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Monday, September 18, 2006

The Black Dahlia

Something strangely sinister was blooming at the Essex Cinemas this week in the form of The Black Dahlia. This Brian De Palma homage to the 1940s film noir genre is a slick and glossy affair, but anyone expecting to learn the truth about what happened to the real Dahlia, actress wannabe Elizabeth Short, will be terribly disappointed.

The Black Dahlia is based on the Elmore Leonard book of the same name, and it tries to keep
closely aligned to the spirit of the book, which makes it difficult at times to keep up with the multitude of plots and sub-plots that bounce around within the frame of the two hours De Palma has to tell his tale. The book obviously has much more time to create this post-LA Confidential universe and meander down a lot of different paths than De Palma has, but it doesn’t stop the director from trying to sample a bit from every direction.

The film begins with a long and involved prologue that introduces our two protagonists, LAPD officers Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett; Sin City) and Leland "Lee" Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart; Thank You For Smoking). Exactly why we need to know that their promotion from working in “Warrants” to becoming full-fledged homicide detectives is necessary to the plot is
never explained though the graphic (and did I mention long?) story of their being recruited by the highers-up within the organization to box one another in a charity event shortly before a county budget appropriations vote goes to the public for consideration. The public relations people at the police department think that the voters will get behind the increase in funding for the police if they can make a positive image of the “cop on the beat” using Bucky and Lee as their poster boys. The bone-crunching drama of the actual fight, including slow motion punches and teeth falling to the ground are all well-shot, but the point is… well, that’s the problem. In a “legitimate” mystery one would expect that including all of this information in the story is going to come to fruition and have a pay-off later, but here it just ends up being superfluous, a lot like Donald Trump’s combover. I would have been fine just knowing that Lee and Bucky were partners a la Starsky & Hutch without needing to know of their origins. It’s not like we’re talking Batman & Robin here. The real story of interest is in what is going on between the men in terms of their questionable three-way relationship with Lee’s girlfriend, Kay Lake (played with a somnambulant pout by Scarlett Johansson; Scoop), who has little to do but look like Tippi Hedren and have unbridled sex all day and night with whichever of these men shows up at her door. The triangle amongst these three is really more to the heart of the movie than the case of The Black Dahlia. It probably also explains why Kay has three gift sets of encyclopedias and four vacuum cleaners. Apparently she isn’t too fussy when it comes to answering the door, if you know what I mean (and I’m sure that you do).

The Black Dahlia case is the first the new homicide detectives are handed, and the details of the gruesome murder are spelled out quite intensely in the autopsy room, but apart from that one would hardly know that Hartnett’s Bucky is even assigned to the project of finding Elizabeth Short’s killer. His growing love affair with Kay is the focus of his attentions while it is Lee who becomes more and more obsessed with Short’s murder to a point of obsession. The imbalance between the two is made even stronger by Kay, who seems to be perfectly happy to love both men without a struggle of conscience. The question as to how much and how involved Lee is in this ménage a trois is never clarified. Sometimes it seems he knows his partner is sleeping with his gal and other times he appears ready to snap because he suspects something is not right between them. De Palma obviously enjoys confounding his audience with possibilities, a technique he learned from Hitchcock and has “borrowed” since in almost all his pictures. At least he refrained from one of his old standards, the split screen, which would have been nightmarish but certainly not noir.

Confusing things even more is the appearance of Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank; Million Dollar Baby), a would-be femme fatale who is also a possible suspect in the Short case. Despite that, Bucky is mesmerized by her as is the audience. In an attempt to capture the over-the-top acting of the movies of the ’40s, Swank tries to channel a sultry Rita Hayworth or
Veronica Lake, but she comes off looking and sounding more like a drag queen doing a fairly decent interpretation of Tallulah Bankhead after she’d been slipped some Rohypnol. Her deep voice and slow but sexy demeanor, coupled with a wardrobe to die for, throws a wrench into everything. Why she dresses like the Dahlia is also a mystery, but it helps, I suppose, to remind people that this movie is called The Black Dahlia since otherwise you may have thought after the first hour that you had walked into a big budget version of “Dynasty” set in 1947. Lots of sex and back-stabbing (of the figurative kind) but somewhere along the line De Palma seems to have wandered far a-field of what the title suggests people came in to see.

That’s the flaw of The Black Dahlia. De Palma vacillates between focusing on the stories of the characters and then remembering he needs to feed us some information about the murder. To do so, he occasionally intercuts the action with footage of Elizabeth Short’s supposed screen test, where, in glorious black & white, Mia Kirschner (of cable’s "The L Word") shows us the soon-to-be-corpse of the title in all her most captivating beauty and unsettling fragility. Short is seen only briefly in the last twenty
minutes of the film outside of the realm of these audition snippets in a flashback, yet Kirschner does a great job letting the audience into her seedy and desperate world, a far cry from the glamorous Hollywood scene she sought when first coming to LA. That glamour is reserved for people like the Linscott family, who are introduced in the second half of the film and immediately rivet the audience with their bizarre antics. After spending a dinner with the Linscotts, Swank’s Madeleine seems positively mainstream. Emmett Linscott (John Kavanagh; Alexander) is the father of this clan, and he could easily have been the basis for the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn, forever spouting off about his achievements and travels. Madeleine’s twisted sister is Martha, played like a simpering ferret by CSI’s Rachel Miner, but the crown jewel of this asylum is mother Ramona, Irish actress Fiona Shaw, who shamelessly steals the entire movie in her too-few scenes that give us a character that would make the legendary Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard look like a shy introvert by comparison.

How exactly the Linscotts fit into the mystery is a mystery of its own and their inclusion at first seems another random act by director De Palma, as so many of the side journeys do, but it is an interesting trip guaranteed to awaken anybody who may be drifting off at this point.

For those who know much about the real Black Dahlia
case, this film may be an abomination as there is little to suggest that either the filmmakers nor author Elmore Leonard read a thing about the crime, but for those who are willing to accept the fact that this story could just as easily have been called Son of LA Confidential and been about the murder of any starlet then this will be a satisfying albeit somewhat muddled whodunit where the detectives and their women are by far more important than the victim herself.

I would encourage people to see the film to enjoy the absolutely gorgeous set designs by Dante Ferretti, who brings the Los Angeles of the ‘40s to life in a nostalgic yet gratifying re-creation that will make you yearn for that era, although the smoking by almost every single character may have you hacking up a lung just from the images of all that second-hand smoke (third hand by now?). Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography enhances the period look, and the costumes, by Jenny Beavan, put the cast in perfect duds for their roles. The only thing you need to remind yourself of is
that the story is in the look and feel of the piece and it is best not to spend too much time trying to figure out what is supposedly going on with the case itself. It’s a lot like Washington politics in that regard. De Palma puts on a great show even if he seems to have forgotten what he got himself into in the first place.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The book was written by James Ellroy.