American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Los Angeles, 1948. All Easy Rawlins really wants to do is make the mortgage payments on his house. But he's been laid off at the aircraft factory, unfairly, and for a black man in Southern California, the good jobs of the boom war years are disappearing. So Easy (Denzel Washington) listens when he gets a mysterious visitor.
The man is named DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), and he offers Easy $100, which represents a couple of house payments, to look for a girl. Her name is Daphne Monet. She's a white girl, he says, who used to date a guy who's running for mayor. But now she has disappeared, and there are reports she may be hiding out in the Central Avenue area - the hot spot of black jazz clubs, bars and social life.
Just the names alone let you know where you stand with "Devil in a Blue Dress." Easy Rawlins. DeWitt Albright. Daphne Monet. These are names from the noir universe, from the hard-boiled books and films of the 1940s that created a world that existed more on the screen than in the streets - a world of shady deals and moral compromise, blackmail, revenge and secrets from the past. The private eye is the natural inhabitant of these mean streets - standing outside the worlds of law and crime, paid by the hour, his moral code his own business. More than by anyone else, this world was created by Raymond Chandler, whose novels have just been enshrined in the Library of America, right alongside Henry James and Abraham Lincoln.
But Easy Rawlins, who lives in the 1940s, is a modern fictional creation, born in the recent novels of Walter Mosley. As a private eye, Rawlins is made, not born. He doesn't come equipped with an office with his name on the door and a bottle in the bottom desk drawer. He has a nice little two-bedroom bungalow with a lawn to mow, and the whole world of DeWitts and Daphnes is alien to him.