Brian De Palma fans know that there are two De Palmas, the De Palma who conceives and executes a film as a personal, idiosyncratic vision and the De Palma who hires onto a project instigated by others, based on someone else’s ideas and intentions, and does the best he can with the material. To be sure, a De Palma job-for-hire can become a great De Palma film, when its sensibility is near enough to his own or he can adapt it to fit his esthetic predilections — look at Carrie or Carlito’s Way, both based on other people’s novels and adapted by another screenwriter. But then there are the projects that never fully become his own, never fully engage him and bring out his tremendous cinematic ingenuity. At best, you’ve got maybe an Untouchables, a solid, well-crafted film that lacks only that particular inventiveness that we associate with De Palma — at worst, you’ve got a Bonfire of the Vanities or, God forbid, Wise Guys, a film that squanders his gifts on material that is ill-suited to them or impossible to make work under any circumstance. I’m pleased to say that The Black Dahlia falls right at the Untouchables end of the spectrum, but I’d be a hell of a lot more pleased if there had been a hell of a lot more of De Palma in it.
Let me make myself absolutely clear: The Black Dahlia is a good movie, a finely crafted, tasteful, polished, entertaining, and reasonably faithful adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel. But it’s not a great movie, and that third adjective above is one reason why. “Tasteful.” Is that a word we associate with De Palma? Is it one we want to associate with De Palma? Wouldn’t we rather say “lurid” or “seamy” or “sensational?” And wouldn’t any one of those — or all of them — be far more fitting for Ellroy’s novel? And that’s the damned thing about it — I can’t think of a contemporary writer who seems like a better fit for De Palma’s particular sensibility, whose style and subject matter seems more likely to lend itself to being reinterpreted through his lens. Though De Palma has never before made a true film noir, he’s dealt with almost every aspect of the genre in one film or another, and Ellroy writes the best hardboiled fiction since Raymond Chandler. The two of them should go together like gin and vermouth, and I guess they kinda do — there’s about as much of De Palma’s personality in Dahlia as there is vermouth in a good martini.
This is not to say that the film is entirely lacking in De Palma touches. His distinctive style comes through in the split-diopter compositions and the beautiful crane shots — like the brilliant Touch of Evil-style scene that shows us the discovery of the Dahlia’s body — that carry us through the landscape of mid-century L.A., and especially in the scene of a major character’s death, a spellbindingly suspenseful, slow-motion race to the top of a staircase that concludes with victim and killer tipping over the balustrade and plunging dramatically into the art deco fountain below. But these elements, as exciting as they are, are mere crumbs for De Palma fans. What’s missing is his transformative vision, the sense that he’s taken the story and made it his own. (This may be due, at least in part, to studio interference — it’s rumored that De Palma was forced to trim almost an hour from his origininal cut of the film, losing important transitions and plot development.)
His choices here are all appropriate to the source material: There’s a stylization both in the performances and in the way the film is structured and shot that mimics the films of the period. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography — gorgeous as always — has a faint sepia tint, and Mark Isham’s score is a successful blend of mournful jazz trumpets and suspense-building orchestral movie-music. The film takes place mostly over a few days in 1947 — condensed from the many months that pass in the course of the novel — and centers around two L.A. cops who become involved in the investigation, Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). Though their names are near-homophones, Bleichert and Blanchard could not be more different in temperament. Both are boxers, known respectively as Fire — hotheaded Blanchard — and Ice — stoic Bleichert. Initially, their contrasting dispositions serve only to complement each other, and the two form a strong friendship and, with Blanchard’s (platonic) girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), become constant companions. But the discovery of the Dahlia’s body changes everything, turning Blanchard, who was already a Benzedrine user, into a regular hophead, and driving a wedge between him and his friends.
As Elizabeth Short — the dead, 22-year-old aspiring actress the tabloids would dub “The Black Dahlia” — Mia Kirshner, seen post-mortem in a screen test (in which De Palma himself delivers the director’s lines) and a skin flick, is a compelling character, both painfully vulnerable and ultimately resourceful, but she ends up being too much a bystander in her own story. So much time is lost on side issues and investigative digressions that she loses her centrality. Instead we hang out with her “known associates,” particularly Hilary Swank’s Madeleine Linscott, a voracious bisexual who quickly snares Bleichert in her “trap,” both figuratively and even more figuratively, if you get my meaning.
One of the film’s best sequences — and possibly the best comedy direction of De Palma’s career thus far — comes when Bleichert has dinner with Madeleine’s wealthy family: her self-important land-developer father (John Kavanagh), her horny and irreverent younger sister (Rachel Miner), and her heavily drugged but incisively observant mother (Fiona Shaw). The scene brings lots of life into an otherwise tepid movie, and Shaw is a fantastic comic actress, overcoming the clichés of the sozzled mother to create a character who, no matter how horrible she may be, is thoroughly engrossing.
Of all the cast, though, Swank is perhaps the most successful at sliding into the period, delivering her lines with an edge that’s not unlike the young Lauren Bacall. Which is not to say that the rest of the cast doesn’t do well. In both manner and physiognomy, Johansson seems more at home as the sexy “good-bad girl” of the period than she often does in a contemporary setting, and Hartnett is quite successful at conveying the quiet machismo that Bleichert calls for. Of all the central performances, only Eckhart is questionable, as his descent into self-destructive obsession seems too abrupt and excessive to be convincing.
The unavoidable comparison is to Curtis Hanson’s brilliant adaptation of Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential (one of my favorite films of all time), which managed to condense and reimagine the events of a very long and complex novel without ever losing its tone and characterizations. In truth, De Palma had less to work with — The Black Dahlia is an inferior novel to L.A. Confidential and a less complex one. The books’ tones are different as well, and De Palma has given Dahlia a darker look and an even darker, more cynical subtext — in this world, even the one clean character winds up dirty by the end. In contrast to Hanson’s vision of a sunny, beautiful L.A. with rampant corruption just beneath the façade, De Palma has taken a more traditional film noir approach, shooting mostly at night and in interiors or tight alleyways and narrow streets; the feeling he evokes is closer to Polanski’s Chinatown than to Hanson’s film. And nobody was ever ashamed of evoking Chinatown. It’s just that we’ve been waiting four years for a new movie from De Palma, four years since he produced his most accomplished and distinctive film to date. After the brilliantly complex gamesmanship of Femme Fatale, almost anything was guaranteed to be a letdown. But, hey, a guy can hope.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
The Black Dahlia / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | September 16, 2006 | Comments ()