-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
The Black Dahlia|
cast: Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Aaron Eckhart, and Mia Kirshner
director: Brian De Palma
105 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
EIV DVD Region 2 rental / retail
reviewed by Richard Bowden
When aspiring actress Elizabeth Short was found killed and dismembered in January 1947,
it sparked one of one of the LAPD's largest murder investigations, as well as inspiring
much press speculation as to the identity of the killer. The lurid crime, which has remained
unsolved (although police eventually came up with an eventual 22 suspects - including,
astonishingly, the folk singer Woody Guthrie), has continued to inspire crime writers down
the years. In 1987, James Elroy's novel of the same name appeared, and Brian de Palma's
eventual film of that book has been eagerly anticipated, if less gratefully received.
Originally slated for direction by David Fincher
(Se7en) and to
star Mark Wahlberg in the lead role, De Palma changed the casting when he took creative
charge of the project with mixed results. Much of the criticism of The Black Dahlia
has focussed around the film's narrative structure, which is complex, if characteristic of
the director's auteur style, and features allegedly distracting subplots, as well as the
perceived weakness of some of the leads. Black Dahlia follows two detectives, Dwight
'Bucky' Bleichart (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), as they investigate the
infamous crime, all the while being caught in a love triangle with Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson).
Faced by the imminent release of a criminal Blanchard sent down the river some time ago meanwhile
puts additional strain on the cop, who has secrets of his own. Throughout the stylish tale we
are treated to the underbelly of LA society familiar to noir lovers: a sometimes-grotesque world
that takes in lesbianism, pornography, sudden death, sleaze, and corruption.
Some have compared Black Dahlia very unfavourably to Roman Polanski's
while the present film is not on the level of that masterpiece, I rather liked it. But there
again I greatly enjoyed De Palma's Snake Eyes (1998) generally regarded as another
misfire on the director's resume and those several other De Palma's other projects, which
show the director's eye frequently more on the camera and less on the script. Sure, Black
Dahlia is handicapped by its plotlines (although the director's original cut of three
hours, if it ever surfaces, might smooth some of the narrative's crowding) and Hartnett is,
frankly, too blank and expressionless to convey the noir angst his central character inhabits.
But the cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is right on the dime, utterly convincing, investing
De Palma's powerful vision with a rich mise-en-scène drawing in the eye again and again,
as well as permitting the director two or three set pieces which provide the dramatic highlights
of the film. All the more remarkable is this convincing reconstruction of a time, and place,
when one considers some of the movie was shot in Bulgaria.
It is certainly easier to rate L.A. Confidential (1997) as a better Elroy adaptation,
and fans of the author have been among the most vocal critics of the new movie. But I found
Black Dahlia more fun, being nowhere so reverential as that previous transition of
author to screen, especially as it suborns a great source novel into something more personal.
Upon reflection, the narrative complications and confusions can seen as being entirely in line
with the disorientations common to noir, as a brief recollection of The Big Sleep (1946)
At the heart of the mystery remains the death of Elizabeth Short, and despite her obvious
failings, De Palma makes of the victim an almost entirely sympathetic character that gives
his film a sympathetic heart. As Bleichart watches her increasingly sad screen tests (which
feature, incidentally the voice of de Palma, as the test director in conversation with doomed
actress) and then her distressed porno footage, such moments provide a stillness amidst the
corruption and moral doubt swirling around elsewhere. It's a reminder too that at the very
heart of the movie remains the true story of death and mutilation upon which a good deal of
faction has been, and no doubt will be, built.
Noir often takes the audience with it into both low life and high life, places where the
stench of corruption is inevitably the same. Black Dahlia is no exception, as Bucky's
investigation into Short's lesbianism leads him to femme fatale Madeline Linscott (Hilary
Swank) and, through her, to her wealthy family - whose cruel dysfunctionality is entirely
what an alert audience would expect in such circumstances. There's an awkward dinner scene
between them and the cop that has excited some comment, some seeing it as unintentionally
funny or awkward. But these are people whose lineage reaches back through Noah Cross and
General Sternwood, families whose respectable veneer can cover a multitude of sins, as completely
as a coroner's sheet covers a stiff in a field. They are a lot of things, but such families are
rarely normal. De Palma's scene may not be ideal (and Hartnett is no help to the director once
again) but at least it reflects a dark artificiality and the ludicrousness of polite society
pretending what it is not.
De Palma's showpieces are, as always, ultimately what make his film. There are none of the great
circling movements of the camera that are such a mannerism in his earlier work, although the
director's use of the crane remains striking. Welled up by a great score by Mark Isham, it's a
high angle shot of a neighbourhood shortly before a shooting in the first part of the film which
stays in the memory first this time, closely followed by a dramatic steps scene as one of the
cops faces his personal demons - a type of setting for which De Palma evidently has a weakness,
as it recalls the more famous one in The Untouchables (1987). De Palma's use of depth of
field is frequently also striking. For those who admire this auteur, these are the moments that
make a good few of the weaknesses elsewhere forgivable.
Black Dahlia has clearly inspired the director to produce one of his most baroque and
grandiose visions out of his recent films and, even with all the reservations and grumblers,
it still ought not to be missed. For even at less than his absolute best, De Palma's death scene
for Elizabeth Short remains worth investigating.
There were no DVD extras on the sample review-disc.