BY THE BOOK
In 1990, novelist Walter Mosley introduced the world to a tough, resourceful private detective going up against ruthless crime lords, corrupt politicians, femme fatales and antagonistic cops of the 1940s and ‘50s in the mold of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. The detective’s name is Easy Rawlins, and as a black man in the mostly white lineup of crime literature sleuths he brings an uncommon, riveting and relevant perspective.
As a huge fan of detective novels, I remember being thrilled to finally be able to read one that was well-written and engaging featuring African-Americans as the central characters. In addition to his deductive abilities, judicious use of strong-arm tactics, uncanny knack for getting out of tough situations and magnetism with the opposite sex – all traits the best gumshoes possess – Easy brings the specific burdens of being a black man seeking justice for others when he barely could expect justice for himself when needed. He has to be twice as smart as his adversaries within the case he’s working and in the society at large – so savvy that he can eliminate them entirely or make them see it’s in their best interests to go along with his best interests.
Other readers and critics were just as impressed with Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins mysteries, and even though it’s often difficult even today to greenlight major motion pictures featuring black principal characters, Mosley’s first Easy Rawlins’ novel, “Devil in a Blue Dress,” made it to the big screen in 1995. By that time there had already been three more mysteries in the series published, all successful. But the biggest boost to getting the movie made had to be the box office power of the man set to play Easy – Denzel Washington, who served as a co-producer as well.
Director Carl Franklin, who also wrote the screenplay, did a fine job of bringing Easy’s world of 1948 Los Angeles to life on the screen. After serving in WWII, Easy has purchased a house but can’t seem to find steady work to keep up his mortgage. Easy’s friend Joppy, who owns the local watering hole, introduces Easy to a man named Albright who needs help with a missing persons case. Albright, played with seedy abandon by Tom Sizemore, says he's working for a hotshot mayoral candidate whose fiancée, Daphne, is missing, but they don’t want to make a big fuss about it. Albright needs Easy because the fiancée, played by Jennifer Beals, has been known to hang around black clubs where Albright would not be given the time of day. Easy is reluctant at first because of his lack of experience and his lack of faith in Albright, but his lack of money wins out.
Of course, almost immediately after he starts asking around about Daphne, his troubles begin – troubles that escalate unrelentingly the way they do in detective stories until the case is solved. But although these troubles have a familiar air about them, the story is made fresh because of how Easy has to operate within the confines of the system and all the wonderful characters you meet along the way. It contains a motley crew of good-natured neighbors, oversexed vixens, ultraviolent thugs, evasive power brokers and, as referenced earlier, abusive cops.
In fairness, the cops are almost always abusive in detective stories – at least the ones that I’ve read and seen in movies. Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade nearly comes to blows with one of the cops working his case every time they see each other in “The Maltese Falcon.” They clearly don’t like each other, and the cop does hit Sam Spade in one scene, but even though you know they’d throw Spade in jail if Spade hit the cop back, the threat of what would happen to him in custody is not nearly as ominous as it would be for a black man in the same era. And considering the abuses and crimes against black men in police custody made public across the country in the last few years, times have not changed very much.
Easy faces his share of danger and racial prejudices, but he has at least one ally he can rely on – one of the best characters in the books and easily the best character in the movie – Easy’s best friend Mouse, played wonderfully by Don Cheadle. If there’s such a thing as an endearing sociopath, Mouse is it. But then, you’d only find him endearing if he was on your side; otherwise, you’d find him terrifying. There are no shades of gray with Mouse – you’re either his friend, or you’re his enemy. Just as Easy finds himself getting in over his head with the case, Mouse swoops in like a blessing and a curse – a blessing when circumstances call for hard ball, a curse when they call for patience and subtlety. Cheadle plays him with humor and menace, but because the menace is born out of a basic outlook of “These are just the consequences of crossing me,” it doesn’t come off as vicious as much as practical (although it may seem vicious to the poor soul who steps on Mouse’s shoes without apologizing).
But as much as I love superlative characters, unless you’re Terence Malick or Richard Linklater, I usually require a good plot, particularly in detective stories. The mystery is definitely satisfying, but it didn’t feel as compelling in the movie as it did in the book. It could be the story seemed more see-through because I knew it already, but that’s been true of other films I thought were better than the book.
Franklin definitely knows how to handle this kind of material. He did it brilliantly in his woefully little-seen 1992 film “One False Move” and again with Washington in 2003’s “Out of Time.” The film noir vibe was strong in “Devil in a Blue Dress” even without moody cinematography, but it lacked the gritty realism conveyed in Franklin's other films in this genre. There are some similarities to “Chinatown” because of the time period, location and one particular scene with the femme fatale, but I don’t mind them. I do think the element of danger and darkness would’ve been enhanced with a more vivid sense of people like the opposing mayoral candidates. And although I think highly of Washington’s acting ability, and he was solid in this movie, I couldn’t help feeling like there might have been another actor more suited to playing Easy. No one else comes to mind, but it’s a nagging thought.
Overall, I enjoyed the ride, though, and was anxious to see a few sequels. But “Devil in a Blue Dress” did not get a warm reception at the box office, and no one has taken up the banner of bringing Easy to the big screen since, which I think is a shame. If not the big screen, in the right hands, it could be a phenomenal series for HBO – a different kind of true detective.
DIRECTOR: Carl Franklin | HEADLINERS: Denzel Washington, Jennifer Beals, Tom Sizemore, Don Cheadle