Saturday, April 28, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.24: Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 26 (D+)

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Curtis Hanson had adapted James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential in 1997, and the result was a masterpiece. Brian De Palma picked up the adaptation of Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia shortly after David Fincher left the project (Fincher’s Zodiac would hit the note Dahlia missed a year later). A great writer, a great director, a terrific noir plot- it seemed like something hard to screw up.

I have vivid memories of The Black Dahlia. In the summer of 2006, I saw the trailer before a showing of (ugh) Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. I was only semi-familiar with De Palma up to this point- I had seen and enjoyed both The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible, while Scarface had left me cold- but the trailer knocked me to the ground. It was stylish, eerie, and it forever burned itself to my memory. I still love that trailer. I was convinced that the film would be one of the best of the year. Then I saw it, and it’d be a fair guess that my bias against De Palma until recent years was based in part on my dislike for the film. After spending several weeks on De Palma’s filmography, I revisited The Black Dahlia with an open mind, hoping to be won over. It’s still terrible.

Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are LAPD police detectives who develop a friendship after an amateur boxing match with each other. Bucky grows close to Lee and his girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). When aspiring actress Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) is brutally murdered, Lee and Bucky are assigned to the case. Lee becomes obsessed with the case, while Bucky starts a relationship with high society socialite Madeline Linscott (Hilary Swank), who may or may not know something about the murder.

That’s the condensed plot. The Black Dahlia has so many threads that go nowhere (Hartnett’s senile father, boxing tie-ins) and plot details confusingly doled out (Lee’s corruption and past life) that it’s unclear in the beginning and barely comprehensible by the end. Noir needs a strong hand and someone highly interested in plot. De Palma isn’t necessarily a bad choice, but The Black Dahlia is so sluggishly paced and confusingly constructed that it’s hard not to think “who’s that person? What’s going on? Why are they doing that this way, and what are the consequences?” This thing is an absolute mess.

To De Palma’s credit, the film looks great. The period detail is meticulously designed, De Palma evokes an Old Hollywood noir feeling and a melancholy tone that’s appropriate for the story, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s hazy cinematography is absolutely terrific (Zsigmond garnered the film’s only Oscar nomination, though the film lost to Pan’s Labyrinth). De Palma brings stylistic bravura to the proceedings (intricate crane shots, split-diopter) along with his voyeuristic sensibility and unhesitant portrayal of violence and sexuality. The best moments of the film are classic stand-out De Palma set-pieces- the tour of a lesbian bar that crosses Old Hollywood underworld to De Palma’s unapologetic portrayal of sleaze, the weird dinner between Hartnett and Swank’s family (Fiona Shaw is amusingly weird as Swank’s mother), a staircase sequence where who’s watching who and why determines who lives and dies. And De Palma brings in some clever film references for his Hollywood-set film, most notably the creepy silent film The Man Who Laughs.

As far as the story goes, there’s exactly one thing De Palma gets right: the casting of Kirshner as Elizabeth Short. Kirshner brings her wide eyes and sad, vulnerable demeanor to portray a young woman whose hopes and dreams are about to be swallowed up by the labyrinth that is Los Angeles. There are only a few glimpses of Kirshner, mostly from a screen-test that deliberately evokes De Palma’s debut film Murder a la Mod (complete with a scolding director played by De Palma himself). Short is a liar, and not a particularly gifted actress, but she’s a tragic character that’s by far the most effective element of the film.

Part of the film’s problem is casting. When Josh Hartnett, not yet thirty years old and looking even younger, shows up as a hard-edged police detective, there’s no way to take him seriously. He’s too young, too contemporary, and kind of a blank; his tone-deaf narration doesn’t help matters. Twenty-two year old Johansson doesn’t fare much better- she may have the look of a classic Hollywood bombshell, but she’s far too contemporary and too young to have a world’s worth of trouble on her shoulders. These two provide a dead center to a dead film.

Miscast as they are, they’re not as hopeless as Hilary Swank is as a femme fatale. Swank doesn’t have the striking looks or intoxicating sexuality of a femme fatale- she’s most famous for playing a tomboy boxer in Million Dollar Baby and a woman posing as a man in Boys Don’t Cry. Worse, she attempts what seems to be an absolutely atrocious Katharine Hepburn impression for her femme fatale character (Hepburn never played a femme fatale). It’s a tone-deaf performance that’s unbelievable when she’s nice and even more unbelievable when she’s nasty. What’s even more mind-boggling is that De Palma uses Swank as a double for Kirshner- part of the film’s plot is that the two look so strikingly similar. The only problem is that they look absolutely nothing alike. Why De Palma didn’t cast Kirshner in both roles (as he has in the past for double roles in Obsession or Femme Fatale) is a mystery.

 Eckhart is more believable (he doesn’t look like he’s in a high school play) as bad-cop Lee, but his shift from normality into obsession comes without any in-between. All of the sudden, he’s obsessed. That’s a problem with most of the film- the film is both sluggishly paced and rushed in its storytelling. There’s never any sense of how much time has passed or what the dynamic has shifted to- we’re just expected to know. Apparently the film was originally going to be three hours and was eventually whittled down to two.  Perhaps the three-hour cut is a stronger film, but it’s hard to think it’d be too much stronger, given the central miscastings. It’s a technically impressive but dramatically inert film, and one of the most disappointing films in a great director’s career.

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