What makes many people recoil from Brian DePalma’s movies is his pornographic gaze. That’s what’s prized by the camp that defends him; we love his movies in part because they are alive with arousal. His new one, The Black Dahlia , is based on James Ellroy’s unusually fevered novel. DePalma observes that fever, but somewhat surprisingly stands apart form it. The result is a movie that might repel both camps. The critical community has certainly turned its back, and I doubt the film can find a home in the American marketplace. Yet it is just shy of a masterpiece.
DePalma has forgotten more about film technique than most directors will ever learn. His fingerprints are all over this one: doubling of characters, split diopters, a point-of-view steadicam shot, you name it. But these are no longer youthful statements in and of themselves; here, they are strictly at the service of the source material. That’s not a symptom of retrenchment, but of maturity. DePalma has wrapped his teeth around the novel and won’t let go, even when he almost chokes on it. The sheer force of his hunger carried me over nearly insurmountable passages of momentum-killing plot convolutions.
One characteristically bravura shot begins at a crime scene. It cranes up to the roof of a building, where we see a pair of foreboding crows, and focuses on a second crime scene in the distance. While camera virtuosity for its own sake is what made American audiences embrace the lustrous The Untouchables , here, that shot is motivated by story, weaving together two seemingly unconnected threads.
I was reminded of a crane shot in DePalma’s Casualties of War , where Michael J. Fox gives an impassioned speech. The music swells, and audiences laugh. Writing off moments like that as camp is an understandable defense against earnest melodrama. I have seen The Black Dahlia twice, and both times it elicited this kind of laughter from the audience. Were we watching a brilliant film, or a ludicrous one? The line between the two can be very fine.
I should say some things about the plot. The film takes place in LA after WWII, presented seamlessly by Dante Ferretti’s production design and Vilmos Zsigmond’s camera work. Two former boxers become policemen, then become partners. They are Bucky and Lee, nick-named Mr. Ice and Mr. Fire, played by Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart. They both love the same woman, Kay Lake, Scarlett Johansson. Lee lives with her, but he’s too strung out to sleep with her; Bucky’s love for Lee, and maybe some other kind of blockage, also hold him back from sex. As Bucky says, she is "always in the middle, never between them."
Then a body is discovered, a nude woman, cut in half, internal organs removed, mouth slit ear to ear. She is The Black Dahlia, a Massachusetts girl who fell into prostitution and stag films. She is the lid on a can of worms. Following Lee’s trajectory, and a femme fatale played by Hilary Swank, who is supposed to look like the Dahlia, Bucky tunnels down, down, through layer after layer of interlocking, buried crimes, until the sickness begins to infect him. Underneath the façade of Josh Hartnett’s nice, good-looking kid is a mounting, deadly anger.
If you are intrigued by The Black Dahlia , I hope at the very least I’ve given you a sense that it’s black-on-black. Maybe it’s genius; maybe it’s madness. You know where I stand.
The Black Dahlia is playing at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.