FILM : Putting the black into noir

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The Independent Culture
CARL FRANKLIN's Devil in a Blue Dress (15) opens with a sinuous camera climbing above the sun-drenched streets of post-Second World War Los Angeles, over hawkers and hustlers, peering in at a first-floor window. Lovers of detective films will be familiar with this move: it is the moment when the camera reveals the embossed window of the private-dick agency - "Spade and Archer" - in The Maltese Falcon. Except this time we're shown not an office but a bar: Joppy's joint, where Ezekiel ("Easy") Rawlins (Denzel Washington) hangs out, needing a job before he can even think about getting his own premises. This opening is typical of the film's blend of familiarity and freshness. With its black hero falling into detection in 1948 California, it views pulp conventions through the prism of race, putting the black into noir.

Into that bar sidles DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), a man wearing a lascivious slash of a moustache and a jaunty brown felt hat, who offers Easy easy money to find a girl called Monet (though Daphne Monet's appeal is not confined to lucre). Easy gets lured into a labyrinth of crooked politics, betrayal, child abuse and murder. He finds himself shuttling between two mayoral candidates, each with some sort of a hold on Daphne, and the seductive Daphne herself (Jennifer Beals), as he searches for light in the darkness of crime and confusion.

So far so noirishly obscure. But the film is as much about Easy's odyssey as a black man in a racist society as it is a crime mystery. He gets picked up by the police, suspected of murder, released, and then has to endure the jibes of a car full of patrolmen, playing "the game of cops and niggers". Later the cops tell him: "evidence has a way of showing up" (supply your own OJ Simpson reference). Easy's prickliness and pride won't allow him to be downtrodden. When some white heavies break into his house and tell him to go pour them a whisky, he replies: "Liquor's on the shelf - get it yourself." Drink, and especially sex, we find out, are siren dangers for the black man in Easy's world, breaking down racial barriers that return, sturdier than before, in the sober light of day.

Franklin gives us a minutely detailed world, its streets busy with polished, pastel-shaded automobiles, its nightclubs thick with the grey fug of cigarette smoke. The producer is Jonathan Demme, a long-time fan of the Walter Mosley books which introduced Easy. Demme's cinematographer Tak Fujimoto does fine work, using a gliding camera and deep-toned lighting, as does Gary Frutkoff with his elegant design. We sense a time of change, if not enlightenment - on the cusp of the 1950s, the burnished old order being replaced with something looser and friskier. In the best scene of the film, Easy is picked on by white youths as he awaits a rendezvous on a pier in Malibu. DeWitt interrupts, menacing one lad with his gun, reducing him to tears ("I'm sorry, sir," the boy wails). The lurch from cockiness to deference seems redolent of this era of upheaval.

The movie has the look of an oil painting (one like Bronzeville at Night, out of Bill Cosby's collection, which Franklin runs the opening credits over); and the social conscience of a liberal pamphlet. But is it a good film? I don't think so. There is a scene where Washington, whose smooth air of wealth and privilege never seems to fit the part of Easy, is pictured close-up, with a toothpick in the side of his mouth. It is perfectly framed, a brooding coda to a dramatic scene - but a pose. The whole film has that feel: handsome but static, even listless. It has none of the pace and volatility of Franklin's One False Move. Don Cheadle does an entertaining turn as Mouse, Easy's psychopathic side-kick. But he has so little screen- time that those touting him for a Support-ing Actor Oscar should be creating a new category for Best Cameo.

The movie is so stiff with detail that it can't flow as drama. Franklin needed to create a strong character or two, instead of just a strong atmosphere. One of the most important aspects of Easy in the book - his war experience - is treated allusively enough in the film for the uninitiated to miss it. The camera, in surveying the house-proud Easy's bedroom, glances at a group photograph taken at the front; later we glimpse his military stripes. The poignant contrast between the fellowship of blacks and whites in war, and their division at peace, is underplayed.

Franklin concludes the movie on a note of affirmation, with Easy declaring in voiceover that, over a bottle of whisky, he "forgot all about" his adventures. The trouble is that the movie, lacking any real weight or pull, is equally forgettable.

If you were looking forward to Showgirls (18) as an uproarious fiasco to chortle a couple of hours away, think again, or, better, don't bother with it at all. Untouched by any sort of artistry or humanity, Showgirls is a deeply depressing and degrading film - the product of a mind too banal for true depravity. The director, Paul Verhoeven, is, like Brian De Palma, a mathematician turned film-maker, and his films, like De Palma's, display the redundancy of technique without insight. In his soporific Omnibus interview last week, Verhoeven tried to set himself up as some sort of apocalyptic nihilist, rejected by a world unable to stomach his unsavoury brand of truth. In fact, Verhoeven's cynicism springs not from superior insight, but from poverty of imagination. He sees the world only in lurid extremes. Showgirls, the story of a girl (Elizabeth Berkley) who seeks to make it as a show dancer in Las Vegas, is a film that from the start screams for attention.

Joe Eszterhas's script sets up some potentially interesting ideas, especially about dancing (as display; as commerce; as surrogate sex; as aggression). But the writing is unbearably crude. Joe and Paul believe they are being hard-hitting. They are. But they are hitting us with a blunt object. No actor could thrive in such circumstances, and it is sad to see Berkley, clearly an attractive, whole-hearted actress (from what we saw of rehearsals in Omnibus), reduced to shrill over-acting by her soulless vamp of a role. Gina Gershon is little better as her arch-rival and erotic admirer, Cristal Connors (the names all seem plucked out of a soft-porn mag). And Kyle MacLachlan, who plays the oily manager at the Vegas hotel they work for, should know better. Berkley spends a lot of time working on her nails - appropriate as Verhoeven views women as clawed and bestial (not that he has any higher opinion of men). His film is a paean to grasping pettiness, precisely worthless.

The week's other two releases are not particularly special. But after Showgirls, they come as a breath of fresh air. John Avnet's The War (PG) is sincere, well made and slightly dull. Its moral is reiterated by the Cat Stevens number "Peace Train", which is sung over the final credits. Kevin Costner plays a Vietnam vet having problems readjusting back home, living down South and wracked by guilt. His kids are involved in their own internecine struggle with a rival gang over a tree-house. This squabble, not as illuminating of the central theme as Avnet seems to think, or especially well acted, overtakes Costner's more engaging trauma, leaving him a surprising bit-player.

Peter Yates's The Run of the Country (15) is a likeable Irish coming-of-age story, full of rolling green hills and stirring traditional music, and starring Albert Finney as a recently widowed Garda sergeant at odds with his son. Adapted with verve and economy by Shane Connaughton from his own novel, its themes of adolescence, filial friction and bereavement, and its sting-in-the-tail, place it between Neil Jordan and William Trevor, though it doesn't have quite as much weight as either.

Cinema details: Review, page 68.