Bedeviled by Color

Denzel Washington, as Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, moves through Devil in a Blue Dress with a poker face only rarely disturbed by a grin or grimace. Despite his physical brawn, he's not a swaggerer or a bully, but a cautious, intelligent man who understands that to be reserved is to survive. Easy's world is the jazz-happy, neon-lit black neighborhoods of 1948 Los Angeles — a city ruled, then as now, by a white plutocracy whose army, the Police Department, consists of Nazi-like storm troopers. The movie's cops might not have Mark Fuhrman's deadly handsomeness, but in their arrogance and savage racism they're indistinguishable from him.

Devil was directed by Carl Franklin, who adapted the screenplay from a suspense novel by Walter Mosley. The movie's first-person voice-over and musing saxophone score give it an air of stylish menace; it looks like a real-world version of Dick Tracy, with palm trees. At night the city appears as if photographed through smoked blue glass, and while blue is generally a cool tint, in Devil it hints at a balmy desert warmth in which skullduggery is afoot.

As in all compelling stories, the stakes in Devil are real, though this depth isn't apparent at the outset. The movie opens with Easy's being fired from his defense-industry job by a shoulder-shrugging white foreman who looks through Easy as if he isn't there. The foreman perfectly enacts the schizophrenic racial attitudes many white people have long held in this country since the days of slavery: that blacks are people who can be talked to, employed, contended with, and even loved — until, in the interest of racial hierarchy, the inconvenient fact of their humanness must be masked by treating them as fairly sophisticated animals.

Easy knows the score, but he's got a mortgage to pay. When Albright (Tom Sizemore), a greaseball in a loud suit, shows up at Easy's neighborhood bar, offering good money if Easy will help him track down a mysterious white woman named Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals, looking like Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford), Easy can't say no.

Soon he wishes he had, no matter how fat Albright's wad of cash might be. Easy's lover, Coretta (Lisa Nicole Carson), is found murdered just hours after he's slept with her. Easy was the last person to see her alive, and he's a black man: That's enough for the LAPD.

There's a classic good-cop, bad-cop interrogation. Bad cop gives Easy a sharp crack across the neck, but he doesn't confess because he can't, and they let him go. Staggering along the street, he sees a limousine pull up. It looks like a mob hit about to happen, but it's just Terell (Maury Chaykin), a candidate for mayor, nestled like a pasha in the back of the yachtlike auto. Easy is ushered in for an audience, in the course of which Terell discloses that Coretta was a “friend” of his. He's deeply disturbed by her murder.

“I believe you,” Terell says unenthusiastically when Easy avows his innocence. It's like the moment in which a mobster kisses the cheek of the man he wants whacked, but Terell lets Easy out of the car, in the middle of an ill-lit warehouse district that looks like one of Chicago's bleaker industrial neighborhoods. His offer of cab fare is rejected; the car speeds off, and Easy stumbles home.

The movie's plot twists are sharp and fast enough to induce a faint dizziness, but for Easy, events trace a corkscrew path downward into the city's squalid mayoral and racial politics — which are joined like Siamese twins. Everyone is in pursuit of Daphne, who was the lover of Terell's opponent in the campaign, Todd Carter (Terry Kinney), and who carries some strange racial secret in her background.

Easy finally meets her, in her room at a hotel. She's reputed to have a taste for black men, and her glances across Easy's body tingle with sexual electricity. (Denzel Washington is in great shape, but his 1990s body seems out of place in its period setting. It's like seeing, amid the elaborately authentic stage sets, an extra wearing a pair of Reeboks.)

But behind Daphne's toothy smile, she's troubled and elusive, too, and she persuades Easy to drive with her to the Beverly Hills home of her friend Richard McGee (Scott Lincoln). They find him lying murdered in his ransacked house. Daphne panics and speeds off in the car, leaving Easy to find a way out of what is essentially enemy country patrolled by suspicious white cops.

Things get wilder. Easy's house starts to look like the bus depot; everyone in the movie seems to break in at some point. Every time Easy puts the key in the lock it's like a surprise party waiting inside — except instead of revelry, there are people with murder in their eyes.

Devil smoothly combines genuine suspense with moments of farce and Eddie Murphy-like physical comedy, but it draws its real strength from the racial fracturing that divides Los Angeles as surely as do the basin's earthquake faults. The idea that one of the candidates for mayor — both solid white men — might have had intimate dealings with a black woman, and the further prospect of damaging photographs, is enough to drive politicians to murder and terrorism.

When Terell says, “I'm a friend to the Negro,” it's all Easy can do to keep his eyes from rolling. It's the racial equivalent of saying, “I'll call you.” Terell is an issuer of polite, soothing words that have nothing to do with the reality Easy understands firsthand: policemen whose machine-gun spewing of the word “nigger” is their least aggressive gesture.

During Easy's tense meeting with Todd Carter, the candidate lets it be known that he's personal friends with the chief of police. Message: Tell me where Daphne is, and I'll make sure the cops leave you alone. Subtext: If you don't tell me what I want to know, I'll let the police go about their business, which as we both know is an undisguised exercise in racial herding.

Devil in a Blue Dress is a beautifully designed and acted period piece, fragrant with atmosphere and taut with uncertainty. Unfortunately, it's also more than that. In its calm voice, it tells us things we'd rather not hear but already know.

Devil in a Blue Dress opens Fri, Sept. 29, at area theaters.

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