Dupree (Jernard Burks.)
Devil in a Blue Dress is a meticulously fabricated movie; Gary Frutkoff’s atmospheric production designs and Sharen Davis’ evocative costumes shimmer in the natural light of Fujimoto’s camerawork. Halfway through, there’s a long-held shot of the exterior of Easy’s house and lawn bathed in late afternoon sunlight that is so precise and poetic as to make an indelible impression on any viewer’s memory. Elmer Bernstein, a pioneer in the fusion of jazz and symphonic music for movie scores, blends the dense harmonic textures of his own compositions with period recordings by Jimmy Witherspoon, Duke Ellington, Pee Wee Crayton, Thelonious Monk, and Amos Milburn.
Mosley ends his novel on a morally ambiguous note, but Franklin, mistakenly I think, tacks on an affirmative coda in which Easy joins his neighbors on a sunny afternoon in a ceremony of black empowerment. Prideful of the possession, however precarious, of their own homes, their personal chunks of the American Dream, they gather in an impromptu block party, celebrating their political and spiritual liberation from the chains of servitude. (It is not lost on the viewer, however, that nearly a half-century later, similar L.A. neighborhoods would be leveled in the wake of the Rodney King uprising.) This triumphant finale exposes the ragged seams of Mosley and Franklin’s attempt to integrate social consciousness into the dog-eat-dog universe of film noir, in which all streets are mean and all efforts to outwit fate prove futile.