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Thread: Brian De Palma: The Black Dahlia (2006)

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    Brian De Palma: The Black Dahlia (2006)

    Brian De Palma: The Black Dahlia (2006)

    Bravura film-making, and closer to Ellroy than LA Confidential


    Review by Chris Knipp

    James Ellroy is writer whose outlandish and distinctly American imagination is feverish and extreme to the point of seeming borderline psychotic. His page-turners, among which The Black Dahlia and LA Confidential rate highest, are impossible to believe – or put down. Ellroy’s hophead staccato prose is as distinctive as William Burroughs’. His Hollywood quartet – Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, and White Jazz – were all bestsellers when they came out in the late Eighties and early Nineties – times desperate for the taste of eccentricity they provide. Ultimately their best appeal is to edgy young men looking for something sleazy and exciting.

    The James Ellroy world is so lurid it glares off the page at you, screaming and panting. The Ellroy plots are amazing, chaotic disaster areas whose disturbing and paradoxical sense of inner order is provided by the omnipresence of the author’s obsessively unquiet mind, his fascination with evil and violence and desire to track them down. He knows things, and he is going to tell us them, but he deals in curses, dark secrets, concealment, plotting, and it takes time to unearth it all. The narratives are screwed up tight, and they unwind with such increasing energy that the finales are inevitably apocalyptic, as viewers of Curtis Hanson’s 1997 LA Confidential cannot easily forget.

    There’s no ignoring the autobiographical elements in all this. We know Ellroy had reason to be unbalanced early on – and gave every evidence of being so. His mother was raped and murdered when he was ten. The murder was not solved. He became a petty criminal, an addict, and was frequently homeless. Then he settled down and became a writer. His books can be seen biographically as an expiation, a debriefing, a momentary stay against confusion, but you won’t find ultimate tranquility in them. They’re drenched, the two ones we’re talking about, in the tacky grandeur of early Hollywood and the free ranging exploitation, the crime and graft, that accompanied Hollywood’s and Los Angeles’ rapid rise into a great city and great center of wealth and dream-making – the same secretive power-grabbing that underpins Robert Towne’s brilliant screenplay for Polanski’s 1974 Chinatown, the ultimate LA period noir by which all others must be judged.

    Ellroy’s Hollywood crime stories are inherently cinematic, but like many novels that seem “ideal” for film, they’re a huge challenge to do. Their complexity is in the intensity of his relationship with them, none more than with The Black Dahlia, which focuses on the horrible murder of a would-be starlet, Elizabeth “Betty” Short, a notorious unsolved crime that obviously parallels for him the murder of Ellroy’s own mother. Ellroy may partly be the writer of lurid potboilers and his telegraphic style may be borderline illiterate. On the other hand, everything comes into play: the bonds of deep friendship, the nature of work, the edges of a new culture, politics, law, parenthood, the family. This is not a timid man. He takes on the world.

    We had LA Confidential, and now we have The Black Dahlia. It’s inevitable to compare the two movies.

    LA Confidential worked, and was rewarded with many Oscars in its year. But De Palma’s Black Dahlia works too, in ways that may be truer to their source. Curtis Hanson is more the humble craftsman; Brian De Palma, though his stock has long fallen, is more the famous auteur. Hansen may have produced the better movie aided by an incisive screenplay adaptation by Brian Helgeland and an impressive cast, but De Palma has given us a bigger slice of the Ellroy worldview by not slashing and burning the way Brian Helgeland (most ably) cut down LA Confidential to a size that could be made into a movie. Black Dahlia is a different kind of adaptation – not as dramatic a pruning job, and most of the plot elements are there.

    That doesn't mean they're comprehensible, but you're hard put to it to follow Ellroy's plots in the books either. I don't agree that this adaptation makes the Ellroy plot harder to follow than Hanson/Helegeland's. In fact it's crystal clear most of the way through. What's lacking is all the background on the two cops, paired off in a boxing match used to promote a city bill for the police department as "Fire" and "Ice," Sgt. Leland "Lee" Blanchard (Aaron Ekhart) and Ofcr. Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett). While the novel sees the men as sharply contrasted as their fight billing makes them, in Ellroy's world tainted honor and ambiguity are always undermining the lurid moral certainties and the way the two men are linked by the same woman, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johannson). It's true that Johansson and Hartnett, as some reviewers have already said, are not great actors, or do not shine when as underdirected as they may be here. But this is a movie, and they both look wonderful in every scene. Johannson evokes the Forties and earlier movie stars. Hartnett has some of the screen charisma and looks of Cooper, Grant, Jimmy Stewart, or others of that time when matinée idols existed, when they did not do but were. True, Mia Kirshner's Betty Short (seen in a black and white screen test and a lesbian period porn flick) and Hilary Swank's twisted rich girl Madeleine Linscott are memorable performances, but this doesn't mean Hartnett's and Johansson's are throwaways.

    The Black Dahlia may be better than you’d expect it to be but I’m not sure it all comes together. One critic has said it’s more like a pastiche of best moments from De Palma’s earlier films. It does evoke both Carlito’s Way and The Intouchables, to name two. There are plenty of moments when De Palma’s bravura, the way he revels in the cinematic, in atmospheric tracking shots, stunning falls and demolitions and gunfights and glamorous close-ups, is just such a deep pleasure to watch you don’t care if the movie is working or not. It isn’t up to De Palms’s best, and it never captures a mood and a character as Allan Coulter's recent Hollywoodland does, but it’s not a movie I’d want to have missed.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-16-2006 at 10:28 PM.

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    DePalma controversy

    My great love of DePalma and his work brought me to this site. After scanning over the review sites, however, I believe you are generous in your review, Chris, compared to many others. (See today's NY Times article in the movie section, "Say Brian DePalma and let the fighting start," article by A.O.Scott).
    Colige suspectos semper habitos

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    Yes, I've read the excellent piece by Mr. Scott in the Times ab out different opinions on the worth of Brian De Palma's oeuvre. Whether there's a controversy or there are just warring factions, The Black Dahlia has gotten a pretty raw deal, by my estimation. According to the generally reliable "Metacritic," the reviews have rated The Black Dahlia considerably below the still somewhat lukewarmly received Hollywoodland (51 vs. 62). That's all very well, but for anyone interested in period Hollywood as a subject both of these movies are current must-sees. Going by Scott's summaries, I would side with only the more moderate of De Palma's advocates on this one: I admire things in it and enjoyed watching it but I'm not saying it's a great movie or even necessarily one of the year's best (if only some good stuff comes along!). But as for the low rating Black Dahlia has gotten, all I can say is that reviewers have a slight tendency to move in packs. History may be kinder to The Black Dahlia than this. I simply find the principals more satisfying than some critics I've read do, and there's no doubt in my mind that the movie offers a generous supply of De Palma's usual cinematic pleasures, such as splendid long floating vertical tracking shots, murders in grand stairways, lovely color and lighting, rich interiors --- in general a command of the visual and of mise-en-scene that makes many sequences a sheer pleasure to watch. For example there are several sequences in lesbian bars, and one in a lesbian nightclub, that are just the most delicious fantasies; they made me just exclaim with delight as I watched them. In some ways, this director has clearly not lost his touch one bit. To me this is more fun than the enormously elaborate and overlong Femme Fatale. And I don't know whether the majority of the reviewers have read James Ellroy's novels or not, but it's also important that just as Linklater's A Scanner Darkly is the closest to Philip K. Dick, this is the closest to Ellroy of any adaptation thus far. And to a lover of literature, that kind of thing matters too.

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    A bit odd how I agree with a lot of what you wrote, Chris, but liked the film a lot less than you did. You did say that the movie "never captures a mood or a character as Hollywoodland does". That Ellroy's "pageturners are impossible to believe" and that you're "not sure the film comes together". That Harnett and Johanssen "do not shine" (a bit of an understatement but still...).
    I would even agree that Harnett and Johanssen "look wonderful" and that Mr. De Palma provides the "usual cinematic pleasures" (bird's eye view of crime scenes, gliding crane shots, including one seemingly straight off Touch of Evil). Well, barely but certainly enough to make the film "worth watching" to me. I knew not to expect much depth of character or plausibility, but the movie gave me nothing but pretty surfaces. The quote below, from J. Hoberman's review, jives with my reaction to The Black Dahlia:

    "Steeped in sexual pathology, replete with mutilation, doubling, fetishes, and porn, Ellroy's Dahlia scenario would seem to be De Palma's meat. The movie, however, is anything but overheated and largely impersonal. Competence trumps craziness—if not the limits of the screenplay, written by War of the World co-scripter Josh Friedman. Although the action set pieces are impressive, the exposition is sluggish. For all the posh dollies, high angles, and Venetian-blind crisscross patterns, The Black Dahlia rarely achieves the rhapsodic (let alone the delirious). "

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    i think maybe the reason why we rate the movie differently is that I've read all Ellroy's books. Have you read the books? If you have, you probably agree with me tht Hoberman is describing them, without apparently being aware of it. Also see the Ellroy piece for the Virginia Quarterly linked to my review of the movie on my website. He knows whereof he speaks. There are thrilling set pieces in the movie too, some of them far beyond anything even Ellroy imagined, though the luridness and the intense backgrounds of the book are of course not able to be copied in the movie.

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    Chris, I'm very happy to read this review.

    How do you get those gigantic letters?
    Hey P!
    Does Chris have access to fancy fonts and extra-large sizes?
    He's dwarfing the rest of us!

    Kidding... I kid, why? Because I love...

    Black Dahlia is something I'm looking forward to.
    I'll see it today and post after seeing it.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Johann,
    Hi,
    The giant letters were probably a mistake, they're font Century and size 7. Or maybe I just wanted The Black Dahlia to have a lot of black in it. On the festival reviews I use Ariel size 5 bold. Available to all. Look forward to your reaction to the Black Dahlia. What about that lesbian nightclub, eh? And the rich-bitch mom?

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    glad you have a great sense of ha ha Chris....
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Awaiting your post on the movie.

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    classic film

    Ah, the cinema

    Black Dahlia was everything I thought it was going to be and more.

    I think if you love movies you gotta love this movie.
    The vehicles, the costumes, the music, the drama, the humour, the absurdity- this movie will require some more viewings.
    Definite DVD buy.

    It may be a jumble for some folks, but for movie afficianados it's sheer joy.

    Josh Harnett impressed me. He's never been better here.
    Hilary Swank is just great. Amazing performance from her.
    Scarlett Johansen is stunning as usual.

    Brian DePalma can still make a killer film.

    The whole seedy story was engrossing and mysterious and perverted and so out there that I lost myself in the picture for a while. Dreamy, wondrous cinema.

    These types of films don't come down the pike that often.
    Such evocative ambiance isn't nailed so effortlessly like this anymore.
    The lighting was some of the best I've ever seen.
    The camerawork? Genius. Vilmos is a legend.
    Not much else to say.

    Sexy as hell- Rose McGowan is a bombshell.

    This is one of the best films of the year.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    shot in town

    The Lesbian cabaret with KD Lang was wild.

    Those reels of film footage (the auditions & the stag film) were very interesting.

    I felt so sad for the murdered girl (especially when she does the Scarlett O'Hara impersonation). I have a feeling that there are LOTS of those kinds of "auditions" in Hollywood.
    Aspiring actresses doing just about anything to get a part..

    Setting the film in Los Angeles was a treat- "Hollywoodland".

    I was waiting for the scene involving Peg Entwistle- it never came.

    Hairstyles and wardrobes were awesome.
    1946?
    I believed it.

    Fire and Ice.
    DePalma has his own style, an auteur like you said Chris.

    I wonder what Tarantino thinks of Black Dahlia
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Ellory:

    De Palma’s films circumscribe worlds of obsession. They are rigorously and suffocatingly formed. No outer world exists during their time frame. Colors flare oddly. Movement arrests you. You forfeit control and see only what he wants you to see. He manipulates you in the sole name of passion. He understands relinquishment. The filmgoer needs to succumb. His films are authoritative. He controls response firmly. His hold tightens as his stories veer into chaos. He stands and falls, coheres and decoheres, succeeds and errs behind passion. He was the ideal artist to film The Black Dahlia.
    --Written this summer, "The Dahlia and My Mother," in VQR

    http://www.vqronline.org/articles/20...mother-dahlia/

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    I agree on Hartnett -- he has a lot of authority in this one. But I've been a fan since I saw him sway dodn the hall in The Virgin Suicides.

    What about that rich-bitch mother?! She's pure Ellroy. Ellroy is over the top from the get-go. An adaptation that does justice to its source, as its source's creator acknowledges.

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    Oh my God- the rich bitch mother was straight from a horror movie.

    That scene at the dinner table was insane.
    A "common" cop? How little her hubby thinks of her?

    I think these types of "mothers" are out there in legion.

    People who truly believe that everyone in their orbit is beneath them and must bow down to them.

    Those types of people (Barbara Bush for example) need to be rounded up and sent to work in a rice paddy in 'Nam.

    Or shoot themselves like that old hag did in Dahlia.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Excellent link Chris.
    Thanks.

    Anybody lurking?

    Go see this movie!
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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