My relationship with Brian De Palma, though his films anyway, is a complicated one. So when every critic paid for the job can’t accept that the man who gave us Scarface can’t do better than Black Dahlia, I’m asking why the man who gave us Greetings, Phantom of the Paradise and Carrie can’t do better than The Untouchables.
For my money, he finally has; and with Black Dahlia. Adapted from James Ellroy’s novel, Dahlia puts De Palma through his voyeuristic, campy paces in a way people who wanted another L.A. Confidential (and honestly, who doesn’t?) weren’t expecting. I know I wasn’t. I expected to hate it. Josh Hartnett, who with Aaron Eckhart makes this movie the Battle of the Beady Eyes, as star? Hilary Swank as femme fatale?
The critics’ opinion is that this film is disjointed; that it doesn’t know what it is; that it’s incoherent, laughable, campy, and a big disappointment. Haven’t watched a lot of De Palma over the past year or so, I have to wonder what they’re expecting. I never liked the director until I realized that he’s laughing the whole way. Body Double? Repulsive unless you read it as a dark comedy.
Maybe I should back up and talk about the film a little. Okay. Hartnett is Officer Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert, who teams up with Sergeant Lee Blanchard (Eckhart) to share Blanchard’s girl Kay (Scarlett Johansson with ridiculous hair) and the discovery of Elizabeth Short’s mutilated body. There are lots of plots and subplots relating to this tenuous threesome, Blanchard and Bleichert’s somewhat political rise through the ranks, and Blanchard’s rising-yet-hidden obsession with the Black Dahlia murder. Eventually Bucky takes over, his cool reserve boiling over when he gets embroiled in a bizarre family drama involving the Linscotts. It’s the dinner scene where Hilary Swank as the Linscott daughter brings Bucky home and all domestic hell breaks loose that I realized I couldn’t not like this film. This scene is worth the price of admission. It’s hilarious. And I was amused enough to just go with everything else we’re supposed to believe, without trying too hard.
Because yes, it’s convoluted. And you have to take a lot of tangled threads on trust. Do I really think they’ve solved the Dahlia murder? No. It’s ridiculous and the film really falls apart in trying to explain it. I still don’t really understand what they were going for here; but it looks great. De Palma tends to surround himself with people he can trust, and his crew here has many familiar names who do him proud. Not to mention an underused Bill Finley, star of many early De Palma films who appears here as something of an homage to Phantom of the Paradise. There are some other problems as well, such as a plot point that hinges on two people looking alike who really don’t.
A great deal of one’s opinion is based on what’s expected. I think there’s an idea of De Palma at work here that for me was never true; I like this movie because I like De Palma’s roots and I desperately want him to go back to doing comedy. I’m not looking for a retread of the 80’s, when I disliked most of his films. De Palma’s darkness makes you uncertain about his humor; he’s a lot easier to watch if you pick up on the funny. After all, a guy who casts himself as the off-screen director of Betty Short’s screen test, questioning her ability to portray sadness, has to be pretty funny.
The Black Dahlia isn’t a comedy by any means, but I think anyone who goes in expecting something dreadfully serious and “straight” is going to be disappointed. For myself, I had fun. It’s up to the viewer whether that’s good enough or not.