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 Chinatown and, 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) quickly confirms.
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.