Devil in a Blue Dress
directed by Carl Franklin
(TriStar, 1995)

I picked up a copy of Devil in A Blue Dress, not just because it pays homage to Mitch Ryder, but because something about its ads told me I wouldn't be disappointed. I wasn't.

I expected plot complexity, and I got it. Devil, a film noir piece set in 1948 Los Angeles, is a cross between Chinatown and The Big Sleep, but with racial overtones that add both urgency and danger to the mix.

"Easy" Rollins (Denzel Washington) is an out-of-work machinist who's offered too much money to find the ex-girlfriend of an ex-mayoral candidate. Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) turns up even before the first corpse is cold, but her appearance only leads to a second corpse, and the inevitable realization that, like all good detective yarns, this one is not about what it first seems to be.

What it's really about is power -- the power contained in a "letter" which may or may not hold the key to the city for mayoral candidate Matthew Terell (Maury Chaplin), a latter-day Sidney Greenstreet with an unnatural love for children, as well as the key to a happily-ever-after marriage for Monet.

Just as riveting as the plot is Devil's low-key style, a combination of hushed voices, loud music, tightly framed photography and sudden but never random violence. The colors are muted, but the dialogue is sharp, and it's hard to say who's scarier: black gangster Frank Greene (Joseph Latimore) or the L.A. police, whose favorite pastime is playing squash with Rollins' head.

On the down side, Rollins' voice-over narration sometimes puts the film too much in the telling instead of showing mode, and the feel-good epilogue disperses a lot of the kick-in-the-gut honesty that reaches a climax with the final shootout.

All in all, though, Devil in a Blue Dress not only captures the essence of the post-war detective film, but adds its own touches. There's been better noir, but none that's caught this niche so nicely.

And Jennifer Beals certainly is a devil in that blue dress.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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