Sleuthing In A Segregated World -- Denzel Washington Stars In Thriller Set In L.A. In The '40S.

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XXX 1/2 "Devil in a Blue Dress," with Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beales, Don Cheadle, Maury Chaykin, Terry Kinney. Directed and written by Carl Franklin. Alderwood, City Centre, Crossroads, Everett Mall 4-10, Factoria, Issaquah 9, Kent, Kirkland Parkplace, Lewis & Clark, Mountlake 9, Oak Tree, Puyallup, SeaTac North. "R" - Restricted because of language, violence, sex scenes. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Writer-director Carl Franklin's low-budget 1992 breakthrough movie, "One False Move," was the work of a smart, complicated, provocative talent clearly destined for a wider arena.

Following a cable-TV detour to make the much-praised "Laurel Avenue," Franklin is back on the big screen with a private-eye thriller that has some of the style and punch of such 1940s classics as "Murder My Sweet" and "The Big Sleep."

The movie's also set in that period, in the summer of 1948 in booming Los Angeles - which gives Denzel Washington the perfect escape from the contemporary roles which disappointed following his remarkable performance in "Malcolm X."

He plays Easy Rawlins, a World War II veteran who's jobless and behind on his house payments and accepts a wad of cash to track down a mystery woman (Jennifer Beals). It seems like a simple job, but as he accepts more payments he finds himself drawn into an underworld of crooks, corrupt cops, bigots and trigger-happy types. Implicated in two murders, he's finally forced to acquiesce in the face of mayhem beyond his control.

What keeps this film-noir mix from becoming overly familiar is Franklin's sardonic wit, which is drawn partly from his perspective as an African-American filmmaker addressing the social status of black war heroes in post-war urban America. (Of course it's also drawn from the mystery novels of Walter Mosley, who created the Rawlins character five years ago.)

There are times when you may think Rawlins is too contemporary, too unaware that certain doors are closed to him. But Franklin usually pulls you back into the period with a scene that emphasizes the emerging black ghetto, or a suspect politician who claims to be "a friend of the Negro."

Eventually the movie achieves an edgy identification with Rawlins, who is an accepted part of post-war society (he's a decorated war hero) and at the same time an outsider, competing for jobs in a segregated world. In the tradition of "In the Heat of the Night" and "Crossfire," the movie works as both a satisfying mystery thriller and an indictment of prejudice.

Franklin uses Tak Fujimoto's moody photography and songs by Duke Ellington, Frank Loesser and Thelonious Monk, supplemented by Elmer Bernstein's noirish score, to suggest the period. Inspired by an L.A. library photo exhibit, "Shades of L.A.," he's also made this nostalgia quite specific, cleverly evoking the city's thriving post-war black neighborhood, Central Avenue.

Washington always seems in tune with Franklin's intentions, playing Rawlins as a mixture of canny private eye and wary out-of-towner. In her best role to date, Beals communicates some of the hothouse seductiveness of film noir's best bad girls.

Tom Sizemore is convincingly thuggish as the con man who hires Rawlins, while Terry Kinney has a poignant near-cameo. Perhaps the most striking performance is by Don Cheadle, who captures the bewildering instability of Rawlins' childhood pal, Mouse, in a way that makes the finale anything but pat.