I love Brian De Palma. What’s it to you anyway? You think you’re better than me, don’t you? Listen, I’ve got a good sound system in my brand new BMW, and I know every line to De Palma’s Scarface. My facial hair is finely trimmed and I’m on the brink of attaining a slowly receding hairline that makes me feel tones older. I like to lick my lips in public, and I have several oversized black Che Guevara T shirts, please don’t mistake me for one of those revolutionist types though, I’m just into popular culture. On top of all that, I would love to kick your ass if I didn’t have to get back to my job at the Gaborone CBD, where I spend most of my time oiling a machine of which its purpose is unbeknown to me. So, do not push me close to the edge. The frustrations of my life are plenty and this underage pretty girl on my right arm is here to fulfill my urge of wanting to rearrange time. Those who love to define and frustrate claim that it’s time for marriage and long-term forms of commitment for my type, but I say, “Leave me out of it for there is still much fun to be had out there.” Pleasure to meet you by the way, my name is Muthusi, oops no, it’s Tshepo. Gees, why do I keep on messing up? I am a middle aged Motswana man with anxiety issues. Believe it or not, but I actually graduated from university with a couple of papers (university degrees) and I now work for the government as an accountant. The good news is that I am finally due for a pay rise next year so please don’t try to make me feel unaccomplished.
Oh yes! I like Brian De Palma. Not because he annoyed the hell out of me by accidentally making Scarface a cultural phenomenon among people whose idea of culture is the latest Tupac or B.I.G collection. I like him because his early films were nerdy little riffs on Hitchcock, and he seems to hate women almost as much as I do. I use the term ‘seems’ on purpose, for by virtue of being a Motswana man I guess I have no choice in the matter but to love my women. However, my sometimes-abusive ‘macho’ tendencies towards the opposite sex could suggest a sense of resentment that is based on an acknowledgement of the fact that I need women in my life. Anyway, that is by no means an attempt to justify my often-unjust actions. Let me return to the matter at hand.
Aside from ejaculating every time De Palma spatters a brunette or blond with blood on screen, I honestly haven’t gleaned much enjoyment from his films of late.
Femme Fatale (2002) was considered to be one of the most daring and aesthetically liberated films De Palma has ever made. However, it came across as an interesting inflammation of the sub-textual eroticism of film noir. Mission To Mars (2000) was a little baffling, and I’m still not sure whether Mission Impossible (1996) was supposed to be funny or sad. The Black Dahlia (2006), however, I had high hopes for.
Based upon James Ellroy’s novel, the film is about the famous Black Dahlia murder case, in which aspiring actress Elizabeth Short was found chopped in two with her mouth carved open. Being both a fan of Ellroy’s novels and mutilation, I was looking forward to seeing what De Palma was going to do with the story. While the movie doesn’t fail completely, it doesn’t live up to the material’s potential as did, say, L. A. Confidential, based upon another Ellroy book.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard the name “The Black Dahlia” uttered somewhere before without really knowing whom it was or what it meant. And although you might think a movie titled The Black Dahlia would clear some of these questions up for you, well, that’s not entirely true. This film is a period piece and a noir-esque crime thriller, but it’s certainly not bound to historical accuracy in any way. Whether or not you allow this flaw to detract from your enjoyment of the film is completely up to you.
The Black Dahlia was the nickname of Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress who was killed in Los Angeles in 1947, which became one of the most notorious unsolved murders of all time. Her name was apparently a play on the title of a 1946 movie, The Blue Dahlia, and the fact that she often wore black. The thing that really shocked people about the murder, however, was the grisly state of the body when it was found. Her face had been sliced from ear to ear and her body had been cut in half at the waist.
This movie is based on a fictional book, and uses Elizabeth Short’s murder as a springboard for a bigger story, much more focused on the detectives themselves.
In fact, within the first half-hour or so of the movie, there isn’t any mention of Elizabeth Short at all. Instead, we meet two cops, Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Leland Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) who are both boxers, and who compete in a match to generate publicity for the police department. Blanchard wins, but over time, a friendship develops. Bleichert doesn’t hold a grudge because he respects Blanchard, and a strange love triangle starts to take shape between the two cops and Blanchard’s girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson).
When the body of Elizabeth Short is eventually discovered, Blanchard and Bleichert are at the scene of the crime and Blanchard starts to become obsessed with finding the killer, slowly descending into madness.
Many could rightfully perceive The Black Dahlia as De Palma’s love letter to classical Hollywood cinema. The Black Dahlia is set in the forties and feels as though it was made within that era. In this sense, De Palma succeeds at offering the viewer an interesting film that carries an organic forties air, today.
I must admit, there are little clever packets hidden within this story that would probably intrigue any De Palma fanatic. One such example is the presence of a love triangle in The Black Dahlia, which boldly comes across as a direct reference to the 1946 Columbia classic Gilda, starring the lovely Rita Hayworth.
Some may see the Black Dahlia’s lack of strict focus on the murder as a weakness; personally, I did feel as though I’d walked into the movie with slightly false expectations. However, for the most part I still enjoyed the film.
Brian De Palma is not known for telling straightforward stories, and this is perhaps the biggest flaw in the movie. The Black Dahlia is too long and a bit convoluted. It’s also slow paced, and there’s not all that much action, even though there are some rather gory scenes.
Don’t go in expecting Scarface, that’s for sure, and don’t expect a serial killer movie like Seven or Kiss The Girls or something (i.e. there’s a reason this movie does not star Morgan Freeman).
That said, The Black Dahlia, has more than its share of really cool cinematic moments. The shoot out scene on the staircase is heart pounding and a thrill to watch. There are also some interesting experiments with camera work, such as the first person scene when Bucky meets the parents of Madeleine Linscott for dinner (this was also one of the few scenes featuring some flat out comic relief, which some people might find out of place but I loved it). Yes, Hitchcock-inspired techniques abound as is typical of De Palma’s work, but this doesn’t become a distraction to the viewer.
The style of the film is very much the hard-boiled detective story, which I enjoy when done well. This is going to turn off some people who will find it corny, but Josh Hartnett, in particular, has proven he suits this type of role well with his recent performances in Sin City and Lucky Number Slevin. His dry narration really holds the film together.
Scarlett Johannson and Hilary Swank also make for great eye candy as 40’s dames, and Aaron Eckhart, once again, proves himself to be a presence on screen.
Could the movie have been tighter? Absolutely. The ending trudges along much farther than we want it to. I was wondering how they could come up with a satisfactory conclusion for a movie about an unsolved murder… In this case, they invent a perpetrator and a motive, and it still doesn’t wrap up nicely. The Black Dahlia, will definitely bore more than a few unseasoned theatergoers.
However, I was really taken by the style and the look of the film. It’s definitely not solid enough to be called a masterpiece, but hardcore cinephiles will still revel in its texture and technique.
The Black Dahlia offers no Tony Montana types and will most likely disappoint those who carry such expectations. So, if you are a Scarface fan with a tightly tied bandanna around your head, chunky neck chain bearing a medallion, a baggy pair of jeans and an oversized Che Guevara T shirt looking for a Tony Montana to idealize. Well, sorry try getting a ‘woman’ while you wait on a sequel. The money and the power are such rare entities at a time when our economy has just hit a nose-dive.