Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

The Black Dahlia

Posted by CinemaPsycho on September 19, 2006

Directed by Brian De Palma/screenplay by Josh Friedman, based on the novel by James Ellroy/starring Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Fiona Shaw/Universal Pictures – Millenium Films – Equity Pictures – Nu Image Films – Signature Pictures

Two fictional cops investigate the gruesome murder of would-be starlet Elizabeth Short in 1947 Hollywood.

Here’s my advice: ignore any movie critic who tells you a film is bad because “there’s too much going on”. This generally means he or she wasn’t smart enough to follow the plot, or they couldn’t be bothered to actually pay attention. Have people forgotten how to watch films? When did thinking about what we’re watching become a Herculean task? It’s kind of sad that, at a time when audiences have become accustomed to remembering the details of the various continuing plotlines of their favorite TV shows, a film is criticized for actually expecting us to watch and listen and use our brains for two hours. Intelligence, complexity and sophistication used to be applauded by our supposed cultural elite; now those qualities are derided as being “hopelessly old-fashioned” and “out of touch” with a populace that would apparently prefer to watch a wrestler and a rapper coach a football team full of juvenile delinquents than a real movie. Or worse, they’d rather watch a bunch of idiots staple their nuts together and crash into things for 90 minutes. I guess we get the movies we deserve.

OK, end of speech. The Black Dahlia is a film I’ve been waiting to see for several years now, since I picked up a used paperback for three bucks about eight years ago after seeing L.A. Confidential, another film based on an Ellroy novel and one of my favorite films of 1997. I’d been interested in the Dahlia story for quite some time, but didn’t know that much about it. Not long after I finished it, the film version was announced with David Fincher attached. After Seven, Fincher seemed like the perfect director to bring Ellroy’s lurid, sleazy, sordid vision of 1940s L.A. to vivid life.

Several years pass by, and while Fincher’s involvement was still rumored, it seemed to be stuck in limbo. Finally, the project re-emerges, with veteran filmmaker Brian De Palma slated to direct. Well, I just about lost my damn mind. De Palma tackling the ultimate true-life noir mystery? Now that would be a perfect marriage of director and material.

Cut to 2006. I’m going to say this right up front: Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia is not going to be for everybody. If you generally don’t like his films, you might as well avoid this one like the plague. This is not for you. If, however, you appreciate the man’s filmmaking skills, wicked sense of humor and gleefully demented subversion of genre, you’re going to eat this up like an ice cream sundae. Listening to people bitch about it is the ice cream headache, but of course it’s totally worth it. I’m not going to bother defending De Palma and his extensive filmography; at this point, the guy’s made enough interesting films (including some genuine classics) that he shouldn’t have to prove himself to anybody. I’m not saying the guy’s infallible (Mission to Mars, Bonfire of the Vanities), but a true artist should at least be given the benefit of the doubt, and too many people just aren’t willing to give him a fair shake. Screw them, I say.

The first thing you have to understand is that this is an adaptation of Ellroy’s novel, and a pretty faithful one (as I recall, at least). The book is not the story of Elizabeth Short and this is not a documentary. Ellroy uses the real case as a backdrop for a fictional story (you know, like that huge flop that nobody understood, Titanic) about two cops who investigate the case and the way it affects their lives. Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Hartnett) is our protagonist, a decent, easygoing sort who just wants to catch bad guys and do the right thing. His partner is Lee Blanchard (Eckhart), a charming-rogue type with a reputation for being hotheaded. Lee’s girl is Kay Lake (Johansson), a nice girl-next-door with a sharp tongue and a penchant for sweaters. They make a jovial trio, until the body of Elizabeth Short (Kirshner) shows up one morning, cut in half, drained of all body fluids and missing most of her insides. But it’s not until Madeleine Linscott (Swank), a high-society dame with a bizarre family and an inclination to swing both ways, shows up that Bucky’s world starts to really unravel.

It wouldn’t be entirely fair to reveal much more than that to anyone who hasn’t read the book. Needless to say, a lot of heavy shit goes down during the investigation. Some of it involves the Dahlia and some comes from the cops’ previous cases, but by the end it all gets kind of mixed up, to the point where Lee has become a basket case and Bucky doesn’t know which way is up. Which is part of the point of the whole story – the past inevitably catches up with each character, including the Dahlia, no matter how hard they try to avoid it. The more Bucky and Lee investigate what led to the victim’s downfall, the more doomed they seem by their own histories and character flaws. One of De Palma’s recurring themes throughout his work is that of psychology, and how an individual’s obsessions and defects can eventually lead them to ruin. In this case, pretty much every character is damned because of who they are and what they become. Even the ones who survive are left irrevocably damaged from their experiences, and what’s worse is that they’re smart enough to know it.

There’s been lots of criticism about the film’s supposedly “campy” elements and over-the-top theatrics. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to these critics that “over the top” is what De Palma does, for cryin’ out loud. His films are operatic, theatrical, excessively cinematic, and he fully intends for them to be that way. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s doing it on purpose. This approach perfectly fits the material he’s working with – Ellroy’s book isn’t exactly subtle. It’s blunt, fiercely purple prose with a dark soul and a sledgehammer use of language. If anything, the film is actually toned down a little bit – to actually put Ellroy’s words on screen would be too much for genteel audiences to take. This ain’t Pride and Prejudice here, folks. It’s sheer, unflinching pulp, and the film does justice to its maverick spirit.

Besides, what one critic may dismiss as “camp” (so anything that makes us laugh unexpectedly is considered “camp” now?), a discriminating viewer can see as a brave stylistic choice. Specifically, the scene in which Bucky is introduced to Madeleine’s outlandishly insane family has been cited as De Palma throwing caution to the wind (never mind that it’s taken straight from the book). Fiona Shaw’s performance as her outrageously loopy mother, still grasping to maintain a slight sense of upper-crust dignity through the chaos of her fucked-up family life, has been derided as possibly the film’s worst transgression. Let me ask you this – how many legitimately crazy people do you know? The point is that these people are fucking nuts, beyond the pale. Do you think their behavior would therefore be predictable, easy to understand? Would you expect them to be subtle? If they were merely suffering from minor mental problems, maybe. But the Linscotts are fucking gone, man. They’re completely cracked, beyond repair, and we’re meant to see that every second they’re on screen. The performances are more than appropriate to portray their condition – they’re raging lunatics, completely unchecked by society or decorum. How would you expect them to act, for christ’s sake? The only question I had was why Madeleine didn’t do everything in her power to keep poor Bucky away from them.

Then there’s the issue of the plot, which apparently people are finding too complex to follow. It’s actually not difficult at all, provided that you pay attention (keep in mind it’s been several years since I read the book, so it’s not as if I had the entire plot fresh in my noggin). If you actually watch the film and concentrate on what the characters say to each other, and try to remember what’s taken place as the film goes on, there’s nothing particularly unfathomable about it. It used to be that intelligent people could manage that modicum of effort. If you’re the kind of person who has trouble keeping track of character names and faces, you might want to sit this one out. Besides, aren’t film noir plots supposed to be complex? In most of these movies, details like the identity of the killer are almost beside the point. It’s what the characters go through during the course of the investigation that really matters. It’s the journey, not the end result. And I find it incredible that supposedly intelligent critics are complaining that the ending is too much of a surprise – isn’t that how a good mystery is supposed to work? The clues are all there; we just don’t know it when we see them. Would they prefer an obvious, easily predicted resolution that was telegraphed so far in advance that we all saw it coming? I honestly don’t know what people want anymore.

De Palma’s sense of style hasn’t failed him either. The Black Dahlia is full of his signature sweeping camera moves and lush cinematography, seemingly broad gestures that belie a technical virtuosity few filmmakers can boast of. The film’s look is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the noir classics that inspired it, yet there’s a modern sense of accomplished technique as well, as if De Palma is having fun with the conventions while gleefully running rings around the genre’s forefathers. Yes, there are plenty of in-jokes and visual references to other films here, and noir buffs will have a ball spotting them. But what’s most important is that De Palma captures the spirit of the genre while applying his own wicked touches – he’s probably the only director who would (or could) turn a lesbian bar scene into a Busby Berkeley musical number, for no reason other than that he can.

I realize I’m in the minority on this one, and frankly I don’t really care. A work of art should be judged on its merits – what’s on the screen – and not on the number of people who have misguided reactions to it. Just because a director isn’t willing to suck off the audience (or his critics, who have their own agendas and won’t be swayed no matter what the guy does) doesn’t mean his work has no merit. As far as I’m concerned, The Black Dahlia is another De Palma classic, one that, like most of his films, will no doubt achieve cult status later on. It’s exactly the kind of movie that I pictured him making from this book, and I honestly think he pulled it off. It’s not necessarily an easy film, but it’s one that’s worth the effort.

**** 9/19/06

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