I think it is time for Brian De Palma to give up on directing and just become a cameraman. His recent slate of films ending with the just released on DVD The Black Dahlia have two shared characteristics, wonderful cinematography and confusing hole-filled plots. For whatever reason De Palma seems unable to combine some beautifully composed shots with a coherent story and good performances.
A film noir homage based on a novel by James Ellroy is enough to excite any mystery nut. LA Confidential combined a complex plot, powerhouse performances, unexpected twists, and a view of Hollywood’s seedy underbelly into one of the best films of the 1990s. The Black Dahlia takes all the same elements and makes a bloated mess. The visual elements serve a nonsensical story delivered by usually solid actors who don’t seem particularly focused on their current characters.
The plot is based on a notorious real-life Los Angeles crime from 1947. Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) is found murdered and mutilated in a vacant lot and two cops, Officer “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Sergeant Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), worm their way into the investigation. Blanchard becomes obsessed with the case, for reasons that, like most of the plot, don’t make much sense. It alienates him from his girlfriend Kay (Scarlett Johansson), moving her closer to Bleichert, who, in turn, pursues slumming rich girl Madeleine Linscott (Hillary Swank), who once had a relationship with Short. That’s the core story, anyway, but the movie piles on red herrings, subplots, loose ends, and extra characters creating a murky soup that never quite clears up.
One huge problem that Director Brian De Palma and Screenwriter Josh Friedman seem not to have considered is that the movie is called The Black Dahlia, not The Adventures of Bucky and Lee, et. al. Although Kirshner gives one of the better performances, she’s limited to screen tests and stag films, and the movie doesn’t even focus on her murder for huge sections. The relationship between the two officers (nicknamed Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice, with personalities to match) and their relationship with Kay dominates the story. Unfortunately, the usually reliable Eckhart and Johansson give poor performances, as if their motivations are as unclear to them as they are to the viewer, and Hartnett, who is the focal character, is too drab and dreary to carry the narrative weight.
Because this is film noir, apparently De Palma thought it was enough to give all the men fedoras and have everyone smoking all the time. He does set a good mood with sets, costumes, lighting, and music, but the weak script and disjointed acting never match the quality of the look. Swank, oddly cast as a femme fatale, and her very dysfunctional family liven up their scenes (and allow De Palma to pay homage to/ripoff Chinatown), but they unfortunately have such an improbable role in the climax that even if the scene weren’t laughably over-the-top, the lack of believability would have sunk it anyway.
Again, this whole thing was done much better nearly 10 years ago (or later this year, with Hollywoodland). De Palma has made a career out of ripping off other movies and directors, sometimes doing them one better. Surprisingly, he abandons his trademark action set pieces providing only a brief uninteresting gun fight. With more action, less distracting storylines, focus on the title character, and better dialogue, he may have been on to something. Instead, try cuing up an old 50’s bluesy cocktail lounge CD and watching this movie with the sound turned off. You’ll enjoy it more.
This one disc set puts the best feature of the movie, the look, on display to good effect. The transfer is clear and crisp and the sound is sharp. De Palma makes full use of the shadows and camera angles that are recognizable from the film noir genre of the 40’s and 50’s and they are beautiful to behold, even on the small screen.
The film lacks a director or writer commentary. Although that usually doesn’t bother me too much for movies I didn’t particularly enjoy (although, honestly, every major release should have some sort of commentary), in this case, I was slightly disappointed. The film was shot in Bulgaria of all places and it would have been fun to have the producers or production designer explain how they made it look like 1940’s Los Angeles.
There are three pretty good featurettes, which somewhat offset the lack of a commentary. “The De Palma Touch” and “The Case File” are separate items, but should be viewed together as one long substantial “making-of” featurette, about 35 minutes total. “The De Palma Touch” covers not only De Palma, but other aspects of production including the excellent cinematography and aforementioned production design. De Palma discusses how a relatively small budget for a period film required some lengthy combined shots that altered the book but are pretty interesting to watch. “The Case File” deals more with the book as written by James Ellroy, the script, and the casting process. The main cast members talk about the film and their characters and Ellroy talks quite a bit about writing the book and how long it took to become a movie.
The other featurette, “Reality and Fiction” ostensibly covers the real Black Dahlia murder case. In an interesting parallel to the movie itself, this extra uses the murder information sparingly and primarily focuses on why Ellroy became interested in the murder (his mother was also murdered and that crime was also never solved) and what led him to write the book. It’s somewhat sad to listen to him talking about his obsession with the case and how he feels the movie is culmination of everything he’s worked on related to it for basically his whole life. After hearing that, I really wanted the movie to be better than it was.
I was impressed with the bulk of the extras included. Those, combined with the overall visuals in the movie and a few decent performances if you look past the three leads makes this something worth renting in a few months when the other new releases are gone. Go in with fairly low expectations and watch the extras and you might pass a semi-enjoyable evening.