You want to talk about Hollywood’s broken dreams? Try this:
it’s 1947 and a gorgeous 22-year-old brunette actress with future glory shining
in her eyes is suddenly found decapitated in a vacant lot — cut in half,
totally gutted, drained of blood, and with three-inch cuts added to the corners
of her mouth to form a ghoulish, mocking grin. This is
The Black Dahlia.
And it’s a true story, sort of. Along with George Reeve’s “suicide” from last week ( Hollywoodland ), Elizabeth Short’s murder was never solved and remains one of Hollywood’s most infamous unsolved mysteries. This week, with Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, we’re treated to a fictional story based on the actual event that’s handled by one of Hollywood’s masters of style, subtext and allusion.
Josh Hartnett, who’s been shaking off that Pearl Harbour black mark with strong performances in Sin City, and Lucky Number Slevin , stars as Bucky who, along with his manic partner Lee (Aaron Eckhart-ruling it,) are the detectives caught up in solving this brutal crime. Bucky ends up sniffing around a lesbian nightclub where KD Lang (who else) croons to carpet munchers and Hillary Swank plays Madeleine Linscott, a high-society dame who not only looks like the deceased but also had sex with her, or did she?
Bucky, already in a bit of bind with his partner’s wife (played by Scarlett Johansson; doesn’t this just keep getting better) is lured into Madeleine and her well-off world and things get weirder, creepier, and more film noir-ish from there. Screen tests of Elizabeth Short (played perfectly by Canadian Mia Krishner) are peppered into the narrative as the film sinks into crime, cover-up, corruption, hypocrisy, and sex.
At his best, De Palma is one of America’s premier directors and while he is often criticized for being too reverential or in-jokey his extensive film knowledge is a bonus here as he tosses in all the old standards — crooked cops, femme fatales, corrupt politicians, ambitious reporters, dirty filmmakers, mobsters, killers, mentally ill rich people and, of course, jealous little sisters. The film is a power struggle at every level, from the Lee-Bucky partnership to the twisted Linscott push-shove family dynamics.
The Black Dahlia also examines the movie industry’s growth into a powerful economic force in Los Angeles and the crime, sleaze, lies and victims that were dragged along for the ride.
De Palma builds psychological tension through his multi-faceted characters and a sense of hollow futility permeates the picture right down to the set construction. Call it black fate perhaps, the feeling that this mystery and this film, much like life itself, just might not all turn out fine in the end. As James Ellroy says, “Closure is Bullshit.” He would know, he wrote The Black Dahlia, the novel this film is based around, and even when the mystery is solved we’re left with that cold, haunting feeling that comes after you’ve snuck a peak at how darkly savage and cutthroat the real world can be.
If you’re like me and you love film noir, then check out Polanski’s Chinatown, Hawkes’ The Big Sleep, Kubrick’s The Killing, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, or DOA, Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia, and Mildred Pierce, one of the very few classic noirs with a woman protagonist.
True Notes from the Back Row fans will also be interested to know that my mother even has a cat named Film Noir and it’s the one that always pukes on the carpet while I write. Puking’s totally noir though, and if I believe the good reviews I have to believe the bad ones too.
AT VILLAGE 8 Sept. 15-21: The Black Dahlia, Everyone’s Hero;
Gridiron Gang; Last Kiss; Talladega Nights; Hollywoodland; Little Miss
Sunshine; Invincible; Covenant.