Black Dahlia - Pulp Non-Fiction
| In 1987, James Ellroy wrote a fictionalized account of the famous Black Dahlia mystery. It was also the year that Brian De Palma made The Untouchables, arguably his last good movie. Now De Palma has adapted that novel into a film with an all star cast that includes Scarlett Johansson, Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank and Mira Kirshner as the doomed title character.
The Black Dahlia is (sort of) about the unsolved murder of a talentless would be actress/prostitute. Itís based on a crime novel by genre master James Ellroy which in turn was based on a true story that is the subject of much speculation. In this take on the tale, we follow a copís hard headed determination to solve the poor harlotís death cause detectives are always protecting the bad girls after itís already too late in these sorts of films.
Maybe in recognition of the fact that Mission to Mars, Femme Fatale, and Snake Eyes all sucked, De Palma has returned to the style he employed so well in The Untouchables. The Black Dahlia is glossy, high camp, pulp (non)fiction. Heís got a wooden, bitter, narrating detective at the centre of his story how broods as he drives behind his pulsating windshield wipers. Heís got the cigarette holder holding blonde in tweed who acts innocent but knows more than she admits. Then there is the dark femme fatale who is so delicious the hero just canít help falling for her despite the fact he knows sheís trouble. There are crooked cops, fat gangsters (both decked out in fedoras) and classic cars just oozing out of this film.
De Palma has a great deal of fun with this story. He loves to have the camera swoop around and zero in just in time for a reaction thatís ooh so telling. Itís like heís pulled out the detective fiction filmmakers handbook and inserted a lesson from every chapter. Heís even got a shot that rivals his baby-carriage-down-the-stairs-in-grand-central shot from The Untouchables. This time itís a double fall down the empty space in a stairway column and itís bloody (literally) spectacular.
The Black Dahlia, in all itís bloody, noiry gloss, is a treat for the eyes. Unfortunately, Ellroyís story, or at least the script which was quite changed from the source novel, just isnít compelling or interesting enough to keep us engaged. We actually donít learn that much about the Dahlia or the seedy underbelly. Instead we are focused on the heroís quest and his affair which is never quite as tantalizing as it should be.
Maybe this has something to do with Josh Hartnettís complete lack of ability to be charismatic on screen. He looks great with his shirt off but as soon as he opens his mouth he is as boring as can be. His face is an unmoving, unrelenting flat mask that never shows a hint of humanity.
Or maybe the real mystery is just more intriguing than what Ellroy cooked up. The Black Dahlia is flashy but not satisfying. Film making is more about story telling than about reproducing the conceits of a genre. He does that well but the story just isnít up to it. It doesnít mark a return for De Palma whose glory days still seem far behind him.