Published on November 29th, 2006 | by Hans Fruck0
The Black Dahlia
Let’s not beat around the bush: I’ve taken shits with more artistic merit than Brian De Palma’s latest film, The Black Dahlia.
From start to finish, this is an abomination. No one, except the audiences who manage to sit through it, emerges with any credit whatsoever. That, in itself, is a remarkable un-achievement because at least two of De Palma’s actors, Hilary Swank and Scarlett Johansson, are capable of very fine work. The fact that even they get co-opted into shitfulness is a measure of just what a car wreck The Black Dahlia is.
The film is adapted from the James Ellroy novel of the same name. The novel is based on the infamous real-life killing of a young woman called Betty Short in Los Angeles, 1947. Ellroy’s story plumbs the depths of corruption in the LAPD and plunges deep into the psycho-sexual fever swamp, displaying a fascination with masochism and a compensatory ardour for bloody justice.
Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart play two LAPD detectives, Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, who become partners and investigate the murder. Blanchard’s girl is Kay (Johansson), a former hooker who Blanchard rescued from the clutches of an abusive pimp. Before you can say “predictable sexual triangle”, De Palma has engineered a predictable sexual triangle. Blanchard, Bleichert, and Kay exchange smouldering stares. It’s clear that Kay wants to ride Bleichert like a little pony. A feeling Bleichert plainly reciprocates. Alas, there’s Blanchard and all sorts of noble self-denial to consider. (At length, it’s revealed that Blanchard would much rather do Betty Short (Mia Kirshner) anyway. Unfortunately for him, Betty is playing hard to get — because, you know, she’s dead and stuff.)
The development of the Bleichert-Blanchard partnership, their love triangle with Kay, and the murder investigation are, frankly, only minimally interesting. So I awaited the entrance of Hilary Swank into the film with bated breath. Here, I thought, is a dual-Oscar-winning actress who can rise above the shitty script and lame-arse direction. It’s my sad duty to report that Hilary couldn’t halt, or even slow, the arseward slide of The Black Dahlia.
The Swankster, an indubitably fine actress, is horribly, horribly miscast as a femme fatale. As an actress, Swank is many, many things. But sexy ain’t one of ’em. I mean, I don’t wanna put too fine a point on it, but in her two Oscar wins the Swankster played a female boxer and a girl who dressed up as a boy and wrassled, dildonically, with other girls.
In The Black Dahlia, Swank plays rich bitch Madeleine Something-or-Other. Mads believes in sexual healing: she’ll spread the good stuff far and wide. Women, men, maybe even family members — she’ll fuck ’em all. For this to sink its fangs into the audience, it needs to be delectably decadant and more than a bit titillating. Unfortunately, Swank just can’t bring sufficient fuckability to her character to make it hang together. Her repeated grappling with Josh Hartnett is about as sexy as Graeco-Roman wrestling.
Like any femme fatale worth her salt, Mads is mixed up in the Betty Short murder. I couldn’t tell you the exact nature of Mads’ entanglement because, to be honest, I’m not sure I followed it all. And that’s one of the problems with translating Ellroy to the screen: he packs his novels so full of secondary characters and subplots that you can have a two-hour film that’s comprehensive or one that coherent — but not both. In LA Confidential, another Ellroy adaption, Brian Helgeland prefers coherence, cutting the story back to its essentials and producing a fine film. De Palma tries for comprehensiveness, squeezing everything in, giving all plot points fleeting treatment, only to end up with a heaving, incoherent mess.
In most films with tricky plots, writers and directors foreshadow their bamboozling twists so that when they happen the twists feel, in retrospect, organic and inevitable. In The Black Dahlia, which even in novel form was saddled with a series of ludicrous plot reversals, each twist seems random, undictated by what preceded it.
But even worse than the convoluted plot are the acting and direction. Honestly, Josh Hartnett being an actor makes as much sense as Adolf Hitler being a social worker. Hartnett’s constipated face-pulling at the end of the film would be hilarious if he weren’t trying so very, very hard. Unbelievably, Scarlett Johansson is almost as bad, and Aaron Eckhart even worse.
To be fair to the actors, they’re hopelessly sabotaged by De Palma’s unhinged direction. It’s difficult to work out what on earth De Palma thought he was doing. He can’t seem to settle on one style, continually chopping and changing between several. The film starts out like a fairly standard period policer. Unexpectedly, it morphs into a pastiche, mimicking the conventions of a forties-style noir, like Double Indemnity, or a Hitchcockian thriller, like Vertigo. De Palma and his cast even seem to aim for slapstick comedy in the scene in which Bleichert has dinner with Madeleine’s family — simultaneously the film’s best and worst sequence.
Thus, we have Hartnett playing his character straight, yet Johansson swanning about theatrically like Barbara Stanwyck, not to mention Fiona Shaw who plays Madeleine’s mother, Ramona, in a performance that takes the cake for batshit insanity. Because the film can’t settle on a style and sensibility nor can the audience. It’s an unsettling experience watching The Black Dahlia because you’re never sure whether you should be straightfaced or sniggering.
De Palma compounds all of his other errors with ostentatious camera work. The discovery of Betty Short’s body is one long take with multiple moving parts. It’s technically impressive, but unmotivated. There’s no reason for it; it’s a mismatch between style and content. And then there’s the equally unmotivated tic of filming Johansson in soft focus. In a scene with Hartnett, he’s filmed normally, but every time the camera switches to her, she’s in soft focus. But why, you wonder. For the love of god, WHY?
If you’re charitable, you might read the film as an artily self-conscious story not about murder but about Hollywood itself. This might explain the The Black Dahlia‘s flaunted artificiality. After all, its most interesting scenes are when Bleichert watches film of Betty Short’s auditions. She’s an aspiring actress and some of her speech direct to camera when she reads for parts is quite affecting. Sadly for Betty, she can’t act for shit (the ironies keep multiplying) and winds up on the receiving end of a dildo in a lesbionic “nudie” film. Metaphor anyone?
But De Palma’s show-offy style, his homages to Hitchcock, and his arch-insiderism make for an unpalatable mix. It’s all too incestuous. A film about film that’s conscious of its own filminess and is set in the world’s film capital is too relentlessly inbred — and ends up producing something that’s missing several cinematic chromosomes and a shitload of IQ.
It saddens me to say this about a film directed by the maestro responsible for Scarface, but if I were to sum up The Black Dahlia in one word, it’d be…
-Hans Sebastian Fruck