The Swan Archives gave our Principal Archivist a little vacation, which he used to travel to Deauville, France, to take in the September 3, 2006 premiere of The Black Dahlia. He filed the following report later that evening:
September 3, Deauville, France
The unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, dubbed the "Black Dahlia" by a press corps that knew virtually nothing about her other than the gruesome details of her death and her penchant for wearing black, has captivated legions, for half a century. Why? Is it the irresistability of the romantic fable of the young, hopeful, wannabe actress heading to Hollywood to find fame and fortune, but instead being carved up like a sausage? The seamy was-she-or-wasn't-she a whore/bixesual/grifter angle? The Los Angeles police force's corruption and incompetence that might have let the killer slip through everyone's fingers?
No, don't be an idiot. It's none of those things. It's the pictures. Those damnable pictures. The ones that keep popping up on the net, perennially crossposted to alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.fetish, a.b.p.e.torture, and, by someone with a sense of humor, maybe, alt.binaries.pictures.bodyart.
Those pictures, of the unfortunate Ms. Short's corpse sliced in half at the waist and "posed" in an open field, and the other set, the autopsy photos, showing her cheeks cut open until her mouth nearly reaches both her ears, they're not easily forgotten. And I've tried. They get under your fingernails, in your hair, ... bleh, it's just disgusting. Even though they're in black and white, (or perhaps in part because of that; horrible as they are, they still leave plenty to an active imagination), they're haunting and awful.
More than anything, though, they're sad. You look at them, and you want to fix it, make it better. Her body's in pieces, you want to put her back together. Her face is frozen in the grotesque clownish grin that was carved into her as she still breathed and screamed, and you want to tell her that, at the very least, she should have been spared the indignity of being forced to smile through her last few hellish minutes on earth.
To see the pictures is to want to rescue the poor kid, to mend her. But you can't. Which is why -- well, one of many reasons why -- Brian De Palma was exactly the right man to make this film. In fact, The Black Dahlia may be one of the most perfect matches of director to material in all of cinema.
De Palma loves his tragic and damaged characters, and figured out early on that there's nobody more screwed up and pathetic than the man who believes he can find salvation only through "rescuing" another...and De Palma seems to enjoy setting these poor suckers up to rescue the unrescuable, and therefore to fail. These failed, damaged heroes are then doomed to walk the earth drowning in guilt as rescuer zombies until, maybe, they can forgive themselves for their failures.
It's superfluous to recite the examples: the Phantom failing to save Phoenix from her own ambition and Swan's clutches in Phantom of the Paradise; Michael Courtland endlessly attempting to rescue his 'kidnapped' wife and daughter in Obsession; Peter Miller's transference to Liz Blake of his failure to rescue his own mother in Dressed to Kill; and, until now De Palma's most pathetic resc-u-losers, Blowout's Jack Terry and Casualties of War's Private Eriksson...the list goes on, and begs us to wonder at what brings De Palma back to this theme time and time again.
A clue might be found in, of all places, his Home Movies, in which young Denis Byrd (as played by Keith Gordon, an obvious stand-in for the director) attempts to "rescue" his mother from her lousy marriage to his philandering dad by catching his father on video in acts of adultery... a bit of directorial autobiographia, since De Palma, as a youth, did the same thing, albeit with a still camera. Gordon appears again (again with some mother issues) in Dressed to Kill, this time signaling his doubling for De Palma by obsessing over his nerdy science fair project (De Palma placed second in the nation in student science fairs in 1957 and 1958).
De Palma's new film very closely hews to James Ellroy's semifactual novelization, while necessarily simplifying some of the more complex twists and turns. (As De Palma noted in his brief words before tonight's screening, the challenge of the project was to condense and simplify Ellroy's notoriously byzantine narrative, while retaining its essence.) Like the novel, the film focuses far less on the Dahlia herself (played, fleetingly, by Mia Kirshner) than on callow cop Bucky Bleichert's (Josh Hartnett) obsession with her gruesome death...an obsession that grows to epic proportions as, drawn to her but too late to be her knight in shining armor, he fixates on establishing other forms of relationship with her.
As Bleichert and his partner Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) investigate, both become obsessed. Blanchard, dubbed "Mr. Fire" in contrast to Bleichert's appellation, "Mr. Ice" (the nicknames are shorthand for both their respective boxing styles and temperaments) seems to go more over the top more quickly...but this is in part because he has other secrets bubbling to the surface. This is Bleichert's story, and we watch him as he begins to view himself as The Dahlia's avenger and protector and, as his mania grows, her possessor and lover. His obsession with her encroaches on, and takes over, his relationships. His attraction to mysterious heiress Madeline Linscomb (Hilary Swank, here oozing spidery femme fatality from every pore) heats up when he notices that she looks a little like the dead Dahlia -- a mild resemblance that "Mattie" seems to accentuate for his benefit and repeatedly points out to him, instinctively understanding that it excites him. His interest in Kay Lake (Scarlett Johanssen), his partner's girl, seems to get a couple notches keener as well, as soon as he observes that she's still got the scars from having been viciously beaten by a previous lover, of whom she remains terrified.
Like some of De Palma's earlier doomed rescuers, most notably Jake Scully in Body Double (himself patterned on Jimmy Stewart's characters in Rear Window and Vertigo, also failed knights), Bleichert finds himself transforming the woman at hand into the woman he can never be with. As anyone who's ever seen a De Palma film knows, though, this little experiment never ends well.
Of the cast, this is almost entirely Hartnett's film; his Bleichert is a dupe, a patsy, hopelessly damaged, but doesn't know it. He feels needlessly guilty about the fate of the Dahlia, and is also made to feel guilty for failing to have saved his own partner, a partner who, unknown to him, had been using and manipulating him. His misplaced loyalty keeps him blind to his partner's machinations, and also prevents him from moving in on his partner's girl, as she practically throws herself at him. Bleichert's traditional notions of loyalty and responsibility (and to a lesser extent, chivalry, which he hasn't figured out is just chauvinism with a pretty bow tied around it) lead him bravely into unknown territory, where he believes himself to be in control, but fails to understand that nothing is as it seems.
De Palma has chosen to use a severe sepia tone, nearly wiping out most of the color in the film, as indicative of Bleichert's moral haze and uncertainty. We see the haze lift into a less intrusive bluish tint only a few times, mostly in flashback sequences as Bleichert fits the pieces together bit by bit, and when he momentarily gets a handle on himself and his sense of moral direction. Otherwise, the only things that seem to show rich hues through the sepia tones are dead: a couple of meaty dinners laid out on tables, some cut flowers, and a murdered shopkeeper and his child. We are to understand, I think, that Bleichert's obsession with morbidity prevents him from seeing the whole picture, nearly all the time. I'll give you three guesses whether the film ends in sepia, and the first two don't count.
Although it's All About Bleichert, the Dahlia's role here is larger than it was in the novel. While much convolution is removed from Ellroy's twisty narrative, one of the very few elements added is Bleichert's viewing of a screentest in which he -- and we -- get a look at the Dahlia as she appeared in life, as herself: vulnerable, and all-too-eager to please the offscreen director (voiced alternately amusingly, sarcastically and condescendingly by De Palma himself). Through this screentest, we come to understand the Dahlia as a pathetic, manipulative little girl who seems to live in a world of lies she's constructed around herself...as does virtually every other character in the film.
The principal purpose of adding this material was almost certainly to give the audience a connection to the Dahlia, and a reason to sympathize with her (as if her unpleasant demise weren't enough). This new material is also exemplary of a long-honed De Palma technique, that of transforming onscreen characters into audience members/voyeurs, to highlight the power of cinema as simultaneously an instrument of objectification, and to reflect the theater's audience onscreen. Bleichert's attraction to the Dahlia ripens when he sees her "in a movie". (As well, the first time he sees her corpse, from a distance, it's through a movie-screen shaped window; to him, she's a fantasy screen girl -- she really is the Hollywood celebrity she longed to be.)
With Los Angeles and the film industry depicted interchangeably as ruthlessly sucking the lifeblood out of everyone who falls within its gravitational field (Hollywood will fuck you when nobody else will, one character points out), the suggestion is that the fact that Bleichert sees the Dahlia onscreen, in itself, contributes to his fetishization of her. There is a story being told here about the entertainment industry's objectification, of women, of corpses, and of celebrity: Bleichert, watching the Dahlia perform, becomes a member of the audience just long enough to suggest that our objectification of the Dahlia (admit it, you came to the movie in the first place to see the sliced-up chick) is not so different from Bleichert's own, and not so different from our mass objectification of our other "Hollywood" celebrities. De Palma once said pointedly, in another context, "if you're not on TV, you don't exist". Here, the Dahlia only begins to "exist" for Bleichert when he sees her on a movie screen.
There's clearly an undercurrent here associating the very intimate act of butchery with sexual intimacy; the killer has been close to the Dahlia, inside her body, and head-case Bleichert jealously can't stand it. In his sick obsessive fever, all manner of intimacy becomes one; his wires are crossed, and all current leads to the Dahlia. Bleichert's obsession, though, in keeping with his "Mr. Ice" bearing, is depicted with subtlety. We do not see him, for example, suddenly bolt awake in a cold sweat from a Dahlia-centered nightmare (as we might have in De Palma films of the distant past). Nor, thankfully, are we subjected to two-frame inserts of the Dahlia's corpse superimposed over Mattie or Kay as he makes love to either of them. Rather, Bleichert's preoccupation is signalled by the Dahlia's picture sitting on his bedstand table in the background of a shot, or the fact that we find him viewing the Dahlia's screentest several different times. (Though we see a different part of the test each time, it's suggested that Bleichert is watching it repeatedly, compulsively.)
Overall, the violence is at a relative minimum, for a De Palma film. De Palma's little joke on those who come to the film out of prurience is that his depiction of the Dahlia's corpse, and (through flashback) her murder, is restrained and understated. Anyone hoping for a Dahlia Chainsaw Massacre is going to be hugely disappointed: while the usual loudmouths will undoubtedly bark up the De Palma Misogyny Tree (probably without having seen the film, as is par for the course), the death of one of the male characters in the film is shown in far more grisly fashion. The Dahlia herself is dispatched just about as tastefully as is reasonably possible under the circumstances, I think.
Those looking for the spectacular camera moves and set pieces we've come to expect from this director, though, won't be disappointed. The crane shot in which we are first exposed, at great distance, to the Dahlia's corpse is unbelievably beautifully executed. Extended, unbroken takes are all over the place. The zootsuit riots are utter mayhem. Bleichert's and Blanchard's boxing match is all-too-short, and kicks ass; you can feel every punch. A staircase chase is choreographed beautifully. The swirling camera as Bleichert reenters the squad room after recovering from the boxing match is fantastic, and split diopter fans won't be disappointed either (I noticed at least three such shots, and I wasn't trying...you'll probably see more). I heard some gasps from around me in response to a shot showing Bleichert's point of view as he pretends to read a newspaper (in the bottom third of the frame) while observing events in the park over the top of the paper (in the top two thirds of the frame), though I think this little moment was probably composited in postproduction rather than with fancy lenses.
The sequence in which Bleichert comes to pick Madeline up for their first date and instead is introduced to her crazy family and compelled to have dinner with them is a tour de force of uncomfortableness, and a welcome respite from the otherwise omnipresent sense of gloom and dread. If you've ever wondered what Meet the Parents might have looked like if De Palma had been in charge, this might be about what you imagined. Does Fiona Shaw, as Madeline's mom, lay the crazy on a bit thick? Sure, but hell; she's out of her mind. See, she's supposed to be crazy.
Good use is also made of De Palma stalwart Bill Finley, who hasn't had a significant role in a De Palma film in many years. Here, in what I'm pretty sure is intended as an in-joke for oldtimers, he gets to re-enact one of his signature moves from Phantom of the Paradise (to say any more would spoil things)...and, coming full circle, he is entirely mute in Dahlia, as he was when he played Otto in Murder a la Mod, De Palma's first feature.
The sound effects work is spectacularly good in some places, notably the boxing match, where the punches really connect, and in a gunfight, where each gun seems to have a distinct sound, and the directionality of the bullets has you ducking in your seat.
And the production design, oh my God. This film is beautiful. The sets, the streets (there's a great, great shot from above as Bleichert steers his car into the Hollywoodland housing development, which I think is probably a miniature), the clothes..."every dollar is on the screen," as they say.
I was happy to be seeing this film with a French audience: while there were a few walkouts, De Palma, Ellroy, Hartnett and Eckhart (who departed the auditorium as the film began, but returned for the last few minutes to get their post-screening applause) were feted with a standing ovation... the French have always seemed to be more on De Palma's wavelength than anyone else.
Sadly, much of America's audience, particularly the younger audience drawn in by Hartnett and Johanssen, is probably going to hate this film. It's a period piece, and it's done in the style of a '40's noir. True to the form, it's convoluted: you have to pay hard attention to have anything resembling a clue what's happening, characters come and go, threads are seemingly followed nowhere, and if you're duped into thinking that Bleichert understands what's going on, you'll be hopelessly confused. People who just don't like to work that hard at the movies will be frustrated. As well, it's a throwback not only narratively, but stylistically, an homage to a beautiful aesthetic that's now desperately out of fashion. The colors are muted to the point that it might as well be in black and white for the most part, and the dialogue and performances are, consistent with the style of the period, melodramatic, overwrought, and in some places downright silly, particularly when accompanied by Mark Isham's tremendously swelling crescendos at what are supposed to be emotional high points. While the score's dynamism and lushness is dead on for the period, it skirts dangerously close to overplaying the moment in a couple of scenes.
I'm afraid the film is going to be accused, by those who don't know any better, of "campiness". Hartnett's going to get lambasted for his crying scene, and both Johanssen and Swank will be taken to task for excessive lip-trembling, furtive glancing, and languorous moves. Which is sad, because this is a film that was made with love, and craft, and purity of purpose.
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