Black And Blue In L.A.

Film Noir Style was born in Los Angeles in the '40s-- think "Double Indemnity" and "The Big Sleep"--and the images have proven so indelible that it's now hard to think of that city, in that time, separate from the shadow-streaked look of Hollywood thrillers. Now, in Carl Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress--based on Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins mystery--we're back in 1948 L.A., but as you settle into the familiar pleasures of its noir plot, you realize you're in a part of town Hollywood has neglected to show. It's Central Avenue, the hub of postwar black L.A., a vital, jazz-and-blues-infused community brought to vivid life by Franklin, production designer Gary Frut-koff and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto.

The evocation of that vanished world is alone worth the price of admission. But this classically built genre movie has plenty else to offer, not least of which is Franklin's solid, measured craftsmanship. He is not one to impose the hyperrhythms and shock tactics of the '90s on his period tale: when, in a striking scene, a bad guy dies, the camera, along with the heroes, hovers over his death throes with respect.

Comic juice: Denzel Washington is Easy, a war veteran who's lost his job and worries about losing his cherished house. So he accepts $100 from a shady, well-connected white man (Tom Sizemore) to find a missing woman named Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), the fiancee of a rich mayoral candidate. It seems she has a fondness for the company of Negroes, a dangerous taste in the segregated city. Suffice it to say this seemingly simple job will drag Easy into a maze of trouble--murders, frame-ups and political corruption on the highest levels. To get out of this mess, he'll call in Mouse (the scene-stealing Don Cheadle), his trigger-happy crony from Houston. One of the surprises of Franklin's adaptation is how much comic juice he gets out of a character who seemed flat-out scary in print.

The acting ensemble shines. Lisa Nicole Carson stands out as the ill-fated Coretta, a lusty woman who riotously enjoys her one-night fling with Easy. There's a wonderful scene in which Washington and Cheadle get Coretta's boyfriend Odell (Albert Hall) passing-out drunk: you feel that the characters have been living upside each other for years. Washington, a subtle actor and natural-born movie star, understands that Easy himself is a kind of actor, forced to adjust his style depending on whether he's functioning in the white world or his own. But he's a little more noble than Mosley's Easy. You feel a tension in his performance, as if the matinee idol were restraining the actor from fully cutting loose.

As good as this movie is, it never quite achieves the startling sense of discovery that Franklin's terrific low-budget "One False Move" did. That burst the seams of its genre, and this one is content to stay contained within its conventions. What stays with you finally is not the mystery's byzantine twists and turns, which are fun but don't resonate very deeply. It's the time, the place, the palpable feel of community.