the black dahlia (2006)
De Palma's work post-80's has been somewhat spotty, but after the success of his 2002 Femme Fatale, I expected great things. Did I get them? No, but what I did get was classic De Palma at work. The new film, The Black Dahlia, presents us with a series of music swells, hot visuals, crackling performances, insanity and even a cool long-take that flies over an LA neighborhood and nods Touch of Evil. Who cares, you say? Exactly. I can't say it's any more than fun and games, but the fun is enough for the first portion of its runtime. Overall it's a guilty pleasure, a pulp nonsense yuck-fest. Oh hell, just enjoy it.
If you're a fan of 40's and 50's cinema, then you know of a little genre called film noir. If you're unfamiliar with the term, allow me to toss out a little history lesson here free of charge. In the 1940's there was this big thing going on in Europe called World War II. Thanks to that little inconvenience, The Germans weren't letting any sort of supplies cross the borders into occupied France, and most definitely not movies. However, once the war ended, French filmgoers finally got a glimpse of the years and years of American films that had built up over the war and they began to notice a new trend in the crime thrillers. Private detectives were usually the main focus, low-key lighting and expressionism were being put to use as never before, many of them were told in extended flashback with voiceover narration and the deadly women inhabiting the villain roles would come to be known as "femme fatales". A new kind of dark cinema was being born: Film Noir. The genre reigned supreme in America during the 40's and 50's, spawning all kinds of copycats from foreign directors like Melville and Dassin. And why not? The genre itself is fantastic, in fact, I don't think I've ever seen a noir that I didn't like. Seriously. However, I'm of the mindset that once the 50's passed into the 60's, film noir no longer existed. There have been plenty of films since then that tried to take a crack at capturing the noir tone, but they're doing it out of love for the lost genre, films like Polanski's Chinatown, Altman's The Long Goodbye or even the recent L.A. Confidential are all of a new brand of neo-noirs. And that, my friends, is exactly the type of film that I am reviewing. Whew. Now that you're all a little more film savvy, we can continue. So neo-noirs are alot of fun, but none of them ever seem to do the job just right. There's always something about the classic films that it seems is impossible to replicate. Maybe it's the style of acting, maybe it's the camera-work, maybe it's the fact that most neo-noirs unwisely shoot in color instead of black and white, maybe they're too big budget whereas noir is supposed to be ultra low budget "poverty row" style affairs, or maybe they're just plain too long because real noir is usually only about 80 - 90 minutes in length. Whatever the reason, classic noir remains champ over the new guys, no question about it. With the new film The Black Dahlia, director Brian De Palma actually corrects many of these problems, while grossly overlooking many of the others. In my book, he fixes the acting. De Palma's over-the-top style is exactly what these characters needed, and if you don't start confusing Scarlett Johansson with Lana Turner at least once, you're nuts. Also, alot of his set designs look too much like sets, which goes perfectly with the look of an old-style noir. For the first hour, De Palma lets his style take the helm and my jaw dropped on numerous occasions, it's fantastic. Literally every line of dialogue is throwaway, the plot doesn't matter in the least, the film is literally running on atmosphere alone and it's amazing. This film was actually capturing the feeling of a noir, for all its faults, I really felt like I was seeing a noir and that's no small feat. But could the movie keep it going? Could a movie so pure and great keep from crumbling and caving in on itself? Could De Palma really create a stellar film out of thin air?
Well, here come the biggest shock you're liable to hear all day. IT DOESN'T. Wow, didn't see that comin' did ya? Like most films without the foundation of a competent script to hold them up, this one can't go on in movie-nirvana forever. In fact, it goes so far south that I was staring at my watch for the last 45 minutes praying for it to end. Yeah, the last half is THAT bad. Films that hold themselves aloft on pure energy and style usually tend to run out of places to go, but can almost always find a slightly competent way to end. This film runs around in circles so many time that you're not sure if you even want to know the answers anymore. (for the record, I never did, open-ended conclusions are fine with me, I didn't need the crappy explanations killing my buzz here, this movie could have been great.) Coincidentally, the part where the movie lost me was just around the part where Hillary Swank strolled in with her goofy fake accent. Her character's plot-line is awful, from her idiotic family to her ridiculous past with the victim, Elizabeth Short. What a shame. For a time it occured to me that De Palma might actually do it. His inclusion of a clip from the silent film The Man who Laughs was, for me, an acknowledgement that he was harkening back to a day when movies were nothing but music and visuals, a day when dialogue didn't exist. In the words of Norma Desmond "we didn't need dialogue, we had faces". Movies used to be all atmosphere in the silent days, why shouldn't they be again? Again, it's a shame the film squandered this, it was a fantastic set-up to say the least. But the ending of a picture is what ultimately matters, and this movie really loses it where it counts. The ending is, simply put, just terrible. But what can one say when something like this happens? Where did the movie go wrong? Was it just too long? Two hours is certainly a long time to keep a film going that appears to actually be mocking its own script. However, I've heard that De Palma showed a 3-hour cut of the film at the Venice Film Festival, so is this cut too short? Who knows what we missed, but I can't see a few more scenes making up for this catastrophe. I have to give the actors credit for going along with this thing as well as they do. De Palma directs them wonderfully, and they never look out of place in his campy 40's world. Hartnett and Johansson have been getting alot of hate from critics, but why? I thought they did a fine job, and the performances aren't what's to blame for this clunker. It's either a terible script, an idiotic studio, or both. Though it would have definitely helped if each scene wasn't about a minute or two in length. It makes the film feel twice as long because enough stuff happens to fill 4 hours. A few more lengthened scenes to give the film time to build itself and really find its footing would have helped. As it stands now, it just buckles under its own weight. So much useless junk is thrown in to clutter up the film that it's tough to tell which way is up by the end, I was just so happy to finally get out of that theater.