RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 11: Brian de Palma’s “The Black Dahlia” (2006)

Black Dahlia

The Players…

Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank and Mia Kirschner.

The Story…

A pair of LA detectives go undercover to solve the mystery of a murder of an unknown Hollywood starlet. No big deal, really. Just another kid from outta town who lapped at the wrong end of movie star promise, right? Well as the small investigation deepens, the answer becomes decidedly no. A very heavy no. Looks like the late chanteuse has some very serious connections in ol’ Tinsel Town. She operated pretty fast for a nobody.

Was she a nobody?

The Rant…

To be read in the style of James L. Cain (ahem):

LA is a spectator city. The kind of sprawl that either invites or repels lowly nobodies full of dreams and slim billfolds, seeking fame or fortune out here in the hidden desert. It’s the place where both dreams and delusions hold sway like girls hold hands between playground swings. This is the place where dreams are built regardless of grip. Hollywood. It screams attention. It’s the hub of a million failed fantasies, and barely a keyhole view into the very few fortunate souls who managed to “make it” by sweat, grit or luck. The very few can intoxicate any hopeful Sally from the Midwest, the usual token swept up in the dime matinee back home. That’s the place where the germ of the seed of the idea of getting out of the two-pit clodhopper drag gets born. There is golden gleam in the eye of the lens and the eye of the hopeful in that willful daughter. The glint of opportunity. Of riches and status and flashbulbs galore. It all just has to take a chance encounter with one of thousands of scouts to pick you out of a crowd, brand you as “the one” and get you a quick, direct and ultimate seamy deal with a nobody that posesses the other kind of lens and then you’re to the quick. The first bite of the spectator city. Here is where dreams are made real, encouraged by dire need and a hopeful grasp at the hem of the Warners’ coat. Leo the Lion roaring in your mind. RKO spitting static across the planet. Republic and its goddam eagle. And a tugging at your hip that brings it home in a hurry. It’s still all a dream, but a salty, sweaty dream. In LA, where all things are possible depending on which side of the lens you are. You find yourself woozy, under the spell of the potential limelight, that dream so close to your grasp you miss the reality. The fact that you’re fresh meat. That you have no pedigree. That you’re fresh of the bus, reeking of turnips. That you’re an easy mark. That the dream is just a delusion. It’s the thing that kept you off the spike. To endure the endless belt across your back. To someday spit in the eye of your old man who couldn’t f*ck you but damn well made sure you knew what his shoe across your backside felt like. In Hollywood, yes, there is the oasis. Anything to get out of Kansas alive. It may not work out. It may be an encounter with fate. Hell, you might get lucky and Selznick might frequent that fruit stand you hit up for second apples. Maybe you’ll just be practical and hold onto the four dollar flat with the lumpy bed and keep the offhand rain off your broke ass. But LA is a spectator city. It’s just champing at the bit to See. You. Fail.

Back to the 21st Century.

The above was written under the terrible influence of duress, nicotine, whiskey and bile for the slice of life that was de Palma’s The Black Dahlia. My sh*t was homage, not unlike what the “Demon Dog of Crime Fiction,” James Ellroy does to pay the bills. To be honest, I’ve never read a single Ellroy novel in my life. All I know about the guy is his pedigree. That and his big screen adaptation of LA Confidential more or less launched the American careers of Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe (for good or for ill). He’s like the E L Doctorow of LA crime fiction (Doctorow is the only analog I can think of…since I’ve read his sh*t). It’s kind of hard to gage a writer on reputation alone, but from what I gleaned from The Black Dahlia adaptation, it’s a f*ckton of difficulty to raise the spirit of a book to the celluloid reality of a movie. It’s like a crane extricating a garbage scow from Boston harbor. At low tide. Dead fish f*cking everywhere.

Here’s the deal. I’ve already skewered films here at RIORI that were based on pre-existing media. You get expectations. For this entry, I’m engaging in an act of bad faith. Have never read an Ellroy novel, but do know of his credentials. Know his esteem. Understood that if you f*ck with his material, you’re gonna get drivel. I had no expectations, no understanding…and yet I got drivel from a director whose resume reads like a Sunday drive down the coast of Calais on June 6 circa 1944. In short, I know de Palma has a very short list of good films that keep his resume aloft while in the meantime he directs chunks of ABC gum.

The Black Dahlia was an exceptionally chewy wad…

It’s Los Angeles, 1945. The war is over, and LA has evolved into a powerhouse of business and industry. Apart from oil, the biggest business is showbiz. Hollywood over all. It’s the lure of glitz and glam that enthrall the most game of would-be it-girls. All that money, all that fame, is all a perfect stew for an underworld of sex and scandal. That and the occasional dead body of an unknown, defeated actress discovered in a forgotten part of the city.

Elizabeth Short (Kirschner) was just one of a thousand Hollywood hopefuls that hopped a bus from the Midwest to break into the movies with stars in her eyes, youthful naïveté, and a half-baked idea of seeking fame without talent. She came to the big city, did some screen tests, had reality smack her upside the head and got work in stag films. Some budding acting career. Oh, and then she was found eviscerated in a field somewhere.

It’s just another murder mystery in LA, but still, the grisly nature of the crime…it’s unlike anything the LAPD has ever seen before. Time to get the Force’s best and brightest on the case. Or we hope they’re the best and brightest. This case is going to be one for the angels.

Detectives Dwight “Bucky” Bleichart (Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Eckhardt) are old chums that go back a ways, from their salad days as boxers up until their turn as cops. They have a palpable rivalry, and have an unconventional method to their madness. This isn’t your average murder case, after all, and as Blanchard’s marriage to Kay (Johansson) begins to suffer due to his obsession with the sensational crime Bucky discovers a troubling link between the victim and the mysterious Madeleine Linscott (Swank), a prominent socialite and the daughter of one of the town’s most connected key players…

I’ve kept the synopsis straightforward, with a minimum of my usual purple prose. I don’t want to talk about the actual movie much. It made me mad. The Black Dahlia is the most unintelligible, inscrutable wandering crime drama I have ever seen (for this blog anyway). I had to watch it twice just to make sure it wasn’t me but the movie that was so confounded. I had no idea where this film was going, the narrative was so sloppy. And what really pissed me off is for a two-plus hour murder mystery movie, the Maguffin was touched upon for maybe 15 minutes. It was a soap opera bookended by a grotesque murder that neither lead seemed very invested in. Not so much a murder mystery than a character study, with characters I invested very little in.

In short, I didn’t like The Black Dahlia.

First off, the film employs a rather dubious device: narration. It’s got the Blade Runner principle going for it, flat and mostly a distraction. Hartnett’s delivery is in such a low voice it sounds more like an incoherent croak. I pointed out in my ripped seam for Cadillac Records, narration can be a rather tricky thing to use to enhance and/or embrace a story. The narration here was less of an embrace and more of a ball gag.

Hartnett himself seems out of his element here, awkward. He’s got the looks of an aged-out Disney Channel sitcom star. What’s more is here’s one of the few character types in Hollywood that is a stereotype but endlessly fun to watch: the tough gumshoe. Hartnett could’ve chewed it up a little better by adding a little ham.

Speaking of ham, we have the seasonally unreliable Aaron Eckhardt as Hartnett’s foil. If Hartnett underacts, then Eckhardt goes over the barrel with goofiness. The boxing scene alone was an embarrassment. Here we have him chewing scenery and vacillating between clown, cop and supposedly devoted romantic. Neither he nor Hartnett were very convincing, let alone comfortable in their roles.

Johansson is one of two (two!) femme fatales in the movie, and boy is she awkward. It’s as if she’s trying to acclimate to her new found “It girl” status. A simple, semi-sleepy indie film like Lost in Translation may work for an underspoken role like that one demanded. To flip the coin and be sassy as well as demure here didn’t show her having much range, just a cute face.

A surprise however was that Kirschner had the best scenes in the movie, albeit the shortest (and in flashback no less). She acts very well because the role itself demands actual acting. The hungry young starlet is a classic movie staple that can veer close to cliche, but Kirshner puts it out as the first naive nymphet whoever tries these stunts and trappings that come with the archetype and might fail. There is a sense of urgency. A keen eye should be on baited breath to taste what happens next. After all, she is the Black Dahlia. The movie’s reason for being. Too bad it forgot that.

I don’t want to get into Hilary Swank at all.

The Black Dahlia is a half-baked attempt at noir (not unlike my overwrought intro to this week’s installment). There’s an attempt to create a period piece here, but it’s too angular. There are all the trappings of lousy noir here, despite the cool camera trickery and good cinematography (the only things I’m certain that I liked about the movie), namely trying too hard to be hard-boiled and atmospheric. There’s no atmosphere here. No subtlety. Like with the opening scenes of a street riot with none of the authorities doing anything to quell the mob, the film beats you about the head with questions like “What the hell is going on?” or “What is trying to be said?” Such questions I was keenly aware of every time a scene was cut to frame the softer, “human” sides of the characters. This is supposedly meant to build up a backstory, but all it did was confuse me further.

A lifetime ago I reviewed another true crime murder mystery, Zodiac. That film also examined the civilian lives of the protagonists minus the “period melodrama” as I call it. It kept the tension hotter than the deliberate melodrama in The Black Dahlia.

So I had a very hard time following the narrative. I had very little emotional investment in the characters. I had expected to see a murder mystery movie. Instead I got flash, a poor script, lousy acting and—you guessed it—bad pacing. Tsk tsk tsk. This was a very wobbly, under confident, soulless movie that was relentless in its wandering storyline and unreliable in not only keeping my attention, but also an ability from keeping my gorge buoyant.

The only thing that was reliable in the film was de Palma’s flair for violence. Lucky you.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Do I have to say it? Please, relent it. I’ll believe that James Ellroy deserves better.

Stray Observations…

  • “She won’t mind.” The most efficiently clinical post-war medical examiner ever.
  • kd lang. A little on the nose, yes. But she sings well, so I’ll give it a pass.
  • “Old beef. Pot roast tonight?” Quite clever. I credit Ellroy.
  • Kevin Dunn is a very underrated and reliable character actor. He only may have spent maybe 5 minutes on screen but was efficient and smart. Worthy of the ticket.
  • “Hollywood’ll f*ck you if no one else will.” Again, Ellroy I hope.
  • I love how back in the old days the movie marquees would announce who the stars of the film were. Unlike today as it is an unwritten rule to declare unapologetically the reasons you went to see the film. It’s (hopefully) the acting, of course!
  • What is it that makes two women making out such a turn-on? Never worked for me. It’s just two more women who have no need for me. No double kisses for the critic.
  • My wife caught maybe seven minutes of the movie and called it out as dumb. I was stupid and watched all two hours, twice. My wife’s a smart guy.
  • “There are so many pretty things here…”

Next Installment…

Yours truly, From Hell, Jack the Ripper…


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