Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia may well be the most supremely messed-up film I’ve ever afforded four stars. (Actually, “messed-up” doesn’t really convey the level of derangement I’m trying to convey, but the dictates of taste and the sensibility of my readership will not allow the term I’d adopt in casual conversation.) Oh, sure, there may be some doubt about the four stars on Snakes on a Plane, Crank and The Protector, but those were in the realm of guilty pleasures. This is something else again, though I perhaps do feel a twinge of guilt for liking the film as much as I do — and that’s true of every Brian De Palma film I like, with the exceptions of The Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Carrie (1976).
I’ve been round and round with friends whose opinions I take very seriously — even when I think they’re demonstrably wrong — about The Black Dahlia, and I’ve conceded nearly every point they’ve made about the film. It’s illogical, miscast, impossibly convoluted and wildly over-the-top. It’s certainly not a great movie and I’m not even sure it’s a good one, but it’s every inch a fascinating one. And in many ways, its fascination stems from its myriad “flaws.” Now, De Palma is hardly a deep filmmaker and he’s made some real rubbish in his time — Raising Cain made me swear I’d never see another of his movies again, and I stuck to that for several years. But he’s not an idiot, and it’s my belief that most of the things cited as being “wrong” with The Black Dahlia are intentional.
The critical and box-office disaster of Femme Fatale (2002), his most personal film in years, necessitated his next project be a little more mainstream, hence his involvement with the world of neo-noir and a popular source novel. The idea was clearly a constrained De Palma at the helm and — like the recently released Hollywoodland — a bid to be the next Chinatown (1974). While De Palma comes a lot nearer to the Roman Polanski masterpiece of neo-noir than Hollywoodland, he didn’t exactly do so in an orthodox — certainly not constrained — manner.
If what was wanted was a moody, straight thriller, the studio can’t have been very happy. What they got for their estimated $50 million price tag is De Palma walking a line between commercial and personal filmmaker, and a movie best described as Chinatown on Acid. Indeed, the relationships in The Black Dahlia make those in Chinatown look positively normal, while the Linscott clan here make the incestuous corrupt doings of the Cross family seem on a par with those of Lewis Stone’s squeaky clean household in an old Andy Hardy movie. The Black Dahlia isn’t so much neo-noir as it is funhouse-noir. It’s noir as seen by De Palma in a distorting mirror of his own devising.
From the moment the film gives us Officer Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) as a cop working in the midst of the “Zoot Suit Riots” in 1940s L.A., it’s pretty obvious that this isn’t likely to be your typical movie. Yes, the “Zoot Suit Riots” (between sailors and soldiers on leave and zoot-suit wearing Mexican Americans) did happen, and, yes, they’re in James Ellroy’s source novel. However, as presented by De Palma, the riots become a singularly bizarre event depicted in a stylized manner as a street filled with colorful zoot suiters and white uniformed sailors. This is merely an overture to the opera of weirdness to come.
I haven’t read Ellroy’s fictionalized account of the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short (played in the film by Mia Kirshner, Party Monster), dubbed “The Black Dahlia” by the press, but it’s obvious from the book’s chapter outline that De Palma’s film both simplifies its narrative and complicates it. De Palma didn’t write the script — attributed to Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds) — but the film has his fingerprints all over it. The plot is convoluted as only a De Palma film can be. The tone is a typical mix of the truly nightmarish and the cartoonishly ridiculous — and sometimes the twain doth meet. The film takes place entirely in a world of De Palma’s imagining.
If the zoot suit business isn’t odd enough for you, there’s a visit to a lesbian nightclub where k.d. laing — in top hat and tails — sings Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” while semi-nude chorus girls dance around her. Anyone with even the vaguest knowledge of the history of gay Hollywood knows that nothing even close to this could have existed in 1947. But it exists here as part of De Palma’s imagination. This is a world in which the improbable is the norm — where two police partners, Bucky Bleichner and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), chastely “date” the same woman, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), and attend a packed-house showing of Paul Leni’s 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs — and incredibly enough the film will turn out to be central to the plot!
There’s a typical De Palma set-piece murder, a most singular dinner party (largely shot in point of view), various descents into madness and/or drugs, porn films, torture and mutilation, a mad scene from Fiona Shaw that’s beyond belief, a nightmarish trip to the decaying Hollywoodland housing development that spawned the famous Hollywood sign, and more plot twists than can be comfortably digested. All this scarcely touches the surface of the cornucopia of strangeness that informs the film.
The biggest problem lies in De Palma trying to give the illusion of turning in a more or less “normal” movie, and as a result, limiting just how far over-the-top he goes. The casting is another matter that either doesn’t work, or that De Palma simply doesn’t care about. The real kicker here is Hilary Swank as a femme fatale. Whatever Swank’s qualities as an actress, she just isn’t anything of the sort. The results are about on par with Madeleine Kahn parodying a femme fatale in a Mel Brooks’ picture — and that’s a kind assessment (a friend of mine remarked Swank was like a drag queen). Worse, the film keeps insisting that she looks like the murdered “Dahlia” that everyone’s obsessed with, and…well, they both have dark hair and that’s about it.
But somehow all this melds into De Palma’s fantasticated nightmare of noir to the nth degree, and if you’re willing to go with that twisted vision, it may not matter much. I’m not sure if it’s too much or not enough — probably it’s a bit of both, depending on where you look — but one thing is certain: There’s nothing around that’s even remotely like it. Rated R for strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke