Friday, September 15, 2006

The Black Dahlia - Movie Review

The Black Dahlia 2006

The Black Dahlia” is the latest cinematic take on what is perhaps Los Angeles most infamous murder mystery of all time – the brutal death of aspiring actress and full time slut, Elizabeth Short whose eviscerated corpse was found in an empty lot in 1947. It is based on the rip roaring novel, freely expounding on the facts by the famed chronicler of sunny California’s seediest murders, James Ellroy and directed by that hit-em-and-miss maestro of lush gruesomeness, Brian De Palma. And it is one gloriously delicious bad movie. Sad to say.
There were so many wonderful things to enjoy while watching “The Black Dahlia”, that we sound positively ungrateful with the final product. Well, we’re sorry Brian. Honestly. We have adored your work in the past: “Sisters”, “Carrie”, “Dressed to Kill”, “Blow Out”, “Body Double”, “Casualties of War” and the more recent and mind numbingly visceral “Femme Fatale”. (We forgive you for your infamous failures: “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “Mission to Mars” and forgive others for praising the dwindling returns of “Scarface”, “The Untouchables” and “Mission: Impossible”.) But back to your latest. We praise you to the skies for undertaking one of the most famed True Crime stories, casting a delightful mix of talented and attractive stars and hunks, hiring a superb Oscar winning list of designers, production team and one awesomely talented cinematographer – all of which placed you miles above the competition . . . but then, well then you had to go and blow it. Sorry. It is true. We cannot lie to our fans.

The novel by James Ellroy was a macabre, entertaining piece of crime fiction that managed to pay homage to the brief, sad life of Elizabeth Short while incorporating some very fascinating tidbits about the corrupt system that ran throughout the film industry, police force and public offices of mid twentieth century Los Angeles. The notion that Betty Short was murdered as a sort of sacrificial lamb to the injustices of Hollywood society played out richly in a tapestry that included vice and drama all along the labyrinthine way.

Perhaps it was too much for one film to handle. The novel would play beautifully as an extended mini-series that allowed the director and writer to expand on those ideas. Here, they are truncated into a murder mystery whodunit, that doesn’t allow enough time to soak in the various storylines and can’t quite break the code in allowing them to freely flow together. When we learn who is responsible (in this fictional piece, the jury is still out on the real murder or is it?), it comes far too late and far too obliquely to be believed. Now, normally we hesitate to compare the original novel to the screen adaptation, since they are two distinct mediums - but our problems with the film version seem to stem from a failed attempt to find a cinematic voice for the piece and it fairly screams "BOOK ADAPTATION" at every failed turn. Obviously, Curtis Hanson was able to crack the code when he adapted Ellroy's "L.A. Confidential" so successfully a decade ago, what went wrong with Brian De Palma?

The good news is the look and feel of the film. Starting out with that champion Oscar winning cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond who crafted some of the most ravishing films of the 1970s: “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”, “Deliverance”, “Images”, “The Long Goodbye”, “The Sugarland Express”, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “The Deer Hunter”. To the excellent production design led by Martin Scorsese’s longtime collaborator, Dante Ferretti and polished off by the beautiful skills of Oscar winning costume designer Jenny Beavan, who scored five of her eight Oscar nominations with films created from those harbingers of ravishing visuals, Merchant & Ivory! This is one of the most handsome films of the year.

To fill out those finely crafted costumes and bathe in the flattering light, De Palma has cast a very good looking and talented team of players. Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart go square jaw to square jaw (literally) as pugilists turned police officers who enter into a twisted symbiotic relationship that includes Eckhart’s live in flame, the perfectly cast Scarlett Johansson. This trio anchor the story quite well, despite the varied degrees of acting talents involved. We’re looking at you, Josh – you may be very fuckable, but nobody has ever shortlisted you for thespian gifts.

As Officer Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert, Josh Hartnett has finally found a role that doesn’t embarrass his acceptable but limited range as an actor. He has always been fairly decent at glowering and foisting his mitts when necessary, and here the part calls for little more. Perhaps an exuberant grunt or lustful stare, which thankfully Josh is capable of. Enjoy the praise, while you can, Joshy.

Aaron Eckhart has proven his acting skills in many previous films, so how strange is it that here he is outshone by Josh Hartnett? Well, to a point. As Sergeant Leland “Lee” Blanchard, we think either Aaron was sleepwalking through the role or his best scenes are somewhere on the cutting room floor. Possibly a mix of both. He is never God awful, or embarrassing – merely not half as interesting a presence as other performers. To wit, the distaff side of this grisly little thriller.

Scarlett Johansson has always been a striking figure, if not the most accomplished actress. When the role is a perfect match, she shines. Such as her wonderful turns in “Ghost World” or last year's “Match Point”. Here she portrays Kay Lake, one of those whispering blondes that thrived in Film Noirs from the 40s. A combination of Lizabeth Scott and Veronica Lake. Pliant, accommodating, alluring, with a girlish sense of humor hidden under years of semi-gloss finish there is obviously something more to this young lady than merely being Lee’s live in love.

But Kay Lake is certainly not the only mystery lady around town, for into Bucky’s investigation of the Betty Short murder walks a willowy stunner named Madeleine Linscott. As Madeleine, two time Oscar winning Best Actress Hilary Swank delivers the home run performance. Her Madeleine may have sprung from watching too many classic Film Noirs, but she is the only actor brave enough to attempt to match their heightened tone and succeed. It may not be the performance of the year, since the material is so uneven, but Hilary gets major points for attempting the risk. Her Madeleine is a man and woman eating cobra that brings Bucky to his knees while whispering promises of secrets revealed that just might crack this headline charting mystery.

And this is where we should have gotten off the speeding trolley car and demanded our money back. For once Madeleine enters the picture, the tone is thrown out the window in pursuit of a cinematic path to closure that desperately eludes De Palma. The flashbacks revealing a pathetically yearning Betty Short resorting to a life of vice should have acted as a wonderful foil for the investigation into her death, but they seem to point up the bigger problems in “The Black Dahlia”. The storylines of Bucky, Lee, Kay and Madeleine are too rich and interesting in their own intertwined passions to be diluted by the ghost of a girl that Hollywood quickly devoured. We care more for the four lead actors than the young woman who in reality suffered through one of the most senseless crimes in LaLaLand’s history.

Her story becomes less of a metaphor and more of a nuisance that completely unravels by the films finale which is too out of left field to be acceptable even in the heavy lidded world of Film Noir. Which is a shame indeed, for we enjoyed many aspects of “The Black Dahlia”, from the sumptuous look of the piece to the typically ornate set pieces that have made De Palma a respected director. At least we left the theatre feeling the genuine effort involved even if we didn’t care for the particulars. Not to worry, Brian, we have faith in your talents and will be the first ones in line for your next offering. Bless you all!

Directed by Brian De Palma
Screenplay by Josh Friedman
Based on the novel by James Ellroy

Josh Hartnett as Ofcr. Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert
Aaron Eckhart as Sgt. Leland “Lee” Blanchard
Scarlett Johansson as Kay Lake
Hilary Swank as Madeleine Linscott
Mia Kirshner as Elizabeth Short
Fiona Shaw as Ramona Linscott
John Kavanagh as Emmet Linscott
Rachel Miner as Martha Linscott
Mike Starr as Russ Millard
Gregg Henry as Pete Lukins
Rose McGowan as Sheryl Saddon
k.d. lang as Lesbian Bar Singer

Cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond
Film Editing by Bill Pankow
Costume Design by Jenny Beavan
Production Design by Dante Ferretti
Art Direction by Pier Luigi Basile and Christopher Tandon
Set Decoration by Elli Griff, Bruce L. Luizzi and Rick Simpson
Original Music by Mark Isham


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