In Lukewarm Blood
Elbert Ventura on The Black Dahlia
The arrival of Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia in theaters this fall was greeted by a familiar response from audiences: silencio. It’s been a long time since a De Palma movie left its imprint on popular culture, and his adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel did nothing to change that. The crowd at my screening was palpably restless throughout the film, their boredom giving way to tittering derision by the movie’s denouement. It’s a response that probably accounts for the outsized enthusiasm of the director’s fanatics. Thriving on mainstream rejection, De Palma partisans have become so strident and myopic in their defense of their idol that it even earned them a piece in the New York Times. But the love is real, and The Black Dahlia‘s release has become an occasion for career appreciations (of which this symposium is one) and eloquent appraisals of the embattled auteur. That spirit of tribute for one of cinema’s great stylists is welcome, of course—and it only makes the failure of the movie that has occasioned it all the more acute.
The disappointment is particularly sharp considering the opportunity the film offered. In reviews of the movie, it became a familiar refrain to call the pairing of novelist James Ellroy and Brian De Palma a match made in movie heaven. Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia was a mystery novel in the grip of delirium. Steeped in the pop culture mythos of 1940s Los Angeles, it was a noir phantasia, all signs and symbols cobbled together from the American dream life. For all of its weaknesses—the psychology is facile, the profundities grasped at rarely achieved—the novel was an unadulterated expression of its author’s crepuscular outlook. Its subject certainly made it a natural for big-screen translation. Its preoccupations, however, were uniquely suited to this director. Masculine obsession, sexual decadence, the objectification of women, the impossibility of redemption, and the insidious power of movies are all themes that De Palma has explored in his oeuvre. The Black Dahlia had all the makings of a valedictory statement—L.A. Confidential‘s masterful storytelling with a healthy ladling of the personal.
How could it have gone so wrong? The first inkling of foreboding came with the trailer. Its vision of inexorable descent and decadent extravagance was interrupted by the blank slate of Josh Hartnett’s face. Sure enough, the movie fulfills that ominous prophecy. Asked to be the moral center of a labyrinth, Hartnett himself gets lost in the maze. Faring no better is Scarlett Johannson, who puts forth a bad impersonation of an actress trying to act ‘40s femme. Even worse is Hilary Swank, in a turn that seems an attempt to erase the butch memories of her Oscar-winning roles. Really, the only one who stands out is the dead: Mia Kirshner, playing the desperate wannabe actress whose murder jump starts the plot.
Ellroy’s novel was based on the actual murder of Elizabeth Short, a struggling actress whose mutilated and bisected body was found in an abandoned L.A. lot in 1947. To this day, the case remains unsolved. Ellroy, whose own tragic upbringing shadows his book, concocted a mystery with an ending, a fiction that spoke to the truths about the corrupt and debased world that Ellroy lived in. De Palma’s version, adapted for the screen by Josh Friedman, streamlines Ellroy’s dense plot by dropping whole subplots—such as an episode set in Mexico—and condensing others. As with many policiers, this one is about the friendship between partners: Bucky Bleichart (Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (a capable Aaron Eckhart). Introduced as contenders in a fundraising boxing match, a fight that makes local celebrities of the two officers, Bleichart and Blanchard become fast friends. Filling out the picture is Kay Lake (Johansson), Blanchard’s ostensible girlfriend and the stabilizing force of the troika. “It was the best time of my life,” Bleichart intones in the voiceover, hinting at the fall to come.
That fall begins in a classic De Palma set piece. With one camera move, De Palma fuses two events in the novel: a seemingly random shootout involving Lee and Bucky and the discovery of Short’s body. From there, Lee, Bucky, and Kay’s lives spiral—Lee sinking into an obsession with Short, Bucky struggling to keep him in line, Kay watching as the two men in her life fall apart. Into the void walks Madeleine Linscott (Swank), a wealthy heiress who looks like Short (but, um, really doesn’t) and becomes the object of Bucky’s fixation. The twists mount, but our interest doesn’t. Elliptical bordering on incomprehensible, at least for those who haven’t read the novel, De Palma’s movie tries to abridge the original while still remaining faithful to Ellroy by cramming in as much as it can. The result is a mess of a screenplay that never stakes its own claim to the material and yet fails to preserve the novel’s richness—an adaptation not so much of the book as of its CliffsNotes version. Perhaps itself the victim of mutilation, The Black Dahlia never finds its own identity, the most unusual criticism I can conceive of for a De Palma film.
In its best, isolated moments, The Black Dahlia does become recognizably De Palma’s. Topping the set piece mentioned above is a chase and a double killing on a staircase, a sequence that successfully re-imagines a major plot turn in the book, not to mention gives us the De Palma we all know and love, right down to the Vertigo echo. Another scene, a dinner at Madeleine’s palatial home, is shot almost entirely from Bucky’s point of view, Lady in the Lake–style. Such moments of expressionistic brio have, of course, come to define De Palma’s movies. To many, his single-minded exploration of cinema’s expressive possibilities is enough. But in The Black Dahlia, the highlights only underscore the listlessness of the whole. Too many times in The Black Dahlia, it feels as if De Palma were twiddling his thumbs, waiting for another set piece to keep him occupied. The viewer knows how he feels.
The sensuality in The Black Dahlia is oddly muffled, especially for a work waist-deep in blood and sex—again, another conspicuous failing for De Palma. The movie never achieves the hypnotic fever-dream quality of De Palma’s best work. (As far as oneiric meditations on the Hollywood meat grinder go, it has nothing on Mulholland Drive.) The Black Dahlia fails to translate the book’s rendering of the creeping, insidious nature of obsession, try as De Palma might. One motif, of a mesmerized Bucky watching audition clips of the Dahlia, attempts not just to dramatize Bucky’s slide into obsession, but to serve as a metaphor for cinema as a wellspring of our obsessions. But the effect never quite sticks. We see what De Palma’s trying to do, but it never works because the pieces he has to play with—Hartnett, Swank, a cluttered screenplay—won’t let him achieve his vision. Where Bucky’s necrophilia is depicted organically in Ellroy’s novel, it’s just another contrived turn here. It certainly doesn’t help matters that Swank, as Bucky’s lover Madeleine, looks nothing like Kirshner (who really should have played Linscott as well), a flagrant casting misstep that surprisingly few critics have brought up.
Of course, it was no surprise that many De Palma partisans stuck to their guns despite the movie’s myriad problems. Armond White, the director’s most vocal defender, brushed off his mild disappointment by essentially saying it’s OK for De Palma to not make a masterpiece every now and then, while still hailing The Black Dahlia as a cut above the usual bilge. Giving the movie credit for effects it tries for but never achieves, some of the defenses make for interesting, if not persuasive, reading. But the raves from the hardcore give the impression of acolytes praising a movie that they wish they saw, not the one that ended up on the screen.
For all of my disappointment with The Black Dahlia, I can’t help but feel some envy toward its admirers. One of the great joys of cinephilia is discovering an artist whose sensibilities are synchronized with yours. In De Palma, many cinephiles have discovered that rare feeling of complete alignment with a director’s vision. When the estimable Kent Jones reviewed Terrence Malick’s The New World and fixated on Colin Farrell’s allegedly subpar performance, I could only shake my head and think, "Here’s this awe-inspiring masterpiece and you want to talk about that?" Do De Palma’s hardcore likewise lament the cluelessness of the viewer who holds story and character against their idol’s art? Alas, I see their perspective, but I don’t share it. And no amount of good will and circumspection can prevent me from calling out The Black Dahlia for what it is: an exquisite corpse.