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 his 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:
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.””
Parallel Post Series
- The Whistleblower
- Drive (book/audiobook review)
- The Big Sleep
- The Maltese Falcon
- Rosemary’s Baby
- The Hunt for Red October
- The Day of The Jackal
- Somewhere in Time (aka Bid Time Return)
- Starship Troopers
- Jurassic Park
- Free Fall
- Get Carter (aka Jack’s Return Home)
- Devil in a Blue Dress
- Angel Heart (aka Falling Angel)
- The Lathe of Heaven
- The Princess Bride
- A Scanner Darkly
- Children of Men
- Minority Report