Brian De Palma’s ‘The Black Dahlia’

The Black Dahlia,” directed by Brian De Palma, screenplay by Josh Friedman based on the novel by James Ellroy. Starring Josh Hartnett (Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert), Aaron Eckhart (Leeland “Lee” Blanchard), Scarlett Johansson (Kay Lake), Hillary Swank (Madeleine Linscott) and Mia Kirshner (Elizabeth Short). Universal Pictures.

(Contains spoilers. You have been warned)

While not quite the “Heaven’s Gate” of film noir, “The Black Dahlia” is a long (121 minutes), bloated, confusing, self-important, self-consciously artsy movie undermined by miscasting, absurd plot turns, naive symbolism, an utter disdain for history and laughable overacting that make Robert Towne’s ponderous, plodding “Chinatown” sequel, “Two Jakes” (1990), look like a taut thriller. After what may be a strong opening weekend thanks to heavy marketing, interest should plummet except among the most ardent fans of De Palma, Ellroy and the Dahlia murder.

As regular blog readers will know, “The Black Dahlia” is based on Ellroy’s 1987 novel, which in turn is distantly related to the unsolved 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, an unemployed 22-year-old cashier and waitress whose gruesomely mutilated body was posed in a vacant lot just off Crenshaw in the 3800 block of South Norton Avenue between Coliseum and 39th Street.

I last read Ellroy’s novel in 1996 and have no desire to renew my acquaintance with it, but if my recollections are correct, Friedman and De Palma have stayed fairly close to the plot, which is one of the movie’s worst flaws. Recall, for example, that director Curtis Hanson and screenwriter Brian Helgeland radically altered, restructured and streamlined “L.A. Confidential” in filming the movie. Granted, the story arc of “L.A. Confidential” wilts a bit more with each viewing, but it’s quite forceful the first time.

The most marked difference between “Dahlia” and other classics of the more recent genre is that although “L.A. Confidential” is firmly planted in the 1950s and Chinatown” takes place in the 1930s, De Palma’s film has shallow roots “once upon a time in Los Angeles.”

Clearly, a movie nominally set in 1943-47 in which the lead characters attend a silent movie (above, “The Man Who Laughs, 1928–note that the characters are sitting in the balcony, which was reserved for blacks back in the ugly days of segregation. And look at the man right behind Harnett. He’s smoking. In a theater?? Oops!) has nothing but contempt for the past, which is reflected in a thousand ways, from male actors’ scruffy haircuts (see above) and inability to wear hats (at right) properly to a laughable lesbian nightclub scene (below) featuring K.D. Lang in top hat and tails singing “Love for Sale,” which rather than depicting the classic film noir era is most evocative of “Bugsy Malone,” a far more accurate film. Note to Elisabeth Fry, personal hairstylist for Eckhart: Men’s haircuts in the 1940s look like Red Manley’s, above. I mean really!

One can find fatal flaws in virtually every area of this movie with little effort—in fact the most difficult task in critiquing the film is remembering everything that’s wrong with it.

First, there’s the dialogue: “She looks like that dead girl! How sick are you?”—not quite “She’s my sister and my daughter,” is it? Then there’s miscasting (at 31, Kirshner is much too old to play the 22-year-old Black Dahlia), opulent production design by Dante Ferretti (at right, police officers lived like this on LAPD pay? Who knew?), music (Mark Isham in the entirely predictable “cue mournful trumpet” genre), odd costuming—Friday casual for the men, fall collection for the women—(Jenny Beavan), down to the crowd scenes, which are busy to the point of distraction. And I wish I had the cigarette holder franchise on this film. I would be a rich man.

Even special effects are misused, with an earthquake that serves no purpose except to underline an obvious plot turn. Granted, the overly complex story is almost impossible to follow, but in this instance, De Palma must assume the audience has an IQ of about 50. And unlike the shocking and painfully realistic nose-slitting scene in “Chinatown,” the far worse violence inflicted on the Black Dahlia is amusingly fake. If De Palma was hoping to make a slasher flick, he failed badly.

Nor does Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography escape a rap on the knuckles for a ridiculous lesbian stag film (presumably made at a cost surpassing the combined budgets of all blue movies produced from the 1920s to the 1950s), and a self-conscious and overly elaborate shot in which partners Blanchard (Eckhart) and Bleichert (Hartnett) engage in a shootout, followed by the camera slowly rising up floor by floor of an entire apartment building, proceeding to a befuddling shot of the building’s roof before it at last discovers the Black Dahlia’s body in a vacant lot in the adjoining block. As visual storytelling, this is a grandiose and miserable failure. It reminds me of Leni Riefenstahl’s famous rising shot in “Triumph of the Will,” except that one works and this one doesn’t.

And then there’s Fiona Shaw, (below) who chews so much scenery that she must have been rushed to an oral surgeon to have the splinters removed.

For that matter—and perhaps this is what makes the heart

of the film beat so faintly—there is very little of the Black Dahlia in “The Black Dahlia,” who only surfaces far into the picture.

In fact, the first 30 or 40 minutes are devoted to boxing matches between the two detectives, nicknamed “Fire” and “Ice” from the Symbolism 101 school of writing. (I know it’s in the book, but that’s no excuse).

The bouts lead up to a prizefight intended to win support for an LAPD bond measure (yawn). There’s an awful lot of 10-ounce gloves, blood and a couple of front teeth thrown around by Blanchard and Bleichert as they fight it out, then traverse L.A. with Lake (Johansson), who is nominally Blanchard’s girlfriend but has much more interest in Bleichert. In theory, a torrid triangle might juice up the plot, but “Dahlia” plays this interest as flat as a day-old Pepsi.

Speaking of Symbolism 101, we have Kay Lake, all in white with peroxide hair and Madeleine Linscott (Swank) entirely in black. Get it?

It’s only after all this boxing and De Palma’s version of the Zoot Suit riots (let’s get this straight: the cops are beating up sailors during World War II to protect Mexicans?) that the film discovers the Black Dahlia’s body in that artsy shot. For the record, the body, rather than horrifying, looks laughably fake and what can I say about a crow landing at the crime scene and being chased away except I know someone who flunked Symbolism 101.

So where is the Black Dahlia in this confusing mess? She exists entirely on film. Of course in real life, Elizabeth Short never got a screen test or even appeared in a school play, but De Palma gives her one and Kirshner, trying her best at the impossible task of acting 22, makes it as pitiful as possible (Costuming note: A screen test in which the actress has big runs in her nylons?) with an intentionally miserable reading of Vivian Leigh’s famous monologue from “Gone With the Wind.”


The handling of the crime scene? Ridiculous even by Hollywood’s lax standards (note to anyone who ever wants to be a homicide detective: No smoking!). Vintage black-and-white police cars swarming the streets (bonus fact: there isn’t a single black-and-white in the original pictures. Check if you don’t believe me) and detectives bellowing instructions like some shark-jumping 1970s cop show that any good investigator would already know. Ditto the morgue.

Anybody who knows anything about investigative procedures will laugh themselves sick at this movie. I’m especially thinking of one of the more surreal scenes in which Bleichert attempts to question a young woman (Rose McGowan) who is wearing an Egyptian/Babylonian costume that is only explained at the end of the scene—not that anyone cares by that point.

Running a close second is the interrogation of a juvenile suspect (in the book, her name is Linda Martin). In reality, Lynne Martin had to be questioned by juvenile officers because she was underage, but this becomes another victim of De Palma’s contempt for the past.

From this point, the movie lurches from one absurdity to another. Blanchard dies while fighting a tall, skinny man with steel-rim glasses who looks like James Ellroy’s double (Bill Finley) and they plunge over the railing of a steep staircase, falling several floors. What to do with the bodies? Well this is De Palma, so Bleichert watches as his alleged friend/partner is cremated in the basement incinerator. Think the department might start asking rude questions about what happened to him? And how about Lake?

Then there’s the contrasting love/sex scenes, and it’s obvious De Palma hasn’t a clue how to stage either one. The sex scene, between Harnett and Johansson, occurs in the dining room, when, overcome with passion, Bleichert rips away the tablecloth, sending dishes everywhere, and has his way with Lake. Isham’s score is lushly romantic, an oddly contrasting choice of music, and amour like this is sure tough on the Havilland china and the Baccarat crystal.

The love scene, between Swank and Harnett (above, in a Friday-casual day in the Homicide Division), is just as amusing with Bleichert and Linscott having a little pillow talk while she’s wearing nothing but huge pearl earrings and a long matching necklace with pearls the size of small onions, ensuring, I would imagine, a rather bumpy ride.

And about those crazy—and I mean crazy—Linscotts. (At right, Swank and John Kavanagh grieve over the loss of a Ming vase). Bleichert knows exactly how to make rich people confess to murder: Use their valuable antiques for target practice. The last time I checked, police revolvers hold six rounds, so unless Bleichert was planning to fight off one of them as he reloaded I can’t imagine what he thought he would do after his sixth question. Then again, not everybody can send a crystal chandelier crashing to the floor with one shot—some of us need two. (If J.J. Gittes had taken a few potshots at Noah Cross’ art collection “Chinatown” would have been a much different film).



And while you’re at it, Bucky, take out a couple of those clown paintings, please.

Did I mention Fiona Shaw? Just keep an eye on her.

My prediction? After this movie, the Black Dahlia will be radioactive at the box office for years.

(I just realized something. With that haircut, Josh Harnett looks like Shemp Howard).

Larry Harnisch
Lmharnisch.com

Lmharnisch.blogspot.com

ps: Nathan says:

Nice work!

I’ve tried to post a comment, but Blogger won’t let me (says I have an invalid password, and it won’t let me start a new account, oh well). My comment would have read as such –

If you want to get nitpicky about historical accuracy…assuming someone does…please allow me to continue the conversation.

In 1947, the featured Rosslyn Hotel had two neon blade signs, not one. Of course spending the money on the CGI to add the other blade would be too much to ask, as long as I wasn’t the one asking it.

And in the alley where Our Heroes beat up GIs, there’s a seven-digit phone number on a wall advertisement, ie, 555-4689 or somesuch. I trust I don’t have to tell readers here how wrong that is.

The switch from yellow 45 plates with the 46 sticker to 47 black plates is abrupt, and works in theory, but I’d have to see the picture again to make certain it was done correctly. Of course not everyone in Los Angeles switched to the black plate in the first weeks of January.

I will say this, if there’s ANY reason to see this movie, it’s Fiona Shaw. She will go down as the great guilty pleasure, like watching Mantan Moreland get all googly-eyed in one of his 40s “spook” pictures.

thanks again,

Nathan

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About lmharnisch

I work at the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1947, Black Dahlia, Books and Authors, Cold Cases, Crime and Courts, Homicide, LAPD, Uncategorized, Zoot Suit and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Brian De Palma’s ‘The Black Dahlia’

  1. Larry says:

    NATHAN says: I’m hoping that the Rights for Clowns Committee, or the Clown Respect Action Brigade, or whomever, pickets this movie, because it presents Clown Paintings as evil catalysts for brutal torture-killings. And makes Hillary Swank make out with her Scot dad–wait, what was that about? A reference to Tamar and George?There is one interchange in the film that was almost amusing:Bucky: I don’t undsertand modern art.Madelaine: It doesn’t understand you either. I don’t know if that couplet is in the book or not. I don’t think so, because it’s not very well constructed.What would have been funnier:Bucky: I don’t understand modern art.Madelaine: Neither does Jackson Pollock. Or, more apropos:Bucky: I don’t understand modern art.Madelaine: That’s not modern art. That’s a fucking clown painting.And then it goes on something like this:Bucky: Your father has all these Ming vases, and he hangs up clown paintings? Madelaine: You’ll understand in Act III.Bucky: Okay. Though promise me one thing.Madelaine: Anything, lover.Bucky: If I start shooting up this place, your Ming vase, the chandelier, and so forth, make sure I put a bullet in that horror. Madelaine: You don’t think it has a sort of kitsch quality?Bucky: That may fly fifty years from now, sister, and someday our kids will buy black velvet Elvis paintings too.Madelaine: Who’s Elvis?Bucky: He’s only twelve years old at the moment. You’ll understand that in Act III. Madelaine: Uh-huh. And so forth.

  2. Brooke (aka curious) says:

    LOL! Great review! This film sounds even worse than the trailer made it look. Is it tomorrow that the Black Dahlia ‘America’s Most Wanted’ (w/your interview) airs?

  3. Don says:

    Great review. I couldn’t agree more.I was especially disturbed by the fact that DePalma (or some Art Director along the way) decorated Lee’s “lair” with both pictures of Mia Kirshner in character and actual morgue shots. It seems to me that if you’re making this type of historical fiction, the least you could do is not use photos of a body as set-dressing. But, hey, what do I know?I was also really disturbed by the stag film with more edits than most music videos, the screentests with their fluid camera movement, and almost all the acting, dialogue, and score, but, you know, in a different way…Thanks Larry, keep up the good work…

  4. Larry says:

    Nice to know I have such literate readers…. I sometimes wonder. I didn’t like seeing the morgue shot either. It’s buried under the Mia Kirshner stuff so I didn’t want to call attention to it and didn’t mention it. For that matter, the PR kit for the movie has better shots of the morgue scene and having seen the originals, the attempt to re-create Elizabeth Short’s body doesn’t work at all. It’s realistic but obviously fake at the same time. Reminds me of the fake sushi in the front window of Japanese restaurants.I have a lot of respect for Zsigmond. In fact I wanted to do a story for American Cinematographer about “Two Jakes” (I used to free-lance for them a bit) but he had just done “Fat Man and Little Boy,” so they passed. Whatever its problems, “Two Jakes” was gorgeous on film.

  5. Hi! I surfed in due to the movie hoopla and the fact that I’d picked up an old unsolved mysteries show a few months ago concerning BD. I must say, after reading of your research, I’m very impressed – it seems very likely to me that the suspect you posit was more likely the killer than any other – I like the fact that you’ve done your own research rather than taking as gospel what has been written by others – it’s the only way to be accurate!

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