Directed by Brian De Palma
The Black Dahlia isn’t really about that famous unsolved case at all, but rather Brian De Palma’s continued obsession with long-dead genres that pre-dated his ability to make them when they were fresh and original. As much as he’s been anally probing the corpse of Hitchcock for decades, he’s now decided to skull-fuck Billy Wilder, John Huston, or even lesser mortals like Robert Aldrich, all in service of what appears to be reverence, but by the end of this colossal mess, is surely little more than outright contempt. This is noir for dullards; over-baked, over-hyped, and so over-played that it becomes a parody of a parody wrapped tightly around a camp classic in embryonic form. De Palma might mean it, but it’s so tragically inept that he just might be providing a lesson for all future filmmakers that as the 1940s are over, one best retire a style of filmmaking that depends entirely on context to work at all. Chinatown saw life because it came on the heels of post-Watergate cynicism, but it also featured major talents both in front of and behind the camera. Like the earlier Brick, this is mere children at play; arrogance and a tinge of madness, yes, but also a simple lack of craft, unseasoned by a full immersion in the art form. This seems improbable given De Palma’s long history in Hollywood, but as he’s never found his own voice save bizarre imitation, he’s just as guilty as the neophyte who dares ape the forefathers.
Whether he’s serious or not, though, De Palma’s film is ludicrous in the extreme; a messy, tragic farce that features bad acting, bad dialogue, and a story that goes in so many convoluted directions that we forget it’s purportedly about the murder of a young, no-talent actress in 1940’s Los Angeles. Instead, it spins around the story of good cop Bucky (Josh Hartnett), bad cop Lee (Aaron Eckhart), femme fatale Madeleine (Hilary Swank), and blond nitwit Kay (Scarlett Johansson), all of whose lives pointlessly intersect. Lee lives with Kay, Kay fucks Bucky, though Bucky also fucks Madeleine, but only because she looks like the murdered actress. Or maybe it’s Lee who’s obsessed, though the only clues we get are when he explodes while watching her screen tests (a riotous slow burn) and the apartment that is turned into a shrine. But why is he fixated? And why does this thread disappear, only to appear again when it doesn’t even matter? More than that, why the hell are we talking about Lee’s involvement with a bank robbery, and some dude he shot intentionally, when at first it was thought to be in protection of Bucky? Somehow, Lee is killed with some creepy dude in a late-night trap, though the killer is later revealed to be Madeleine, who dresses like a man to stick him with a knife, which isn’t such a stretch because there’s hot lesbian action peppered throughout, including two scenes in gay bars. Allegedly, a screenplay was in fact approved for all this.
But let’s begin where we always should in such matters — the dreadful acting of one Scarlett Johansson. Who’s going to be the first to tell her that self-conscious pouting, glassy-eyed indifference, and wooden line deliveries might work in high school productions of Once Upon a Mattress, but in Hollywood, it’s supposed to cost you jobs? She’s supremely, almost Biblically awful. Even a mediocre talent like Marilyn Monroe knew how to compensate for her lack of chops with a playful, hypnotic sexuality, while Scarlett only cocks her head like a robot and releases her lines with all the conviction of a press secretary. Sure, there’s a trot down a staircase that proves for all time the fleshy, bouncy reality of her breasts, but why not let us see them unencumbered? And surely someone might have seen the appeal in giving her a black wig and forcing her to play the Dahlia herself, especially in those scenes that required her to be disemboweled and slice to ribbons? Modern filmmakers forget that vixens and sirens have to be smart as well as sexy, and our cocks rarely respond to chicks who would appear to struggle with a shoelace.
While she’s the worst of the lot, Hilary Swank — and her two Oscars — don’t fare much better, as she’s about as sexy as Dahlia’s torso, what with her uproarious accent and breathless demeanor. Swank can play trash with the best of them, but classy and upscale are harder to come by. Nothing produced a more violent laugh than her slinking from the shadows dressed like Humphrey Bogart, but throughout, she never had us believing that she could seduce roughnecks into the sack. She’s involved in this nonsense because her father wanted to get an old friend laid by Elizabeth Short (the Black Dahlia), who turned out to be ugly and inept, which then required Madeleine’s mother to hit the girl with a bat. Then, it became a family affair as the girl was sliced and diced and thrown on the side of the road, where she could be easily found. After all, when a wealthy, influential family wants to get away with a murder and its cover-up, they place the body where anyone can see it and leave tell-tale markings that correspond to paintings in their mansion. And fuck, how about Madeleine’s mother; played by Fiona Shaw with more hyperbolic intensity than a cross-breeding experiment involving Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Gloria Swanson that went horribly, horribly wrong. She has two big scenes — one at the dinner table and one near the film’s conclusion — that run the gamut from stone drunk to hyena-like, and prove once and for all that yes, even overacting is a craft that is best left to masters. She screams, bellows, and gesticulates like a frenzied monkey, all before blowing out her brains all over the wall. It’s shocking and unforgettable, though not in a good way.
Then the possibility creeps in: is De Palma deliberately commenting on the noir genre as to point out its deficiencies? After all, this film doesn’t even remotely begin to channel the post-war years, and it’s all so phony and artificial that a picture on the mantel couldn’t even be professionally photo-shopped (which produced the movie’s second biggest laugh). Is he daring us to laugh with derision at a style that seemed to pass muster over five decades ago? Perhaps, but again, while noir often trafficked in the outrageous and confusing (can you figure out The Big Sleep?), it reigned because it never betrayed its smile. Sure, it winked from time to time, but never with self-loathing, and it had the sense to pull beyond its plots to comment on the very nature of man himself. More than that, though, it had the actors to pull it off; the sorts of square jaws and full hips that don’t come naturally these days. No one talked like that in 1940’s America either, but the dialogue captured a larger mood, unlike today’s mimicry, which knows its marks, but hasn’t earned the feeling. People sure as shit killed for senseless greed, as we’d just wrapped up a world war that left 50 million dead. What the hell made sense after that? Now, it’s just a fashion — inert, hollow dress-up that believes feeling is best left on the cutting room floor.
Unlike other misfires this year (like Lady in the Water, secure at the top of the hate list unless Hollywood has a midget musical tucked away in the vault), I was not angry during The Black Dahlia, and in some ways had a little fun with its ineptitude. It’s bad, but not so bad as to leave you bitter and distraught. The film clearly avoided a sober editor and fully functioning on-set presence (surely many of these scenes warranted another take), but it will make you giggle if the mood is right. See it if you’ve had a large meal, a few beers, and have the urge to sprawl out in a comfortable multiplex seat with little to lose. Shit, nod off now and again, as the circus will still be in full swing when you return from dreamland. Scene after scene will leave you dumbfounded and no, you won’t learn a goddamn thing about the Black Dahlia murder, but you will have the pleasure of watching well-paid people make asses of themselves and not seem to care. Sounds like a pretty good evening.