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Brian De Palma Week: The Black Dahlia deserves a better reputation

Brian De Palma Week: The Black Dahlia deserves a better reputation

Thanks to the Summer Movie Wager, Andy used his victory bet to assign us to each write about Brian de Palma!

It’s Brian De Palma Week here at Cinema76! I decided to take a look at one of the most negatively-reviewed films of De Palma’s career, The Black Dahlia. Up until this week, I had managed to avoid this one since its release in 2006. Thinking back on it, I was studying abroad in Australia when this film came out. At the time, Australia was always behind the U.S. on major releases — up to several weeks and longer in some cases. By the time I heard some of the feedback on The Black Dahlia, I decided to skip it. And for thirteen years, I continued to skip it. It was on my radar a few times to check it out, but I always managed to find something else to watch instead. Even with its poor reputation, I was still intrigued by it simply due to the fact that Brian De Palma directed it. But for some reason or another, I just never caught up with it.  

Brian De Palma Week gave me the last push that I needed to finally catch up with the much-maligned film. And to my surprise, I actually liked it. Sure, I can see why it’s not at the top of the list of De Palma’s best work, but it also doesn’t deserve the negative reputation that it carries. Most of its issues stem from a complicated story that meanders between a bunch of different characters. But there are plenty of other things that worked well for me here. I’ll get to these in a second.

First, I’ll try my best to give a quick overview of the plot for those who haven’t seen it, and for those who decided to block it from their memories. Set in 1940s Los Angeles, two former boxers turned cops investigate the death of aspiring actress, Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner). When her mutilated body is found, the two detectives — played by Aaron Eckhart and Josh Harnett — are led in different directions on their investigations. Lee Blanchard (Eckhart) becomes obsessed with solving the crime to the degree that it begins to tear apart his marriage with his wife (Scarlett Johannson). Bucky Bleichert (Harnett) is led to a woman (Hilary Swank) that looks very much like the murder victim, and who also belongs to the prominent Linscott family — a family that also happens to have some ties to the victim. Most of the story follows Bucky as he pieces together Elizabeth Smart’s past in an effort to track down her murderer.

With so many characters being named and referenced in nearly every scene, the plot gets overly complicated pretty quickly. I think this is the main thing that turned people off, which I admit, is a fair criticism. There were plenty of times where I had to re-watch a few scenes to figure out who was who in certain conversations. But if you can keep up with the connections between all of the characters, the story will work well enough. It should also be noted that De Palma’s initial cut ran over three hours long. It was cut down to two hours at the insistence of the producers. I have a feeling the initial cut would have provided us with more clarity on the interconnections of these characters.

Moving on past the convoluted story, let’s get to the things that worked. I’ll start with the cinematography. The 1940s Los Angeles film noir-look is captured beautifully. In fact, the movie was nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography.  Vilmos Zsignmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter, and many more) was the cinematographer here. Zsignmond and De Palma work well together to create a certain mood that is brooding, yet visually stunning. It’s a mood that will keep you feeling unsettled — in a good way. De Palma’s style is evident all over this thing. From the camera angles, to the editing, to the abrupt violence, you know you are watching a De Palma movie.

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The performances are pretty good too. Harnett is really the lead here — and pretty solid for the most part. He is definitely not as bad as what I’ve heard over the years. Eckhart easily pulls off the passionate, hard-nosed cop who will do anything to solve the case. And Johannson and Swank are very good (in very different ways) in their supporting roles. Swank is a little showy at times, but her performance really does liven up some of the scenes with Harnett. Johannson plays the quieter, more settled role. The cast as a whole does their best with a script that probably could have used another round or two of editing.

Another part of the problem with the initial reception of this film was the success of 1997’s L.A. Confidential. Both L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia were adapted from novels written by James Ellroy. These two novels were part of a small series of crime books that Ellroy wrote, all based in 1940s and 1950s Los Angeles. So when The Black Dahlia was coming out in 2006, expectations were high. Another Ellroy novel adaptation — and better yet — directed by Brian De Palma. It had to be great. The hype quickly turned to disappointment, which quickly turned to negative reviews.

Again, I understand that The Black Dahlia will never be mistaken as one of De Palma’s best movies. But De Palma does deliver an enjoyable crime thriller once you connect the dots with the plot. And the ending itself actually wraps up pretty nicely. The actual Black Dahlia murder case was never solved, but this film is based off of the novel, which mixes in fact and fiction. So you do end up with some resolutions on motives and other aspects of the plot if you stick it out to the end.  

Separating myself from the hyped-up expectations that were attached to this during its initial release in 2006 turned out to be a good thing. If you avoided this film like me over the years, put aside the negative noise from its reputation and give it shot.

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