March 10, 2013

The Black Dahlia (2006)

Sometimes the stars align and you get LA Confidential. Other times things just don't pan out, for whatever reason, and you get The Black Dahlia. Both films came from the same source material (author James Ellroy) and said sources were written with extreme skill and with exhaustive detail.

Yet somewhere down the road, during the adaptation process, a bump is hit in the road and what could have been LA Confidential turns into The Black Dahlia (or vice versa, really). LA Confidential kind of revitalized the film noir idea but, like Ellroy's books, kind of made it more then the stereotype. To me, LA Confidential, the film, is like Unforgiven: it takes what we generally know about film noir and turns it on its head. And, because of that, it can never be the same. No one has made a spaghetti western without a hint of irony thanks to Unforgiven and no traditional noir film has ever dared to reach the depths of their past absurdity or hyper-realism (unless it was completely unintentional) since LA Confidential.

The Black Dahlia, the book, takes all the adult-steps necessary: uncovers the true side of 1940s Hollywood, gives depth to the characters, and contains brutal violence while focusing on the hidden vices of what was consider an innocent past (and containing 'the greatest generation'). Ellroy's original novel was a complicated book as it interwove past occurrences into current events and made the main focus of the story both the focus and the background motivation for the main heroes.

Brian De Palma's film tries to do this: but fails in making any of it coherent. We won't spend anytime on the production values here: they are unbelievable. The costumes are top notch, the music is perfect, the set design is exquisite and the Oscar nominated cinematography is breathtaking. This film is wonderful to look at ... but something happened in post production that just let it all be a waste of time.

The basic plot goes as follows: Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard work Warrants for the LA police. One day, while scouting out a suspected child rapist, the body of Elizabeth Short, soon to be known as the Black Dahlia, is found and becomes a sensation ... if only because of the young woman's nearly mythologized background and the utter brutality in which she was murdered (Short was cut in half, drained of all her blood, had unique markings carved into her flesh, and had the 'Chelsea Smile': a knife wound that cuts from the end of the lips to the ears).

Bucky and Lee are forced to work the case ... and become obsessed with the case. SPOILERS AHEAD Lee, due to a history with his young sister being abducted, ends up going a little crazy in his pursuit of the Dahlia killer (though a figure from his past is also around to cause havoc); Bucky, taking over the obsession for Lee at one point, becomes so infatuated with Elizabeth Short that he can only have sex with a woman that looks just like her: a heiress named Madeline Sprague (Lindscott in the film) who also has a tenuous connection to Short.

This is just the basics! What Ellroy does is intersperse all this with the hectic backgrounds of the main characters and adds elements like political intrigue (with the DA's office, the County and City police departments and with city officials), media obsession, sexuality and its perception in society and the murder itself entering the cultural zeitgeist. One of the main elements of the book is the fact that so many yahoos and crazies are obsessed with this murder that they all confess to the crime, making it all the more difficult to solve.

Oh, and did I mention that the story of the Black Dahlia, the murder anyway, is actually TRUE! And while the real case was never solved, Ellroy manages to provide a much needed conclusion to the case without messing with 'real' history ... whatever real is.

In other words, this book, using real life events, creates a fictional universe within itself and is so amazingly complex and labyrinthine that to commit it to a two hour film would seem fool hardy! Yet Brian De Palma tried ... and for the most part, he failed.

For one, Ellroy never had a love triangle in his book between the heroes Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard with Kay Lake (played, respectively, in the movie by Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart and Scarlett Johansson). The history of Lee and Kay was intricate and, as the end of the book would explain, quite conspiratorial, but love was never a factor. Bucky and Lee were soul mates and Kay was their closest friend ... romance, when it occurred, existed between Bucky and Kay only and only as a circumstantial element. In fact, Bucky's bizarre obsession with Madeline made his relationship with Kay extremely troubled.

The film version takes this relationship and makes it both ambiguous and bland. We're never sure where Lee stands with Kay and De Palma plays the relationship for 'tension' though the actors share no chemistry to pull it off. And the obsession with Madeline is seen as simple lust, lacking any of the psychologically damaging effects the relationship had in the book. When Kay eventually finds out, it kind of plays out like a bad rom-com scene and not something of a destructive nature as it would be in the book.

Since Madeline and Kay are the heart and soul of Bucky's characters and how he functions, trivializing their relationships completely destroys any credibility the characters have as they appear fickle and too driven by one dimensional forces. Ellroy's characters breathed life ... De Palma's kind of limp along as automatons.

It isn't from a lack of trying though. Josh Hartnett is fine as Bucky when playing the earlier version of him. But when Bucky starts to unwind and lose control of his life (and his passions) he becomes a more manic creature. Hartnett never strays from the man he was in the beginning. Also, Ellroy made sure to show the Bucky and Lee aren't courageous, superheroes. Instead they are men who have taken a lot of short cuts in life and aren't afraid to run away from danger. De Palma has the two men as buff alphas ... and it just makes the realism of the book die.

Aaron Eckhart is probably the best main star of the film ... De Palma does a good job of casting well known character actors and period-looking actors in the lesser roles ... but that isn't saying much. He kind of goes from happy-go-lucky to insane without a hint of warning. The female costars are a disaster and for the exact opposite reasons of each other.

Hillary Swank looks, physically, completely out of place in 1940s Hollywood. She just doesn't have a period piece look to her and it detracts from the believability. But she almost makes up for it with her performance ... which borders on cliche femme fatale and original character. Scarlet Johansson looks amazing in period films ... but she can't act out of a paper bag (as time has slowly shown us, sadly) and is weighed down by the heaviness of the material. She is the perfect example of someone who is very pretty to look at but can't be sexy.

When you mashed all these problem-performances into one film ... and you have an already confusing script ... disaster is on the way. A lot of people have singled out Mia Kirshner, a long time indie actress, as very good in her small but important role as Elizabeth Short, but I thought that the film's tendency to stray away from Short lessened her impact.

Now, I don't want to be gross here but I would have liked to have seen the Black Dahlia corpse a bit more. Let me explain what I mean by this: the Short murder, of which autopsies can be found online (and it will haunt you dreams), is beyond brutal ... it is almost inhuman. And when I thought De Palma was going to show the body in the film, I was bracing myself. I might even have put a hand over my eyes.

But the reason I want to see it is to raise the stakes a bit. In the book, Ellroy tells us some disturbing stuff. The child rapist Lee and Bucky chase is a disturbing fellow, for sure, but something happens when the scene shifts from this creepo's apartment to the shock and disturbance of Short's crime scene. It is almost like the book goes from uncomfortable to EXTREMELY UNREADABLE. But hearing the graphic descriptions and picturing it in your head, you feel the revulsion but the compulsive need to KNOW what the hell happened.

De Palma only shows the actual corpse for maybe a few minutes and when it is discovered it is barely seen at all. So, from the outset, you kind of feel at a distance from the case as the characters simply stare at the camera (intended to be the body) and are shocked. In a murder like the Dahlia's, not even the greatest actor can display the horror of what was shown ... sometimes you need to see it.

So, forgive this need but I think it would have made the film more intense. Instead we are only given glimpses of what is suppose to be the horror that makes the men in the story change forever.

The film had a bad editing process, from what I hear, so that might account for some of the issues. Apparently the film was supposed to be 45 minutes longer. And while the plot made perfect sense to me, since I read the book, the movie's chief complaint is that it makes zero sense. When detaching myself from the book and watching the film, I can see this problem. It is very complex.

But when you are watching a film, you need to see the story as it is presented, not with background information gleaned from other sources. A film stands on it's own. And while The Black Dahlia tries its damnedest ... it is too much of a failure to redeem itself with a beautiful look and a large amount of effort.


  1. Studio interference screwed this, no doubt. I, like J.D., want to see DePalma's director cut. The one Ellroy applauded so highly in his write-up.

    1. Yes. When I read the Ellroy epilogue and then saw the movie I was wondering if Ellroy was finally insane! But then I read up on the history and realize there is more on the cutting room floor!

      This film is so stunning to look at though!


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