In the recently released documentary De Palma, young directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow interview the legendary filmmaker as he breaks down his entire filmography. He speaks heavily on his influences, namely Hitchcock’s Vertigo, his positive and negative experiences with independent and studio filmmaking and copious anecdotes of all your favorite actors. It’s quite impressive for a documentary that is one person talking for 100 minutes to be so engaging. Maybe it’s because I’m a film geek that grew up on pop culture talking head shows like VH1’s I Love The…And Bravo’s Scariest Movie Moments. I get thrills from seeing the highlights of such a versatile and memorable oeuvre. You leave wanting to revisit this classics and interested in the more lost gems.
One of the films the documentary glosses over is the 2006 flop The Black Dahlia. When asked about it, De Palma essentially admits it’s a mess, saying that he found the book confusing and since he stuck so close to James Elroy’s material that it translated to an equally jumbled film. It was quite a cathartic statement to hear. When I saw Dahlia in theaters i remember leaving bewildered. I was really into true crime at the time and after seeing Hollywoodland a few weeks earlier, I was excited for more 40’s nostalgic noir. I first accredited my confusion to being fourteen and was just too naive to understand the intricacies of such a grown up genre. I remained highly fascinated by this movie because I wanted it to make sense. It was a cryptic message that if I focused hard enough, I could break. It’s such a perfect set up being based off one of the most gruesome unsolved murders set in a seedy city masked with glamour and stardom. It’s quite fitting that there wouldn’t be a clear answer and De Palma himself throws his hands up in despair.
The narrative follows Bucky (Josh Hartnett) a boxer turned cop and his partner/fellow boxing rival Lee (Aaron Eckhart) who get caught up in more crime than you’d think two people could handle. To manage expectations, the Dahlia doesn’t show up till minute 22 as the initial set up is this love triangle involving former mobster girlfriend now Lee’s current girlfriend Kay (Scarlett Johansson) and her affection for both men. This love triangle is the real make or break of this movie. I like it as a concept, how these characters lives get tangled up in this case and they’re trying to wade out the inner and outer turmoil. The downside is it’s not just one case. There’s so many side stories from a serial child murderer on the run to Kay’s ex boyfriend’s imminent release from prison to Bucky’s affair with a wealthy developer’s daughter named Madeline (Hilary Swank) and literally everyone is connected to the Dahlia. You need red string to keep up with how everything links up. I now can’t imagine seeing this in theaters because I actually rewound my DVD multiple because I couldn’t hear the whispered dialogue that was crucial because every line of dialogue reveals something new.
It’s bizarre that Dahlia was released the same month as Hollywoodland which manages its conspiracies much more succinctly. We do get some relief when Bucky puts the pieces together and finds the scene of the gruesome murder. Hollywoodland sets itself apart by playing out every scenario for George Reeves’ death, leading to an ambiguous conclusion. Here, once Bucky confronts the presumed culprit we fall into the longest most convoluted explanation sequence. It does contain my favorite performance from Rachel Minor as the alcohol/drug addled mother of Madeline. It’s the most hammiest, psychotic delivery but leaves an underwhelming explanation for the Dahlia as you get lost in the fragmented pieces of reasoning that can be summed up as “crazy is what crazy do”. I realize that doesn’t make sense but neither does this movie.
In an alternate universe, I believe this movie could be as great as I want it to be. Josh Hartnett does not have the emotional range to carry a noir. He’s got the good ole boy look but his lifeless voiceover and any breakdown or burst of fear, anger or sorrow is so wooden. There’s no chemistry between him and Kay which his love for her is supposed to inform most of his decisions. I love Hilary Swank but I can’t deal with plot twists hinging on the fact that her Madeline looks like the victim Elizabeth Short played by Mia Kirshner. At most their hair cut is similar but Swank lacks the raven color and giant eyes that are Kirshner’s signature yet at every moment someone must mention that she looks like “that dead girl”. The best scenes of the film are the pure detective work as Bucky interviews a wannabe actress dawning Cleopatra garb or Short’s disgruntled father. The Black Dahlia is a noir, sepia toned wet dream. It doesn’t feel real like say L.A. Confidential that gives you a sense of the city and the station our characters spend their days in. It exist in a world that’s all plot and no substance. I’m glad I can put this pulpy novel of a film to rest as it’s haunted me much like the dismembered corpse of Elizabeth Short haunts Bucky. I can’t shake it, it’s dissatisfying but it’s always in the back of my mind.