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The Black Dahlia

July 31, 2007

It’s worth saying to those who may be considering going to see Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, or reading James Ellroy’s dense and gruesomely florid novel, that the story is in fact a true one. There was indeed a poor, wretched unfortunate by the name of Elizabeth Short – posthumously nicknamed the Black Dahlia by the press – who was killed in January 1947. Not just killed, but cut in half and severely mutilated. So infamous was the case that its net spread wide enough to include, as suspects, Norman Chandler the editor of The Los Angeles Times, Woody Guthrie and Orson Welles! In fact, pretty much any man who stepped into South Los Angeles just after the war was suspected…but it was never solved.

This makes it perfect meat for an Ellroy novel, then. He’s a man who thrives on re-imagining the vast wealth of 20th Century Americana, finding connections, shooting out ideas and threads and echoes. The thing that’s so dizzying about him – other than that the characters he creates (or re-creates from real life) leap out of the page at you – is his ability to handle, with nonchalent ease, the dizzyingly complex interconnectedness of things. The Black Dahlia is the start of his most famous sequence, The LA Quartet, it is the prequel to the prequel to LA Confidential. The great thing about Ellroy is that he never falters, you might not like what he has to say, and he may prefer the sledgehammer to the gentle tap on the shoulder, but it’s all there in the shake up and he can see the far-reaching consequences even if you can’t. The man just goes bulldozing on, because he has a vision.

And that segues rather neatly to the film.

So, if the novel of The Black Dahlia is the prequel to the prequel to LA Confidential how does the movie compare? Is it as good as Curtis Hanson’s elegiac rendering of the same kind of material? Is there a James Cromwell in there, a Kevin Spacey, a career-defining Guy Pearce (Ed Exley take a bow)? Is there a hang-on-let-me-catch-up plot, or great slabs of memorable quote, quote, quote and quote again dialogue (“I admire you as a policeman, particularly your adherence to violence as a necessary adjunct to the job”) that sticks with you. In short, does it measure up?

Well, no, not really. The Black Dahlia does a Brett “just the facts” Chase job for the first hour, following the careers of Detectives Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), but is relatively uninspired until the discovery of Short (Mia Kirshner, whom all 24 aficionados will remember as gorgeous killer Mandy). This – during one of De Palma’s trademark one-shot pans a la The Bonfire of the Vanities opener – is rather confusingly curtailed by the intrusion of another story, but it does make you sit up and take notice nevertheless. Here’s that interconnectedness, I’m thinking. Go for it, go on, do something interesting. Stretch us, throw us with the story, the bewildering confection the source material gave you…use it!

But, the moment is wasted, and soon we settle back down into an uninspiring murder by numbers wander through a selection of plot signposts from the book. Oh it’s this bit, oh it’s that bit, so you’re not doing that bit then? I don’t know what it is about De Palma that annoys me so much, maybe it’s too much self-conscious trickery (HUGE close-ups on one side of the screen, with eavesdropping background action on the other side; unnecessary blobs of slo-mo; homage-y snippets like the Battleship Potemkin scene in The Untouchables) or the fact that the friggin’ music goes on forever. Forever. Nary a break from this dire lift-muzak plaintive sax. Maybe it’s the fact that he can’t do anything remotely intimate (the pillow talk segments in this, there are ‘dames’ you see, are a joke) or the fact that he just wants to be Hitchcock and ain’t. Whatever it is, I’ll admit that the man sometimes hits a right note and gets a visual spot on, but the next he’s turned into an earnest Sixth Form Film Studies student and is ‘trying something new’ and it’s tiresome and you just want to go. Or maybe it’s the fact that he didn’t have the imagination to cope with the most interesting part of the book where, in the middle of the story, filled with obsession and self-loathing, the Blanchard character ups and leaves and is never heard of again.

I loved that in the book. There’s a super sequence where Bleichert follows his trail to Tijuana (‘TJ’) and gets involved with fresh-outta-stir ex-con Bobbie De Witt and much blood and mayhem later you have dead villains and dead Mexicans and all is thunderously nasty. This – and we’re getting to a dangerous point on my blood pressure scale here – is where we can pretty much draw comparisons to the frankly fucking ridiculous moment in Ocean’s Twelve where the character Julia Roberts is playing has to pretend (sigh) to actually be Julia Roberts to help the plot out. Why does De Palma miss this huge section of the book out? Because it would be difficult to resolve it (Ellroy can, he has the printed word, you see, and manages it), or because it might make the pace drop? Well, Brian, let me let you in to a little secret: THE PACE ALREADY HAS BLOODY WELL DROPPED! Actually, no, it’s for neither of these reasons. The real reason he rewrites the middle eight on this piece – well, Ellroy manages a middle eight, De Palma just whistles along monotonously – is so that he can cobble together a contrived vanity piece, a stupid slow motion copy of the famous Vertigo staircase scene. It’s infuriating. It strikes all the wrong notes, the killer is the same as in the book, but even though they’re only seen in silhouette you can tell who they are. I can’t quite believe it was allowed to stay – but shit, he’s the director, and he wants the kudos for out-Hitching Hitch – yet there it is. What follows reeks of expediency and also compromises the ending, for one of the fatalities in this mid section is, in the book, finally dispatched with just a few pages to go. Hell’s teeth! I know Ellroy’s books are like enormous jigsaws, but surely you could put them together relatively accurately? I know that there are changes in the film of LA Confidential too, but this is as fucked up and butchered as the unlucky Ms Short.

Actually, I won’t bore you with the plot, as it is rather tortuous. One of the weaknesses of the book is that it drags you perhaps a little too far hither and thither before resolution, but this fannying about with the facts in no way tightens things up. It makes it all the worse, and when Bleichert finally gets to the killer’s domain you’re thinking “how did he work that-…oh, never mind, roll credits”.

It’s a shame we see so little of Eckhart (or of Kirshner, otherwise known as ‘the best thing in it’); for this is, after all, Hartnett’s movie (and Hartnett’s girlfriend, Scarlett Johansenn). Eckhart is a damn fine actor, as anyone who saw Thank You For Smoking will agree, but the emphasis here is firmly on the box office, and Hartnett and Johanssen are the kids to watch it seems. Unfortunately, watching them too closely proves to be one more downfall. Neither of them have what it takes. I’m sorry, but they don’t. Johanssen is mighty sexy and can fill out an angora sweater better than anyone but she’s just wrong. Kay, her character, should be foxy and dark and mysterious; a broad with a past. But this is the lass from Ghost World and Lost in Translation! She’s young and silly and light and fluffy and might know all the mannerisms, but there’s no gravitas here, no Bacall-esque edge. Hartnett, on the other hand is as wooden as a boarded-up timber yard in the middle of a redwood forest. Eckhart has a 40s face, a shit-eating grin and a Gary Cooper stance, Hartnett should be introducing the videos on MTV, and he can’t act. He manages to run the gamut of emotions from A to B, without quite making B, and whenever he puts his ‘tec hat on he looks like he’s just borrowed it from his Dad for an inpromptu game of dressing-up.

At the dénouement, a pantomime of pointed guns, too many screaming actors emoting for all their worth, and characters telling other characters stuff they already knew, I started to pick out a few laughs at the back of the cinema.

I’m all for quiet and respect at the movies, but for once I felt like joining in.

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