The Black Dahlia
directed by Brian De Palma
Screenplay by Josh Friedman, adapted from a novel by James Ellroy
The new film from director Brian De Palma with a screenplay by Josh Friedman adapted from the novel by James Ellroy is a well-crafted film that gets many things right. But weighted down with a bit too much self-indulgence and a plot so complicated it would have made Charles Dickens' eyes cross, those fine elements get lost in the shuffle and what starts off as a valiant attempt to pay homage to "Film Noir" ends up flat and tedious.
Ellroy also wrote the novel from which the Academy Award-winning L.A. Confidential was adapted. In that film the plot was pared down (by screenwriter Brian Helgeland and director Curtis Hanson) to a few essential elements (reportedly much to the author's chagrin) that gave enough of a focus to make the film work. In this "long-form" adaptation, by contrast, (which Ellroy says he prefers) there are just too many characters, plot twists, double-crosses and sub-plots to follow, and the effort becomes more like work than entertainment.
There are many positives about the film - especially in the first half. Individual scenes are beautifully designed, well-written, directed and acted. The boxing sequences are harrowing - on a par with those in Raging Bull. The chemistry between Aaron Eckhart ( a fine actor whose potential has barely been tapped) and Josh Hartnett is excellent, as they play very effectively off each other.
The production design is remarkable - especially considering that most of the shooting was done on mock-ups built in the Bulgaria that pass for L.A. Costume styles (if there were an Academy Award for "Costumes: Best Men's Hats" this film would win it!) are beautifully detailed without ever becoming precious. The music is mostly very much in keeping with the style of the film - although that does become something of an annoyance when it apes the Hollywood tendency of the Noir era to try to manipulate the audience with musical cues.
De Palma manages to skillfully evoke the Film Noir version of the seedy underbelly of 1940s L.A. with its air of vague menace and corruption. He paces the film in a way that keeps it moving along in spite of a few brief staggers caused by the plot-heavy script. There are some fine scenes between actors where real engagement and empathy begin to develop. But the film falters in missing the basic principle of what Film Noir was about.
There's a sense in which Noir was the mid-twentieth-century reformation of Classical Tragedy. Noir films were basically morality plays, in which "outsider" characters, alienated from society (sometimes by the events of the story being told), living by their own code, are caught up in a web of circumstances that requires them to make moral choices. Sometimes they make "good" ones, and sometimes "bad," but in either case, there is a sense of moral distinction.
In The Maltese Falcon, for instance, the cynical yet principled man - Spade - chooses Justice over Attraction. In Double Indemnity the ordinary but corruptible insurance salesman - Walter Neff - chooses Lust over Self-restraint. The pivot point of the audience's involvement here is the tension created by the dilemma in which the principle character finds himself. The story is always one of a person who wants to think of himself as "good," making hard decisions with inescapably unpleasant consequences - a problem we all face in our own lives. In spite of the fact that the protagonist's own code may be skewed from convention - or even perverse in some cases - his need to make such choices mirrors our own.
Very often - in one way or another - the Noir protagonist is "trapped" by what seems at first to be a minor slip, but turns out to be emblematic of his "tragic flaw." It is his painful frustration in the face of finding himself in a situation that has no good way out that is the denouement of the story, and the aspect which relates it to classic tragedy. But in order for this dynamic to work we must care about the character, understand the code by which he is attempting to live, and identify with his struggle.
That's where The Black Dahlia fails in its attempt to recreate the Noir sensibility. It gets the backgrounds, costumes, music, make-up, and even most of the dialogue right, but it fails to raise clear moral issues, and then to effectively confront and respond to them. There's a sense in which the plot is too "modern," too "relativist" to make the moral choices clear. As a result, the actions of the characters - and particularly the central character - seem confused, arbitrary and indecisive.
The cast does a good job with an overabundance of material. Because the script makes the characters so overly complex and their decisions and actions internally contradictory, it's very hard for the actors to project a consistent personality. While this may be "true-to-life," and could work well in an "art" film, it undermines the strong contrasts that are a hallmark of the Noir genre (paralleled visually in the use of strong effects of light and shadow).
Aaron Eckhart, as mentioned above, is the strongest presence. He brings an energy and focus that keeps his character convincing even when his actions seem inexplicable. In spite of his character's compromised moral frame, Eckhart makes it possible to sympathize with him even as we dislike him.
Josh Hartnett does a reasonable job, but he is still too boyish and "all-American" looking to properly convey even the beginnings of the world-weary cynicism that is the viewpoint of the genre (Robert Mitchum and Humphry Bogart - hardly fresh-faced pretty boys - are icons of Noir). His scenes with Eckhart benefit greatly from the dynamic the two are able to create, but in other scenes, particularly those with Scarlett Johansson's Kay and Hilary Swank's Madeline there just isn't the compelling heat that there ought to be.
In one scene particularly, that reiterates the passionate (and wholly-convincing) table-top encounter that is the lynch-pin of both versions of The Postman Always Rings Twice (and especially the 1981 Jessica Lange/Jack Nicholson remake), the absence of a sense of desperation and hopeless abandon drains the exchange of all its potential power to explain the character's motivations.
Johansson and Swank are the dual "love interests" - another confusing addition to this approach to Noir - since neither is truly a "good girl" and neither is exclusively and unrepentantly "bad." Johansson - as in many of her most recent roles - is mostly a pleasant-looking cipher - an icon of the "sexy ingenue" who isn't really called upon to do much acting, and when she is, doesn't seem up to the task.
Swank, who has proved her talent several times over, seems at sea here, with a role that borders on camp even when its seems to be trying to play it straight. Her inability -and Eckhart's - to make their contributions work in spite of their proven abilities is part of what suggests to me that it is mainly a failure of script and director that is at fault here.
And there are more difficulties. The secondary characters of Madeline's father Emmet (John Kavanagh) and mother Ramona (Fiona Shaw) seem to have popped out of a different movie. Kavanagh's character seems like nothing so much as a bad Michael Myers cameo and Shaw's terminally-crazed Ramona reminded me of Carol Burnett's famous Sunset Boulevard skits. There's no excuse for this sort of self-indulgent excess and if the writer had the bad taste to create it, it was certainly the director's job to moderate it, or failing that, leave it on the cutting-room floor.
Which brings us to Brian DePalma. The erstwhile Young Turk director of such hits as his 1976 breakthrough film Carrie and the violence-drenched but critical and cult successes Scarface (1983), Body Double (1984), and Carlito's Way (1993) has also had many misses in his long career. In fact, this is only his fourth film in the decade since he turned in a workmanlike but uninspired job on the first Mission Impossible (1996). His three intervening films all sank without a trace.
Certainly De Palma once showed promise, and certainly he has from time to time - as he does here - shown flashes of real talent. But he never seems to have been able to break free of the sensationalism of graphic violence and attempts to protect himself with genre conventions, to take the chances required to fulfill that promise more completely. Unfortunately, this film will not add anything particularly positive to his reputation.
But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.z