Saturday, February 25, 2012

Brian De Palma: The Black Dahlia

Building off the moral investigation of film noir that characterized his Femme Fatale, Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia is a grim, stylish examination of the whole genre, not merely one of its most vital foundations. An adaptation of a fictionalization of a real murder committed in Hollywood, The Black Dahlia is ripe for De Palma's approach, but his film is less a deconstruction than a demolition, its elegant, formalist structure nonetheless betraying jagged edges that rip apart film noir. At its face value, the film is perhaps the director's most aesthetically pleasing, with its golden hues and plunging shadows casting Hollywood as its own cinematized fantasy and nightmare. More importantly, however, it is easily De Palma's most profoundly disturbing film, as transgressive in its own way as Body Double, only more formal and emotional. Body Double assaults the senses, but The Black Dahlia hits where it hurts.

Narrated in terse, strained voiceover by Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), The Black Dahlia feels like a noir from the start, even as it introduces its detectives via their alternate gig, boxers for the force. If Femme Fatale delved into the characteristic female type of noir, The Black Dahlia breaks down the male cop archetypes. We meet Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) as Mr. Ice and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) as "Mr. Fire," their accomplishments as police officers nothing more than mere fodder for hyping this exhibition match for the precinct. It casts the two as leading men not merely of the film but of its diegetic world, headliners revered for their crowd-pleasing qualities. This presentation fundamentally weakens the two men as serious police officers, but De Palma will spend the rest of the movie undermining them even more, digging into the grim, unheroic truths beneath their aesthetically captivating shells.

Blanchard and Bleichert make perfect foils for each other. Blanchard, sporting Eckhart's magnificent chin and Aryan hair, looks like the national perception of the "All-American" and resides in a house so big that even his colleagues must want to investigate his tax returns. Bleichert, smaller and brunette, returns to his cheap apartment to care for his dementia-ridden, German immigrant father. Bleichert takes a dive in their fight in order to put his dad in a home, but his voiceovers suggest that he knew Blanchard had to win anyway. For the good of the department, the son of a Jerry was always going to have to get pummeled by Captain America.

Yet Blanchard proves to be a sport about their rigged match, and the two become close friends. The merciless staging of the boxing scenes—filmed by De Palma in ways that make Raging Bull look tame—fades into an equally exaggerated view of camaraderie between the partners. De Palma even suggests that the two have bonded so thoroughly that they practically share the same woman, Blanchard's girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). But as quickly as De Palma casts Blanchard and Bleichert as the purest form of the buddy cop cliché, he sets about rending them apart. Muttered half-revelations hint at dark secrets that inform the odd sort of love triangle between Kay and the two officers, and when they get drawn into the investigation of the infamous titular murder case, their collective type crumbles.

The discovery of the "Black Dahlia," Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), occurs in the background of a stakeout Blanchard and Bleichert plan for a serial rapist/murderer, and De Palma thickly lays on the grim irony of this white woman's death instantly taking precedent at the precinct over the tailed violator and killer of black children. Bleichert himself tries to get this across to Blanchard, but his partner swiftly forgets about his initial target to focus on the case of this gruesomely disfigured corpse. Bleichert, who perhaps feels at least some form of kinship with the neglected elements of society as a second-generation immigrant, is more repulsed by the idea of children dying regardless of race. Blanchard, though, wants to find the person responsible for the killing of an attractive white woman. And as clues filter in about her sexual past, his dedication morphs into obsession.

If De Palma's previous film tacitly criticized the Nice Guy™faux-chivalric male, The Black Dahlia fully attacks it. Bleichert gradually pieces together Kay's past out of vague, fearful allusions until he realizes she was a prostitute tortured by her pimp. Blanchard rescued her, but as Kay tells Bleichert, he's never slept with her. Male judgment of female sexuality pervades the film, and Blanchard's visceral reaction to sex illustrates this most clearly. His dedication to the Elizabeth Short case exhibits his need to protect women, but also his revulsion of them. The discovery of seedy "audition tapes" featuring Short only further feed his rage. De Palma sprinkles misogyny throughout—Short's own father practically says she deserved what she got for dressing the way she did—but the treatment of Blanchard bitterly deconstructs the seemingly noble impulse to save or avenge the wronged damsel to its roots, which are no less hateful.

Bleichert, on the other hand, lacks Blanchard's fierceness but makes up for it by feeling all the lust Blanchard denies himself. His friendship with Kay flirts with inappropriateness, with Kay's repressed sexuality eking out around the man, whose own feelings are stirred in her presence. However, Bleichert pulls back when he senses himself growing too close, prioritizing his relationship with Blanchard over the one with her. More intriguing, though, is the romance Bleichert ultimately enters into with Elizabeth Short's doppelganger, a pampered rich girl named Madeline Linscott (Hilary Swank) who likes to slum it in some of the lesbian bars Short used to visit. De Palma has long loved his doubles, but what makes Madeline unique is the relative lack of definition of her "real" self. The Black Dahlia is a wisp of memory, a vague outline of corrupted innocence that represents perhaps the most purified and cynical end to the poor rube who came to Hollywood to follow her dream. Madeline is, of course, the reverse; her family helped build Tinseltown and in turn made boatloads of money. But she, like everyone else in her mad clan, is perverse and exploitative, the sort of person who corrupts the corruptible like Short.

But Bleichert doesn't care. He plays Blanchard's id as much as Madeline (a Vertigo reference, perhaps?) plays Elizabeth's, and the two soon enter into a sexual affair. Madeline adheres more faithfully to the femme fatale type that De Palma so brilliantly subverted with his last film, yet he adds a class twist to her schemes that run counter to the usual motive of greed. Instead of manipulating people for personal gain, she seems to do it just to get some kind of thrill. Cloistered in aristocratic misery with her internally squabbling family, Madeline gets her jollies seducing a woman who looks like her, or twisting this hapless detective around her pinky finger. All of the loathing Blanchard pours onto the image of Short would be better directed at this embodiment of all he hates about her, but it's his partner who ends up sticking it to her, in more ways than one.

In contrast to the men and their projection of women, Short herself is complex and heart-wrenching. This is all the more striking given that the audience only "interacts" with her via old those old tapes of grimy audition reels. Kirshner brings out depths of tragedy to the woman in fragmented bursts, playing Short with just enough cynicism to try to seduce her off-camera mocker but too much innocence to do it with any more conviction than a child aping something she should never have been allowed to see. Adamant in her desire to be a star, Short is nevertheless so timid and fragile that the misogynistic accusations thrown at her memory evaporate. A tragic air pervades the film, but elsewhere it is subdued in cold shock. Whenever Kirshner appears in black-and-white, half-heartedly rousing herself against the horrid casting director (De Palma himself, off-screen), her barely contained despair jumps through the diegetic camera and then through De Palma's lens. Her looks feel like addresses to the audience's decency, and the unbearableness of it drives Blanchard insane.

The Black Dahlia is based on the book by James Ellroy, whose L.A. Confidential is regularly cited as one of the great American films of the last 20 years. That film frames Ellroy's unsparingly critical view of Hollywood with a formal perfection, its layered narrative nonetheless neatly arranged and its direction generally crisp and uncomplicated. De Palma's film is precisely the opposite of all that. It's messy, self-annihilating and convoluted. Yet it is De Palma's movie, not Curtis Hanson's, that visually embodies the tone in which Ellroy's writing casts Hollywood. Vilmos Zgimond's gorgeous cinematography uses golden hues and deep shadow to duplicitous effect, at once highlighting the nostalgic and idealistic glory of show business and its jaundiced, rotting underbelly.

In addition, De Palma understands that Hollywood, like the rest of America, was erected by immigrants and frontiersmen, often moves back past noir into German Expression itself. The stylized L.A. never truly settles into any form of realism, and by the end it's morphed into an outright fever dream of despair and confused longing on behalf of Bleichert, whose flat narration prevents one from easily guessing that the whole movie is his delirious nightmare until the final moments. De Palma regularly checks the great Expressionist film The Man Who Laughs, not only as a recurring image but a key plot point. He even throws in his own tragically yearning and disfigured character, and anyone who knows their De Palma will know instantly that such a character simply must be played by William Finley.

The dizzying, extended climax to The Black Dahlia is at once one of the most controlled freak-outs in De Palma's canon and one of the most unsettling. Bleichert, still reeling from a stunning second act finale, falls fully into madness, and the plot suddenly speeds up to accommodate his plummet. The Expressionist touches turn into full swaths of stylized acting and staging, most memorably the grim fate of Madeline's mother, whose gagging dignity made for such great comedy in an earlier dinner scene but suddenly seems frightful and insane. Other influences beging pouring in as well, from a confrontation with Madeline that makes the Vertigo connection more than plausible to what even appears to be a lift from F for Fake.

But nothing compares to the last scene, the most elegant, Romantic obliteration since De Palma caught up to Carlito's Way's foregone conclusion. Bewildered and enraged, Bleichert returns to Kay for comfort, seeking shelter from what he has seen and uncovered. Kay opens the door in a flash of heavenly white, the whore become the Madonna as she beckons the man inside. But before he can move, Bleichert hears the caw of a crow behind him and turns to see Betty Short's mutilated corpse lying on the lawn, illuminated by Kay's glow, the object of his ecstasy also a reminder of his agony. In that moment, Bleichert finds himself frozen between equally garish reminders of his two biggest failures, to the case, and to his friend and partner. It's worth noting that when Bleichert shakes his head and the ghastly image of Short disappears, so too does Kay's aura. This flash of lucidity breaks up the subjective haze of the film's last 15-20 minutes, yet Bleichert's conscious decision to retreat from the world with Kay may be more unsettling than any of the stylized actions that preceded it.

Earlier I mentioned the stylistic ways that the more graceful Black Dahlia diverged from the full-on porn assault of Body Double, yet if anything, it's the 2006 film that is more merciless. Body Double spits on what Hollywood had become; as Bleichert enters the house with Kay and shuts himself off from the horror around him, The Black Dahlia makes clear that Hollywood was always the most loathsome, horrifying place in the world.


  1. I try not to compare the book to the film but before I went to see the film. I did read the book and I was really into the narrative style that was far more psychological and entrancing.

    The film I thought was alright at first but when I saw it again. It didn't hold up for me at all. I really disliked the last 20 minutes over the reveal because it got way too campy for me.

  2. See, I think the last 20 minutes are where it becomes transcendent. It's a full-on fever dream that brings out the best in De Palma, and the best of De Palma, considering how much of his various tricks and themes come out in those last minutes.

  3. The Black Dahlia is based on the book by James Ellroy, whose L.A. Confidential is regularly cited as one of the great American films of the last 20 years. That film frames Ellroy's unsparingly critical view of Hollywood with a formal perfection, its layered narrative nonetheless neatly arranged and its direction generally crisp and uncomplicated. De Palma's film is precisely the opposite of all that. It's messy, self-annihilating and convoluted. Yet it is De Palma's movie, not Curtis Hanson's, that visually embodies the tone in which Ellroy's writing casts Hollywood.

    It's funny--I know what you're saying here, but rewatch L.A. Confidential sometime (I got to see it last year on a massive screen at the Castro in San Francisco); shot by shot it's an absolute disaster visually, and although it might be less messy on a macro level, on a micro cinematographic level De Palma's film is far more coherent.

    Good review.

  4. Peter,

    Your comment got caught in my spam filter for some reason and I just now saw it. Thanks so much for your comment. Yeah, it's been a while since I've seen L.A. Confidential because I find it too neatly handled, at least narratively. You would have a better idea of how it looks visually. I don't think I make it all the way clear here but I VASTLY prefer De Palma's adaptation to Hanson's. I think De Palma visualizes what Hanson had to ploddingly stress in dialogue. I've been meaning to rewatch it, if only to confirm my ambivalence for the film, and your comment makes me both reluctant and more eager than ever to look at L.A. Confidential again.

  5. LA Confidential's one of my favorite movies. Not sure if it was 'too neatly handled', but hey, to each there own.