The Black Dahlia Review
The Black Dahlia is a real film by a real filmmaker and we get so few of those nowadays that it’s tempting to praise it simply for existing. It’s incredibly exciting to see a film by a director who knows the value of technique and is such a master of the fundamental basis of cinema – the image. A director often criticised for placing style over substance (or in his words, style over content), he realises that cinema is as much about style as substance and that in film, it’s entirely acceptable for style to be the substance.
But the paradox is that The Black Dahlia is packed with substance as well as style. The complex plot is set in Los Angeles during 1947, the year of the ‘Zoot Suit’ riots when civic corruption was widespread and being a cop could bring in a nice sideline in earnings from backhanders and blackmail. The story is about two cops who meet as opponents in a ‘charity’ boxing match – Bucky Bleichert (Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Eckhardt). They become friends – joined by Lee’s wife Kay (Johansson) - and, while staking out a small-time hood, they are involved in a life-threatening shootout and, subsequently, the discovery of a bisected woman’s body in a field. The woman is Elizabeth Short (Kirshner) and she was to become known as the Black Dahlia. The case begins to become an obsession and gets in the way of the relationship between the cops and Kay. Things become even more complicated when the case begins to implicate the powerful Linscott family, in particular their sexually adventurous daughter Madeleine (Swank).
Strictly speaking, The Black Dahlia isn’t about the Short case per se – Betty Short’s murder is incidental for much of the time to the relationship between Lee, Bucky and Kay. It’s a dark, brooding study of broken people which more than does justice to James Ellroy’s novel – and it’s not surprising that the author is so pleased with the result. The film recreates his world in a way which surpasses that of L.A. Confidential thanks to quite stunning set designs by Dante Ferretti and some gorgeously atmospheric lighting from Vilmos Zsigmond. Indeed, on the whole I think this is a superior film because it’s less neat. The loose ends of the plot don’t tie up and that reflects Ellroy’s dark, despairing view of the world far better than the tidy conclusion of Curtis Hanson’s film. De Palma recognises that Ellroy doesn’t write whodunits and that the audience’s desire to know solutions is one of the things that needs to be subverted. People have said this is an unfeeling or soulless film but that strikes me as a baffling response. The soul of the film lies in Elizabeth Short’s wide, flying-saucer eyes as tears roll down and she opens her sad little life up to the harsh questioning of her unseen director. The film gives her a voice and the song she sings is a horribly tragic one. But there’s also heart in the tale of Lee and Kay and their pathetic secret – the compromises two people make and the small lies they tell to themselves in an attempt to make the past go away, in the full knowledge that it never will. And what about those final moments, when the seemingly romantic ending is subverted in a sequence of shots which pays homage to a number of De Palma’s finest coups-de-cinema.
Essentially, The Black Dahlia tells a tragic story but De Palma is far too inventive to keep it all on one grim note. Instead, he uses genre as a way of varying the narrative and not just the genres we might expect. Of course, we get the cop movie clichés and the film noir style, not to mention the murder mystery and the gothic romance. But what struck me more than anything here was De Palma’s willingness to engage in full-blooded melodrama as not only an academic exercise but as a way of expressing emotion and heightening the intensity of the scenes. Melodrama, of course, is inherently comic as well as dramatic and can reach a pitch of hysteria which becomes simultaneously funny and horrifying. There’s certainly no better way to approach Fiona Shaw’s performance as Mrs Linscott – in her early scene she is a hysterically funny gargoyle but in her pivotal moments during the climax she is like a demented marionette gone out of anyone’s control. Her last scene is played with all the stops out and it’s as if we were watching a junked-out Judy Garland playing Medea. It shouldn’t work and, for some people it doesn’t, but in the context of the melodrama it is the perfect finishing touch.
Throughout the film, De Palma’s technique is dazzling. Even if we accept his flippant comment that he’s more interested in style than content, when the style is as stunning as this then it’s hard to complain. De Palma is one of the few directors around who really values the individual shot as a function of narrative – the idea that the camera can be as important to the story as the characters or the dialogue – and in this respect he has rarely erred, even in his lesser works. The control in The Black Dahlia is exemplary – take, for example, the discovery of the Dahlia’s body which takes place as an aside during a shootout as part of a carefully conceived crane shot. De Palma is taking us to the heart of the story saying, “Look how random this is, look how arbitrary tragedy is!” and having grabbed us, he delays any more revelations for a good few minutes. Then there’s the use of subjective camera to heighten the awkwardness of the first meeting with the Linscotts – and to emphasise that we’re seeing them from Bucky’s point of view. De Palma is fascinated with subjectivity and he keeps changing points of view, sometimes very fast but he manages to keep things clear – the use of flashbacks towards the end contains some very effective slow motion to ensure we’re up to speed and it’s fair to say that any ambiguity is deliberate. We get a full range of De Palma techniques here – not e the use of mirrors for example - although some of them - tracking shots for example – are more subtle and controlled than we might expect. He seems to be placing himself in the service of the story and that, perhaps, makes this less of a feast for his fans than the brilliant Femme Fatale. But the set-pieces are as good as ever and De Palma even tries something new – the eerie, oneiric screen tests in which Elizabeth Short reveals herself to us. Only once does he go way over the top in a way which doesn’t quite work and that’s in the lesbian nightclub scene which is oddly reminiscent of a moment from Advise and Consent. It’s funny and well staged – k.d. Lang is a sport – but it seems out of place and, for this viewer, it breaks some of the tension.
Where the film does perhaps disappoint is in some of the performances. There’s nothing wrong with Aaron Eckhardt as Lee, although he always comes across as more of a creative supporting player than a leading man to me, and there’s very solid support from Mike Starr and the excellent John Kavanagh as the monstrous Linscott patriarch – although the latter character is undeveloped and the tendencies of his which resemble those of Noah Cross in Chinatown are sadly unexplored. As discussed above, Fiona Shaw’s performance is highly stylised and a matter of taste but I loved it. The weaknesses in the cast are, however, the central duo of Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson. Scarlett, naturally, looks quite sensational and she offers the promise of erotic heat but this never materialises and she ends up looking a bit mumsy and concerned. It’s not much of a part though and this is probably the only thing she could do with it. Josh Hartnett is adequate but a huge role like this is beyond him. It need someone who is magnetic enough to dominate his scenes but Hartnett proves best, surprisingly, at blending in to the background rather like Robert Duvall did in The Godfather. His emotional range is limited so when he has his big breakdown scene – which should be emotionally devastating – it seems to come out of nowhere. In contrast, the best performances are given by a wickedly sexy Hilary Swank, having loads of shameless fun as a glossy-lipped bisexual tease, and Mia Kirshner as Elizabeth Short.
The Black Dahlia may infuriate filmgoers who want something more conventional and less rambling, and certainly true-crime addicts will be annoyed that it isn’t more about the details of the crime and the subsequent investigation. Some may also voice indignation about the melodrama of the second half and the weaker performances. But I think that, despite certain weaknesses, it is a very impressive film indeed, in which De Palma re-establishes his place at the forefront of American directors. For that reason alone, it’s essential viewing.