Brian De Palma was Quentin Tarantino before Quentin Tarantino: Though seperated by an entire generation of filmmaking, both men are perpetual film students (the former a card-carrying member of the “film-school generation,” the other “self-educated” as it were) who’s films are often best read as essays on their various influences and inspirations; Tarantino as vanguard of the 70’s grindhouse scene, De Palma forever enraptured by Hitchcock, 40s noir and the visual language of the Golden Age.
On the surface, a feature film about the Black Dahlia murder case would seem perfectly suited both to De Palma’s best instincts and favorite fetishes: A grisly, sensational, to-this-day-unsolved murder mystery set smack dab in the middle 0f smoldering 1940s Hollywoodland. However, despite the perfection of this fit and the title of the film, the screenplay is adapted from an early work by James Ellroy and is thus primarily concerned with the Dahlia (for the record: real name Elizabeth Short, found cut in half, gutted, bloodless and with an ear-to-ear grin carved into her face) as a gateway into exploring the dark underbelly of the city’s political/social structure and the deteriorating psyche’s of two detectives assigned to the case.
Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart are the investigators, nicknamed Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice by the L.A. press, a pair of ex boxers turned cops who bond during an impromptu boxing/precint publicity-stunt. They stumble into the Dahlia case almost by accident, but Eckhart’s Det. Blanchard becomes almost-immediately obsessed with solving/”avenging” the murder, putting a strain on the explicitly-triangular (yet functionally asexual) familial coupling that’s been established between himself, Hartnett’s Det. Bleichert and his (Blanchard’s) girlfriend Kay (Scarlett Johanssen) who carries literal and figurative scars that may help explain the dark secrets driving Blanchard’s ultra-protective streak in regards to victimized women (this IS James Ellroy, after all.) On top of all this, the impending release of a felon with bad history with Blanchard and Kay acts as a countdown on the relative sanity of all involved.
Meanwhile, Bleichert wrestles with his own relatively less-complex demons (summary: he really, really, really wants to fuck Kay) and delves into the case from another angle; this one leading to vamping, bisexual heiress Madeline Linscott (a sultry Hillary Swank, nicely putting to bed all that nonsense that she only turns in great work in androgynous roles) who possibly knew the Dahlia and, more troublingly, is definately a dead-ringer for her.
And lest you think the plot is not sufficiently overstuffed, there’s also the matter of two paralell investigations which may or may not have everything or nothing to do with the main story, handfuls of corrupt cops and crooks with hidden agendas, backstories involving bank robberies and prostitution, thuggish real estate bosses, Madeline’s frighteningly-eccentric aristocrat family, a lesbian stag film, street riots involving the U.S. Navy, the “Zoot Suit Wars,” Fritz Lang’s “The Man Who Laughs” and a shantytown in the shadow of the Hollywood Sign built, we’re told, from the rotting husks of discarded movie sets (SYMBOLISM!!!!!)
De Palma is able (or at least willing) to cram all of that in because the film’s deliberate, mannered structure allows him ample room to do so. The first act is almost entirely about setting up mood and tone, establishing it’s central three-part relationship with the kind of depth that turns each player into well-lit enigmas even as it screams “this will be important later!” The main tale is related from Bleichert’s point of view, allowing us to experience his bewilderment as Blanchard begins to spiral into obsession. Later, when it’s Bleichert’s turn to go nuts- trapped in a swirl of interlocking conspiracies and unsure if he is pawn or knight or both -the film and it’s overall tone go there with him.
What is, depending on your point of view, either the genius or the madness of the film is that like most of De Palma’s more memorable output it is deeply committed to the act of being a movie. The period setting and Hollywood locale are essentially licenses through which De Palma allows himself to openly indulge his love for (and mastery at replicating) the mannered acting, showy camerawork and operatic pacing of 1940s tinseltown. The film’s overall effect is as a swirl of vintage clothing, stiff-brimmed hats, glitzy gowns and smoke-filled rooms, all captured with a camera that swoops and dives with the same controlled-mania that seems to afflict it’s director; who’s artistic temperment veers back and fourth from rococo to baroque and back again at a moment’s notice.
There’s no question that this kind of form-as-function stylization is going to alienate and/or infuriate a certain quotient of the audience, especially since the film begins to reveal it’s true identity as a being of pure stylistic string-pulling right around the time it start’s revealing the dizzyingly complicated answers to it’s dizzyingly complicated mysteries. It’s the sort of film where a “typical” police shootout can suddenly be joined by a switchblade-wielding asassin who’s wide-brimmed figure takes the form of a living shadow, and where a sudden third act descent into high camp histrionics seems abrupt for only a moment, until you look at the players involved and the secrets revealed and realize that high camp is the only place this could ever end up.
The plain fact is, “The Black Dahlia” is a film that isn’t as much “about” the titular murder as it is about the vintage attire, period-mannered dialogue and soaring Herrman-esque score that surround it. If nothing else, it’s De Palma’s most accomplished variation on his never-ending exploration into noir stylization since “Body Double,” a feat not easily accomplished. Reccomended.
FINAL RATING: 7/10