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Denzel Washington is outstanding as novelist Walter Mosley’s hero, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, in the immaculate, 1940s-set neo-noir “Devil in a Blue Dress,” but that’s not the only reason for its significance. The movie was the first, and remains the only, onscreen appearance of the character, even though Mosley has featured him in 14 novels since the first publication in 1990. There was the potential for a movie franchise starring Washington, but the film’s failure at the box office (despite favorable reviews) likely destroyed any chances of that happening. However, while a series never materialized, this one-off adaptation remains a monument for Washington fans and lovers of hard-boiled fiction alike.
The film sees Rawlins as an unemployed black veteran in post-WWII Los Angeles, agreeing to do some private detective work for a local gangster, tracking down a mysterious woman (Jennifer Beals), and discovering that he has a flair for the work. His search for the woman leads him into a labyrinth of blackmail, murder, and political intrigue, populated by a full array of intriguing secondary characters. He is both helped and hindered by his scene-stealing, cheerfully homicidal old friend Mouse (a breakout performance by Don Cheadle).
Director Carl Franklin, who made his reputation with the esteemed sleeper hit “One False Move,” avoided a sophomore slump with this more substantial effort. While it shows off the same shrewd vision that made “One False Move” so engrossing, “Devil” also creates a beguiling backdrop depicting African American life in Los Angeles, circa 1948. In the process of pulling audiences into an intricate detective story, Franklin and cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto (“The Silence of the Lambs”) open up a sumptuous, shadowy world.
What could have been a run-of-the-mill detective thriller is elevated by strong performances, notably Washington’s innate swagger, delivering a gritty character portrait. Unlike some larger-than-life P.I.s, Rawlins is distinctly human. He’s a dignified black man trying to cope with the racial injustices of his time, as well as his own personal demons, but doesn’t always succeed. He can be heartless or spiteful, sometimes lacks courage, and is too easily seduced by temptations of the flesh. His preoccupation with acquiring wealth sometimes leads to poor decisions.
But his flaws are mitigated by his yearning to rise above his station in life as a black man living in the middle of the twentieth century in America, as well as his hardwired sense of what’s right and especially what’s wrong.
Washington endows Rawlins’ crisis of conscience with a compelling authenticity. You can see him grimace at the license with which his featherweight pal Mouse pulls a trigger. Cheadle, who was practically an unknown at the time, is sensational as this gold-toothed killer.
“Devil” had the kind of vitality that could have sustained the material for years. Indeed, it ends with a hint of a sequel that never came to be. However, while the film received generally positive reviews, it was a box office bomb — grossing just $17.1 million against a budget of $27 million.
The reasons for that are hazy: Washington was a recognizable face at the time, with films on his resume like “Malcolm X (1992), for which he earned an Academy Award nomination; “Philadelphia” (1993) opposite Tom Hanks; “The Pelican Brief” (1993) with Julia Roberts; and “Crimson Tide” with Gene Hackman in 1995. Granted, he had yet to truly carry a major studio picture to box office glory, but “Devil” should have at least earned back its budget, especially since Mosley’s novels were already quite successful, and Rawlins was his most popular character. But there must not have been enough crossover appeal to draw crowds. However, audiences would gradually discover “Devil” on home video, as it would eventually become a beloved classic work of American noir.
Mosley continued the series, jumping ahead a few years with each novel, offering a vivid snapshot of the black experience in America, in the middle of the 20th century; a kind of social history, set from the ’40s to the ’60s, each backdropped by the political and social climate of its time, from the end of World War II in “Devil,” to the counterculture revolution and fight for civil rights in “Cinnamon Kiss” (published in 2005).
Since “Devil,” there have been attempts to revive the Easy Rawlins franchise. In 2006, HBO Films acquired rights to “Little Scarlet” (published in 2004), to adapt as a feature starring Jeffrey Wright, and rapper/actor Mos Def as Mouse. In 2011, NBC put an Easy Rawlins serial project into development. And in 2016, filmmaker Josh Boone was adapting a Rawlins series for FX. To date, none of these projects made it to the screen.
But in retrospect, if the first film did launch a franchise for the character, it might have had the ripple effect of opening up Mosley’s literary vault, which is loaded with period crime dramas begging to be adapted for the screen.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been interest in his other work: His Leonid McGill series was to be adapted by HBO in 2012; Samuel L. Jackson optioned “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” to adapt for the big screen in 2016; TNT ordered a pilot for the “Fearless Jones”; in 2013, Laurence Fishburne was to revive Socrates Fortlow from “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned,” for HBO, as a series; and Spike TV (now called Paramount Network) put “Mr. In Between” into development.
And once again, not a single one ever came to be. But such is the nature of the business; the majority of projects that are announced never get made. Mosley may be frustrated, but at least he’s still producing new work, serving as a writer and producer on FX’s “Snowfall.”
But it all began with his first published work and the 1995 film it inspired. The film conjures an intricate lost world that Franklin evoked in his novel, but it’s also a classical genre flick with plenty to offer, not least of which are the performances by the entire cast, including Tom Sizemore, as well as Franklin’s solid, steady craftsmanship. It’s a shame its box office failure prevented any more Rawlins mysteries from making the leap from page to screen, but at least we still have “Devil in a Blue Dress.”
“Devil in a Blue Dress” is currently streaming on Hulu.