Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

The Black Dahlia Film Review

As the first half of 2012 reaches its end, it is becoming harder to take stock of the year, what with the speed of it all. It also means we reached the tail of another month. As is now our custom, it is time for the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I to execute another of our reviews in parallel. For June, the wordy one will examine a book of fiction by a famed author from these here parts. The same City of the Angels some of us call home. James Ellroy used what is likely the most notorious and grisly unsolved true crime in Los Angeles history as this novel’s backdrop. The Black Dahlia was published in September of 1987, which started a string of books that later became known as his L.A. Quartet (The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz followed). I’ll look at its film adaptation, which was released 19 years later in September 2006 (almost 60s years after the real murder was committed). Rachel’s book review can be found here:

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

A brief synopsis of the film: a couple of former boxers, rivals who work in the L.A.P.D. of the 40s, come together as partners during the boom period of post-WWII Los Angeles. Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, politically promoted by the city brass to increase the department’s funding, are detectives working warrants in L.A. Along with Lee’s girlfriend, Kay Lake, they form a family of sorts. When a surveillance assignment goes awry, they’ll be nearby to witness the discovery of the ghastly remains of a murder victim. The body of one Elizabeth Short, a dark-haired beauty who aspired to be a Hollywood starlet, is discovered in the vacant lot. Mutilated, cut in half, and bearing evidence that she had been tortured for days before dying, she will become the obsession for both men as they join the task force for finding her killer. The story, told through Bucky’s perspective, will lead to Madeleine Linscott, the daughter of a powerful and wealthy contractor, and a dead ringer for the victim nicknamed the “Black Dahlia”. Bleichert’s investigation will uncover corruption, lies, and some nasty truths of all those involved.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]

“She looks like that dead girl! How sick are you?”

Where to begin with this one? It’s not easy, what with me being a long-time fan of director Brian De Palma. “Why should that matter?”, you ask? Two things. First, the creative and influential De Palma (one who lived under the harsh tag of many as a Alfred Hitchcock wannabe for so long) seemed a great selection to bring this fictionalized tale to the big screen. So many of his past films have dealt with criminal and obsessive behavior (The Untouchables, Scarface, Carlito’s Way, Body Double, Dressed to Kill) in breathtaking and stellar ways to make a pairing with the James Ellroy novel, and this true life crime, a match made in movie making heaven (“… or, preferably, hell.“, as Mahnola Dargis famously wrote in her NY Times review). The second would be Curtis Hanson‘s wonderfully successful adaptation of L.A. Confidential from almost ten years before.

“Please, say that you care, or say that you think that I’m… beautiful.”

It’s that last part that may be the most unfair kicker in all of this. It’s not that The Black Dahlia is the worst film adaptation to come along — it isn’t. Or, that the material was handled improperly — given the pulpy and obsessive text of Ellroy’s novel (I finished the thing just last week), writer Josh Friedman had his work cut out for him (the book and film made me word it just that way, so I have an excuse). It’s the expectation I reason, especially from the shadow of a number of other noted L.A. noirs, that helped to land this film in the shoulda, coulda, worka bin. And that’s too bad. Still, the film had its moments (sometimes as lurid and blood-stained as that scorecard that caught Bucky’s front teeth from the first Bleichert and Blanchard boxing match that led off the tale proved.

What works: the two Dahlias in the tale, for one. Hilary Swank, who gets the lion’s share of screen time between this pair, as Madeleine Linscott, and Mia Kirshner, as the doomed, sadly tragic ‘Betty’ Short (in the black & white screening clip flashbacks), radiate in ways any filmmaker would love to take credit for. Josh Harnett, when’s alone, or with Madeleine, had his moments, too — it’d be pretty sad with him as the narrator of the tale, if he didn’t. Mark Isham’s score, as well, gives the true crime period piece some suitably nostalgic themes to musically frame the storytelling.

The other aspect that benefits is anything that’s bloody or visceral in the film. It’s no surprise when De Palma gets to be truly De Palma, here. The implied or explicit violence of the story is done well enough, and never overstays its welcome. I daresay when the Dahlia is found, briefly examined in the coroner’s slab, or when Bucky imagines the maim wrecked corpse on his front lawn, it hits a nerve only few film directors can claim ownership of. This was the material/filmmaker pairing’s promise, and only too little was delivered on. So, that naturally leads to the next and obvious segment.

What doesn’t work: Josh Harnett and Aaron Eckhart as a duo. There, I said it. These guys, perhaps as symbols of the 00s, will not make you forget Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce from the 90s. Just not happening. This is especially sad that Eckhart, someone who can be a real stud when given the right role, doesn’t live up to what could have been a tormented figure like Lee Blanchard. Hell, both should have been that. Two policemen caught in the web of a case that would haunt them for the rest of their careers and lives. But, they just weren’t. Next, the art direction and location work in The Black Dahlia does not compare well with films that took on, rather successfully, vintage Los Angeles and made her such a vibrant character on film (Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, for sure, and heck, even The Two Jakes, and True Confessions were miles ahead of this). Unfortunately, this was stagey L.A.-lite.

Scarlett Johansson as Kay Lake. Umm… no. Not just no, but Hell no. Wanting to finish the audiobook before streaming my first ever screening of the film (via Netflix), as I listened to the novel, and for the pivotal partner in the firm of  Bleichert, Blanchard, and Lake, I imagined just about everyone other than Ms. Johansson in the role. Still, after I found out she was in this, I gave her the benefit of the doubt. I was wrong to do so. She just doesn’t work well here (put the cigarette holder down and step away from the prop, blondie). It’s not that she can’t do a mystery, she was more than adequate in a small but vital part in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Whatever happened, it doesn’t work for her in this. And while I’m on a miscasting vent, whose idea was to put the very good Irish actor John Kavanagh in the Scot émigré Emmett Linscott role? I mean, someone like Brian Cox would have killed in this as that persona!

“I think you’d rather fuck me than kill me. But you don’t have the guts to do either.”

The Brian De Palma fan in me gets the sense that the director just didn’t have his heart in this*. It’s not that he lost the talent or the drive somewhere along the way — De Palma certainly delivered with his trademark style and substance in Femme Fatale (2002), which was the film that immediately preceded The Black Dahlia project. Author James Ellroy went on record praising to the hilt this film adaptation of his novel (in fact, his original afterward essay from the book made that abundantly clear as only he could). His highly fictionalized telling of Hollywood’s most notorious unsolved murder case, Ellroy’s own mother was killed and dumped in the streets of Los Angeles when he was just 10 years-old parallels the tale, carried and made the argument for the obsession that haunts those in such instances. Translating that on to celluloid may have been a doomed endeavor before it started.

I’d like to think this filmmaker could have been the one to deliver on such a fixation. It didn’t happen in this instance. Given he loved the two adaptations in his L.A. Quartet, Ellroy is still batting .500 with this reader. Perhaps, the promise of capturing the lightning-in-a-bottle brilliance of something like James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential with Hanson’s film (where cast, direction, score, screenplay and just about every damn thing worked) was too much to bear. The filmmakers could not hold up to that ideal, and flinched. Could I watch The Black Dahlia again? The answer is yes. So I guess that means there’s enough there that gathers some of my interest. And maybe, this is a film that’ll require that to get more enjoyment out of in the years to come. Then again, I periodically screen The Godfather Part III for the touches of brilliance that shine through the blaze of its train wreck, and to witness the maddening waste of an opportunity that is its own entertainment.

* after reading the book, watching the film, and writing this review, I read up on the production. While I stand by my initial reactions, I’m tempering my judgement somewhat based on this tidbit from IMDB:

Brian De Palma‘s initial cut ran at roughly three hours and was a faithful adaptation of the book, with more time dedicated to Bucky’s psychological breakdown during the investigation and his obsession with avenging the Dahlia. James Ellroy was shown a print of this version and wrote an essay praising it; entitled “The Hillikers,” it was published in re-issued prints of the novel which were released before the film premiered. In the interim between Ellroy’s having seen the director’s cut and the publication of his essay, the film was significantly edited. After seeing the theatrical cut, Ellroy refused to comment on it, except to tell the Seattle Post-Intelligencer “Look, you’re not going to get me to say anything negative about the movie, so you might as well give up.””

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27 Responses to “The Black Dahlia Film Review”

  1. Colin

    I actually quite like this movie. Like yourself Michael, I count myself a De Palma fan, so maybe I’m a little biased. I thought that it was very visually stylish, well you kind of expect that anyway with De Palma.
    Originally I had some reservations about the casting, but subsequent viewings led me to decide that the only real false note comes from Johansson – she looks stunning, but she’s far, far too young for the role.

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      Always great to hear your thoughts on these, Colin. Please don’t get me wrong, Brian De Palma is rarely uninteresting. Likewise, ‘The Black Dahlia’, the real character and the film, is captivating. The latter just couldn’t meet a level for the director and the material the fans of both desired, I think.

      And it is visually stylish. Again, it probably came down to expectations. Johansson is a looker, but your point about her being “… far, far too young for the role“, is spot-on. Many thanks for the read and the fine comment, my friend.

      Reply
  2. Jeff

    Great review, Michael – and our views of the film are similar. When I wrote about it last year, I said, “It’s not a bad movie per se, and it’s definitely a pretty movie to look at. But where “Confidential” captured the grittiness and the violence of Ellroy’s work, “Dahlia” comes across as a mere facsimile.”

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      I was hoping a long-time reader of James Ellroy like yourself, Jeff, would join in on this. Great :-). How did I miss your review of this film? Argh! I’ll need to fix that.

      That’s a fine point of comparison between LAC and TBD. I wonder if or how much your or I would change our minds with that purported three-hour director’s cut. This has the earmarks of a film taken away from a filmmaker, in hindsight, as it does feel “significantly edited“. Many thanks for the read and giving your thoughts on the film, Jeff.

      Reply
  3. Jamie Helton

    I too am a De Palma fan, and am saddened by the fact that he is getting older and slowing down in his filmmaking. I had avoided seeing this film because I had heard how horrible it was, but I finally saw it a few months ago (after watching “Chinatown” and “Hollywoodland”–now I just need to see “L.A. Confidential” to wrap up my L.A. noir films). Your review pretty much sums it up. I enjoyed the film, though it wasn’t perfect. Having not read the book, I didn’t know what to expect so wasn’t disappointed.

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      Yes, I, too, would love if Brian De Palma made more film. Your comment reminds me that I need to finally screen ‘Hollywoodland’ (it’s in that ever so high films-to-watch stack of mine). And immediately watching this after reading Ellroy’s novel probably did add to a good portion of the disappointment I felt. TBD is a tremendously affecting novel, though. Thanks very much, Jamie.

      Reply
  4. Fogs' Movie Reviews

    “Unfortunately, this was stagey L.A.-lite.”

    True. I still enjoyed it very much, but there’s no doubt that that’s what it was. The two leads are most culpable, too, as you point out.

    I liked it though. Kind of a sick story, and I enjoy that setting…

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      Hey, thanks for joining in on this, Fogs. I think what Jeff said covered it well. While this film was good looking (and it is a sick story), it doesn’t have the ‘grit’ one would expect. Still, it had some marvelous touches. The k.d. lang singing cameo being one of the best. Thanks for the read and the comment, my friend.

      Reply
  5. Naomi Johnson

    If they’d restore De Palma’s original cut and lose Hartnett as the lead actor (he has yet to convince me in ANYthing), I’d give this another looksee.

    Reply
  6. Rachel

    Great review, Michael!!! You and I must have been sharing brain waves while streaming this because I thought all of these things. Except, I’m a bit harder on it and definitely won’t watch it again. (To be clear this is because I didn’t think it was good which is different from why I wouldn’t read the book again or any other Ellroy.) I sure would love to catch that director’s cut because I thought the editing was awful! Just awful! I’m glad you included that tid bit because I didn’t know it and I imagine that what hit the floor would explain a lot of the jarring scene transitions. I also thought the acting by all four of the principles was pretty bad with Swank being the least bad. Like Naomi, I don’t think “Hairnet” has the ability to do anything but be the favorite of the 2002 Oscar producers (seriously, go back and watch that year! You can make a drinking game out of how many times the camera cuts to Hairnet [my personal nickname for him]) but the other three have proven very good in many roles and to see them in this is depressing. I also don’t think they had any chemistry with each other.

    The grisly was perfectly done, though, wasn’t it? When it was done at all, as you say… That last image on the lawn is perfection and will stay with me a long time.

    As an adaptation, I thought it was poor not just because it seemed a bit stagey but because it lost so much of the raw horror of the book. Horrible things were happening and several characters were experiencing severe psychological stress and that never really comes through in the movie. This begs a question: would viewers be able to handle a true adaptation of the horror of the book? Hollywood is notorious for toning things down but I have to agree with Hollywood a bit on this trend because I can handle a lot more in a book than I can in a movie. This book constantly crossed the line of what I can handle as a reader and a strict adaptation to film would probably have lost me as a viewer. Your thoughts?

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      Great point about the editing, Rachel. From where the film began to where it landed, the journey was not what I’d consider ‘smooth’. That ‘significant’ re-cut of the film (yeah, bad pun) comes up on the look back. And I now don’t blame De Palma for that one. It’d be interesting to see that director’s cut, if only to look for what Ellroy saw in it (giving the glowing essay he wrote about it). What got left on the cutting room floor? Hmm…

      “Hairnet”? You and Naomi sure don’t mince words ;-). I think I do remember how much this particular young actor was talked up. He seems to have been forgotten of late (but I do remember him with some positives in ’30 Days of Night’).

      That brief scene on Bucky’s front lawn was jolting, and as you mention, “lasting”. Still can’t get the image out of my head — it’s perfect as you say for capturing the dark allure of this crime and figure. And yes, to gleam some of the horror of the crime from the novel would have been a monumental undertaking. The stress on the characters, that warehouse interrogation was something, too,

      Would audiences respond to this, if closer to Ellroy’s novel? I think so. Many, like me, responded to something like ‘Se7en’. I drop that film in here because David Fincher once had his name associated with this film adaptation, I learned. Given his cred with that film, and ‘Zodiac’, plus his vision of producing a three-hour, B&W true adaptation of the book would have been something I’d have wanted to see. Either De Palma and Fincher could have really delivered something great with this. Fincher left because he felt the powers that be would never let him bring what he envisioned.

      Yeah, reading about things like this can be easier than watching things like this. Although, the
      “Is it safe?” scene from the ‘Marathon Man’ novel and film had me squirming in both instances ;-). Great suggestion for a duo post, Rachel. Thanks for this and your splendid comment.

      Reply
  7. J.D.

    Nice review! For me, a fan of the Ellroy’s book, this adaptation was a dud. While it looked pretty, it was badly miscast for the most part and plays like highlights from the book. It’s just a shame that the film didn’t do better and maybe the powers that be would have been persuaded to released De Palma’s longer cut on DVD/Blu-Ray.

    For me, the greater tragedy is that before De Palma came along, David Fincher was going to make “a five-hour, $80-million mini-series with movie stars.” Not surprisingly, the studio balked at that but the mind boggles at what Fincher would’ve done with the material. What a missed opportunity…

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      Yes, a David Fincher series or movie on this would have been somethin’. Having his look on both the ‘Zodiac’ and ‘The Black Dahlia’ would have been almost definitive. At least, we can both hold out for that Brian De Palma director’s cut that Ellroy was really jazzed for, but not hold our breath ;-). Thanks for chiming in on this one, J.D.

      Reply
  8. jackdeth72

    Hi, Michael and company:

    De Palma is kind of hit and miss with me. That said, ‘The Black Dahlia’ has atmosphere to burn. Also has a great period look and feel when it not busy trying to me all things noir and mysterious.

    Josh Hartnett tries hard, but he still like a 17 year old kid. While Aaron Eckhart delivers a performance that is slightly better than phoned in. Scarlett Johansson was a mediocre talent then, and now. While Hilary Swank starts to learn that she can smolder seductively at the drop of a hat.

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      Good to hear from you on this one, Kevin. Yeah, ‘atmospheric’ would be a good descriptor for ‘The Black Dahlia’. And Hartnett does try hard (hmm… good name of movie for him, huh?). I did learn to appreciate Hilary Swank all over again with this one. Thanks so much for the read and comment, my friend.

      Reply
  9. ruth

    Oh I missed this review somehow. I actually like this one, not as much as L.A. Confidential, but it’s still a decent crime thriller. That’s cool that Ellroy himself praised this film, I think that’s as high a compliment a filmmaker could get when adapting a celebrated novel.

    Hilary Swank was good and memorable, as is Kirshner, but I totally forgot Scarlett is in this. I’m not fond of Hartnett as an actor, so I don’t even remember him much here. I should rewatch this again sometime, my memory of it is a bit hazy. Great write up Michael, as always!

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      I was probably being critical of Scarlett because I just finished the novel when I saw this and that character casting didn’t match up, IMO. Thanks very much, Ruth.

      Reply
    • le0pard13

      Hehe ;-). Y’know, if we ever get to see that Brian De Palma director’s cut of this film, I might give Scarlett the benefit of the doubt. Thanks, T.

      Reply
  10. dbmoviesblog

    With all due respect, this was probably the worst film I have seen in a very long time. This is even more puzzling because I love the actors involved in this mess. The film does not work at all.

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      I can understand why you’d feel that way. There are a number of things that didn’t work for me. Even with a good cast of very good actors in this, it had its issues. Would you give it another go, if that ‘De Palma cut’ were made available? I know I would. Welcome, and thanks for reading and leaving a comment, dbmoviesblog. Hope to see you and your thoughts here again.

      Reply

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