No False Moves: Carl Franklin’s Masterful ‘90s Neo-Noir Double Punch

Other than its golden age in the years immediately following World War II, the most fecund period for American film noir was the ‘90s, particularly the first half of that decade. While there was no shortage of ‘neo’ noir classics released in the intervening period (New Hollywood of the ‘70s was particularly lousy with them), there was something in the air towards the end of the millennium, a sense of fatalism, paranoia and moral ambivalence (all well-earned, it turned out) that brought the dark crime dramas of the ‘40s and ‘50s back into vogue. 

This summer has seen new boutique Blu-Ray releases of two of the very best and most underrated titles from those years, both directed by the same man: Carl Franklin. His critical breakout of 1992, One False Move was recently included in Imprint’s box set After Dark: Neo-Noir Cinema Collection Volume One, while his handsome, studio-backed follow-up, the Denzel Washington vehicle Devil in a Blue Dress, receives entry into the Criterion Collection this week.

Franklin, who grew up in Northern California, spent the first part of his career in show business as an actor. While he never landed any major roles, he had a prolific run playing supporting characters, particularly on television, turning up in some of the most popular series of the ‘70s and ‘80s (including Good Times, The Incredible Hulk, The Rockford Files, The A-Team and Roseanne). Eventually, he realized that his true calling was directing, and so enrolled in the American Film Institute, where he made his well-received thesis film, Punk (1986). That short—about a young boy in South Central Los Angeles who is almost molested by an ice cream vendor—signaled Franklin’s, who is Black, interest in social realist drama, the same which would define his later masterpieces.

From there, Franklin was able to break into feature filmmaking the same way so many of his and the previous generation did: by making low-budget pictures for producer Roger Corman. Under the banner of Corman’s New Concorde, Franklin cut his teeth on half-a-dozen movies, directing three: 1989’s Nowhere to Run and Eye of the Eagle 2: Inside the Enemy, and 1990’s Full Fathom Five.

Around this same time, a struggling young musician/actor from Arkansas named Billy Bob Thorton was trying to make his name in Hollywood. Like Franklin, he’d managed to land a few small roles in film and television, but he was having a harder go of it. One night, while working as a caterer at a big Hollywood dinner, he was engaged in conversation by one of the guests: none other than legendary screenwriter and director Billy Wilder (who, of course, made three of the all-time greatest film noirs in Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Ace in the Hole). Having some mean fun at Thorton’s expense (although the two would later become friends), Wilder told him he was too ugly to make it as an actor and should try writing scripts instead. Thorton took his advice and, with the help of childhood friend and roommate Tom Epperson, began pumping out scripts, one of which would prove both he and Franklin’s—brought on board by the film’s producers who were equally impressed by his student thesis and work as a hired hand—ticket to the big time.

Set between Thorton’s adopted home of Los Angeles and his birthplace of Arkansas (and greatly inspired by his favorite film, High Noon), One False Move follows a trio of violent criminals and a small-town Southern sheriff on a doomed collision course. After killing six people during a drug robbery, ex-prison buddies Pluto (Michael Beach) and Ray (Thorton, landing his first big role in his own script), as well as Ray’s mixed-race girlfriend Fantasia (Cynda Williams), head to Chicago to sell their stolen dope. The LAPD detectives assigned to the case (Jim Meztler and Earl Billings) learn that they may also be stopping in Ray’s hometown of Star City Arkansas. They rendezvous with the local sheriff, a motor-mouthed, friendly, but casually racist hayseed named Dale “Hurricane” Dixon (Bill Paxton) who dreams of moving to Los Angeles and becoming a big city detective. As the tensions in both groups reach their boiling points and the bodies continue to stack up, we learn of a troubling past connection between Hurricane and Fantasia, one which takes what has been, up to this point, an unsettling thriller of clockwork precision and turns it into a deeper and even more unsettling rumination on race, power, abuse, and redemption. 

As Roger Ebert—who’s championship of the film, alongside his television partner Gene Siskel (they named it their #2 and #1 picks for best film of 1992, respectively) was mainly responsible for getting it a proper theatrical run after an initial straight-to-video release—wrote in his rave review, One False Move “begins as a crime story and ends as a human story.” 

Franklin is able to imbue his film with such cathartic force by focusing on the interpersonal relationships, rather than the grand twists, stylized dialog or action, or formalist tricks so prevalent in other crime films from the time. This, in turn, makes the violence that is in the film all the more impactful and shocking, despite the fact that it’s far less graphic than the viewer remembers (this is perhaps the only thing it has in common with the other directorial crime film breakout of 1992, Reservoir Dogs). In this, Franklin is greatly helped by his cast, which include a coldly villainous performance in Beach’s Pluto, what should have been a star making turn from Williams as the wounded, tragic Fantasia, and especially Paxton. He gives a career best—and that’s fucking saying something—performance, taking a character who might have proven irredeemable and noxious in other hands, and making him into one of the most complex examples of naked humanity in any movie from its time (or since).

Off the strength of One False Move’s critical acclaim, Franklin was in high demand with the studios (whose producers, according to him, were often shocked to discover that he was Black) and was able to choose his next project. Sticking around the dark street and crooked alleyways of noir, he opted to adapt Walter Mosely’s best-selling mystery novel from 1990, Devil in a Blue Dress, which he’d been introduced to during production on One False Move. In a fortuitous series of events, Franklin was sought out by fellow Corman alumni Jonathan Demme, who was looking to produce something. Demme set him up at Tri-Star, which had recently purchased the rights to the novel from Universal, as well as Denzel Washington, with whom Demme had recently worked on Philadelphia and who had also been interested in bringing Mosley’s novel to the screen. 

Said novel is a spin on the classic hard-boiled private eye story as delineated in the novels (and subsequent movie adaptations) of Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man) and Raymond Carver (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye), but told through the point of view of Black America. Set in 1948, Devil follows Texas transplant and ex-GI Easy Rawlins (Washington), hired by shady interests to find the runaway girlfriend of a rich mayoral candidate thought to be hiding around the Watts/Central Avenue area of Los Angeles. What starts out as a simple job takes a dangerous turn after a friend and lover of Easy’s ends up murdered as the result of his search, and soon enough, he’s mixed up with racist cops, vicious bootleggers and triggermen, corrupt and perverted politicians, and the (seemingly) devilish femme fatale of the title.

If Devil is not as immediately gripping or ultimately emotionally devastating as One False Move—and really, few films are; writer and host of TCM’s Noir Alley Eddie Mueller was dead right when he declared it “one of the best crime movies made in this country in the last 50 years”—it is still a relentlessly entertaining and rewatchable mystery. Like One False Move, its power comes from Franklin’s emphasis on character and place. As Franklin himself explained, he approached the material not with a post-modern sense of nostalgia (as did so many of the other neo-noirs that came out adjacent to it), but through the lens of social realism. This wasn’t an easy task, given that the film is a period piece. Between the riots that tore through Watts in 1965 and 1992, there wasn’t much of the infrastructure from the ‘40s left in that neighborhood. Still, what Franklin and his team were able to accomplish on a (relatively) modest budget is incredible, the setting and set dressing—including the period specific clothes and cars—all feel lived in, rather than flashy. Combined with Tak Fujimoto’s moody but un-ostentatious cinematography, Franklin is able to create a film that feels of a piece with the classic Hollywood titles it’s inspired by, rather than a pastiche.

(Once again, he’s greatly bolstered by his cast. Denzel gives one of his most charismatic performances, while Don Cheadle steals the show—and makes his name—playing Easy’s loyal, but fearsome and psychotic hometown running buddy Mouse, a character who comes off like a combination of One False Move’s Pluto and Hurricane. It really is a shame that we didn’t get at least a couple more adaptations of Mosely’s Rawlins mysteries starring these two.)

The film, like Mosely’s novel, also serves as a necessary and much-needed course correction to the noir cannon. It’s not as though there wasn’t a long lineage of crime cinema and literature told from the Black perspective prior to them, but they was often, even usually, ghettoized. That’s a term I use consciously—most of the black crime films that came out around the same time as Franklin’s work centered on drug and gang violence in poor neighborhoods. While such stories are as legitimate as any other, the prevalence of them had a culturally reductive effect. Franklin’s films, by contrast, while still focused on crime, showed a different aspect of said experience (and that includes the brief, but remarkably empathetic depiction of the inner-city drug trade in One False Move). This is especially true of Devil, which, for as much violence and illicit activity as it contains, is ultimately about the restoration of peace and order to a tight-knit, working class community (which, some would claim, as they have of Chandler’s work, that this means it’s not actually noir, since noir is all about fatalism and doom, but that’s a much larger argument). 

The ability to foreground racial politics into his work without coming off as didactic or ham-fisted has always been one Franklin’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker. In his aforementioned review of One False Move, Ebert wrote “the movie is not about black-white “relationships” in the dreary way of so many other recent movies, which are motivated either by idealistic bonhomie or the cliches of ethnic stereotypes.” This would be a thorny point if made today (at least coming as it does from Ebert, a white man), but it strikes a chord, nonetheless. The push to tell diverse stories in film and television has resulted in lots of fraught discourse over politics—particularly racial politics—in art. And for as easy as it is to dismiss much of this as the reactionary tantrums of spoiled white conservatives (and it is), there has also been an undeniable push from those on the opposite end of the political spectrum against stories that tackle charged subject matter—such as they kind found in One False Move—from a nonjudgmental, humanist angle, rather than a prescriptive or revolutionary one. All of which is simply to say that Franklin’s approach, which feels neither subtle nor overwrought, but simply natural, gives his work a refreshing and indeed timeless feel.

Post-Devil, Franklin has made only four features. By no means a bust—his 2002 courtroom mystery High Crimes is an enjoyable and well-made (if too glossy) piece of entertainment and his 2003 reunion with Denzel for the cop thriller Out of Time is a total blast (although it’s not nearly as sleazy as it should be)—it can’t help but be regarded as disappointing when you consider how good that neo-noir one-two is. But that also goes a ways towards explaining his absence from movie screens: Franklin has said that he never wanted to be pigeonholed as a director of thrillers, as his main interest has always been human drama. That makes his decision to turn down most of the genre projects offered to him and instead focus on “prestige” television—where he’s been very prolific, directing episodes for series such as The Pacific, Homeland, The Leftovers and Mindhunter—more understandable.

Still, 30 years on from his feature breakout, it’s time to give Devil, and especially One False Move, their due.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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