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Days of De Palma (Part 17): The Black Dahlia (2006)

I’m in the home stretch of my project to watch all the films directed by Brian De Palma!  Following 2002’s Femme Fatale, Mr. De Palma was off the scene for a while until 2006’s The Black Dahlia.  This noir murder-mystery was adapted by Josh Friedman from James Ellroy’s novel, which was itself inspired by the real-life murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947.  Ms. Short’s nude body was found mutilated, and her murder was never solved.

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In the film, set in 1947, L.A.P.D. partners Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and the rookie Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) investigate the murder of Elizabeth Short, who the press soon nicknames “The Black Dahlia” (just as happened in real life).  In their own way, both Lee and Bucky become obsessed with solving Elizabeth Short’s murder.  Bucky learns that Elizabeth was a lesbian who was involved in a porno film.  He meets and then becomes involved himself with one of Elizabeth’s friends (maybe her girlfriend) Madeleine (Hilary Swank).  Meanwhile, Lee becomes increasingly unhinged, which drives a wedge between him and his girlfriend Kay (Scarlett Johanssen), while the sexual tension between Kay and Bucky begins to heat up.  The murder of one young woman threatens to uncover a much larger world of sex and crime in Los Angeles.

The Black Dahlia is probably the strongest film of the last almost-two-decades of Mr. De Palma’s career, his best since 1998’s Snake Eyes.  There’s a lot to enjoy in the film.  I loved the style and atmosphere of this 1947-set mystery.  This feels like a much tighter, focused film than some of the other late-career De Palma films (such as Femme Fatale, about which I recently wrote, and also Passion, about which I’ll be writing soon).  But it’s not perfect, and the film has some unfortunate weaknesses that keep it short of altogether working the way a great film does.

The film starts off strong.  I love the fast-paced opening sequence.  Right away this feels like a differently-styled film for Mr. De Palma.  It moves very quickly, with lots of short scenes.  There’s nothing overly flashy at first in this film, just a tight script, good actors, and solid directing.  Even when he’s restraining himself from his usual stylistic flourishes, Mr. De Palma’s master-level film-making skill is on clear display.  It’s a lot of fun to watch.  For these past several films (Snake Eyes, Femme Fatale) Mr. De Palma has been telling noir-type stories, and it seems right away here in The Black Dahlia that this will again be the case.  (Even though in the end the film turns out a lot different from how I’d expected — more on that later.)  This is a very different type of opening from Femme Fatale (whose opening I also really loved), and it’s great.

As the film unfolds, we do still get to see some of Mr. De Palma’s familiar cinematic devices.  We get a P.O.V. shot when Bucky (Josh Hartnett) arrives at Madeleine’s house.  And Mr. De Palma makes frequent use of a split-focus shot, such as when Bucky is on the phone while his old dad plays with an airplane behind him; later on when Bucky hears his partner Lee being passed info at Police H.Q.; when Bucky and Lee are separated after the shoot-out; and when Bucky is looking out for the girl over the edge of a newspaper he’s holding.

Early in the film, Bucky, Lee and Kay all go together to a movie.  Watching these characters watch an old movie reminded me of the opening of Femme Fatale, in which Rebecca Romijn’s character watches an old black-and-white movie on TV.  (Although of course, here in The Black Dahlia, set in 1947, the “old” movie is more contemporary.)

The film’s longest scene to that point comes about halfway through the film, as Bucky (Josh Hartnett) joins Madeleine (Hilary Swank) for a long, extremely-awkward dinner with her family.  It’s a bizarre scene and a significant tonal shift from what had come before.  I’m not sure it entirely works, but I respect Mr. De Palma (and screenwriter Josh Friedman) for their desire to play with the familiar noir conventions, and to make their movie weirder than one might have anticipated.

Although this film is centered on a murder that involved a young, nude woman, this film is far more restrained in terms of sex and nudity than I had expected, considering the director.  We cut away pretty quickly when Bucky (Josh Hartnett) and Madeleine (Hilary Swank) start making out, and again later when Bucky and Kay (Scarlett Johansson) start hooking up.  OK, we do get to see the dead “Dahlia” corpse’s bare breasts, but not much beyond that.  I’m impressed at Mr. De Palma’s restraint!  Based on the subject matter, and also the pairing of Mr. De Palma with the beautiful Scarlett Johansson, I’d expected that this would be a far more salacious sort of film.  But thankfully, Mr. De Palma appears to be operating in a more “adult” mode, which is certainly the right decision for the film.  Whereas Femme Fatale felt somewhat juvenile to me, this film feels more sophisticated.  (To a point — I’ll discuss the film’s somewhat troubling sexual politics in a few moments.)

The film’s cast is strong.  Both Aaron Eckhart and Josh Hartnett throw themselves into their pulpy roles, and both are great fun to watch.  Scarlett Johansson is terrific as Lee’s girlfriend Kay.  Her casting is actually a very savvy, cunning move on Mr. De Palma’s part.  When we first meet Kay early in the film, I thought immediately that she was going to be trouble.  Although this film isn’t titled Femme Fatale, at first it seemed clear to me that the beautiful Kay would be serving that role in this film, driving a wedge between partners Lee and Bucky.  And yet, this winds up being something of a fake-out, with Scarlett Johansson’s character Kay going in a direction that went against my expectations based on her casting in a Brian De Palma film.  This works very well.  Hilary Swank is somewhat less successful.  Ms. Swank is a great actress, and she tries her best here, but to me she didn’t successfully sell the sexiness and/or charisma needed for her character to have drawn Bucky so completely into her orbit.

There is a fun array of other actors in smaller roles.  Mia Kirschner (Naked Mandy from 24!!) is Elizabeth Short, the dead “Black Dahlia.”  Mike Starr (a great character actor who’s popped up in a ton of films, including Goodfellas, Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy, Snake Eyes, and Jersey Girl) plays Detective Millard.  Gregg Henry (who made an impression on me as Schiff in Mr. De Palma’s previous film, Femme Fatale) is back, this time playing Pete.  Fiona Shaw (the Harry Potter films) plays Madeleine’s mother Ramona, while John Kavanagh (Braveheart) plays her father Emmett.  Patrick Fischler (Mad Men, Lost) plays Deputy District Attorney Loew.  James Otis (familiar to a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fan like me as Solbor, the doomed aide to Kai Winn) plays Dolph.  Rose McGowan (Scream, Grindhouse) plays Sheryl, and Ian McNeice (Baron Harkonnen from the Sci-Fi channel’s two Dune mini-series) pops up as the city coroner.

I really enjoyed The Black Dahlia at the beginning, but just like Femme Fatale, the movie started to lose me as it continued.  In the end, the movie doesn’t turn out to be at all the noir type of movie that I had expected.  Although the film is called The Black Dahlia, and the story kicks off with the discovery of Elizabeth Smart’s corpse, I was surprised that the murder didn’t have too much to do with the story until the very end.  I know I shouldn’t fault a movie for not being the movie I expected to be, but with that title and that set-up I think it’s fair to have expected the “Black Dahlia” murder to be a more central aspect of the film’s story.

The film’s ending is very confusing — I’d need a second viewing to straighten everything out.  I can say that it felt like too much to me for ALL of the many bad things that happened in the film to have been traced back to a single family.  That felt a little to simple and neat to me.

I also have to comment, as I did in my review of Femme Fatale, that the film’s sexual politics feel somewhat problematic to me.  This has been something of an issue for Mr. De Palma’s films going back to 1980’s Dressed to Kill.  Should I praise Mr. De Palma for being progressive by including a bisexual in this story?  Or should I raise my eyebrows at the suggestion (as also found in Femme Fatale) that lesbians are only lesbians until they’re cured by a hunky guy?  (In this film, lesbian Madeleine seems to get “turned straight” by the beefcake Bucky.)  It makes me a little uncomfortable.

And so, in the end, The Black Dahlia is another De Palma film that I enjoyed watching, but that is stopped short of being great.  There’s a lot to enjoy in this film, and once again I am impressed at the way Mr. De Palma is able to change up his style and tone from film-to-film.  While there is a lot of familiar thematic content, and also many familiar cinematic devices, found in this film, The Black Dahlia is a very different type of film from Femme Fatale, and a very different type of film from Mission to Mars.  There are very few filmmakers capable of changing things up like this.

Only two more De Palma films to go!  I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on 2007’s Redacted.

Days of De Palma: Part 1 — Carrie (1976); Part 2 — The Fury (1978); Part 3 — Dressed to Kill (1980); Part 4 — Blow Out (1981); Part 5 – Scarface (1983); Part 6 – Body Double (1984); Part 7 – Wise Guys (1986); Part 8 — The Untouchables (1987); Part 9 — Casualties of War (1989); Part 10 — The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990); Part 11 — Raising Cain (1992); Part 12 — Carlito’s Way (1993); Part 13 — Mission: Impossible (1996); Part 14 — Snake Eyes (1998); Part 15 — Mission to Mars (2000); Part 16 — Femme Fatale (2002).

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