I respect James Ellroy’s love for Los Angeles. I don’t understand it – there may not be a city that wasn’t once part of the Confederacy that I hate more – but I can respect it. He loves his city in the same way that I love mine and his novels are like bitter love letters to that town, valentines to LA’s seediness and evil. Growing up in New York City I have always been aware of my proximity to places where great and important events took place, and LA’s lack of history is one of the things I have hated about it. Ellroy obviously disagrees, though – to him history isn’t the pub where Washington resigned the army after the Revolution but where Lana Turner’s daughter stabbed Johnny Stompanato to death. History in Los Angeles is inextricably intertwined with movies, with fantasy, with dreams. Brian De Palma understands this and so he has taken Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, a fiction based on the very true story of one of LA’s most famous murders, and turned it into a noir film, recreating LA history by evoking movie history.
If I could change one thing about the film version of The Black Dahlia, it’s that I would make it black and white – the movie feels and looks that much like the great noirs of the 40s and 50s. While the movie feels like it’s one Bogart or Fred MacMurray away from being a genuine period artifact, it doesn’t feel like a genre exercise. De Palma isn’t just going through the motions here, he isn’t just spending all night watching his favorite films on DVD and trying to recreate his favorite shots the next day (a scenario many De Palma haters must assume happens all the time) – The Black Dahlia is a vibrant, living movie. It’s also a damn good one.
The novel of The Black Dahlia is among the most complex of Ellroys’ LA Quartet (of which this is the first. LA Confidential is, technically, a sequel to this story), and De Palma’s film, with a script by Josh Friedman, does an impressive job of keeping the central complexity of character and story while streamlining the narrative. At one point David Fincher wanted to make a three and a half hour version of the novel; De Palma’s comes in at two hours and I honestly don’t think much is lost – I didn’t even notice many of the changes until I went back to the book. It’s a perfect example of a good adaptation, a movie that takes what makes the novel work and makes it special and translates that into another form.
Even reduced as it is, the story remains twisty and packed with characters and incidents, rendering a short synopsis of the plot impossible. The basics of it has veteran cop Lee Blanchard and rookie Dwight “Bucky” Bleichart teaming up in LAPD’s Warrants Division, a job that lets them get down and dirty with real criminals. They’re a duo at work but a trio after hours – Lee lives with Kay, a gorgeous girl with a dark past. Bucky is attracted to Kay, and likewise, but even though she and Lee don’t have sex they can never be together.
Then Betty Short is killed. The aspiring actress is found, nude and mutilated, in an empty lot. Bleichart and Blanchard are at a nearby building, engaged in a sudden and puzzling gunfight when Short, who will be called the Black Dahlia by the press because of her penchant for dressing in all black, is discovered. Blanchard becomes instantly obsessed with the case and gets the duo transferred to the Dahlia task force. He almost as quickly starts falling apart, taking uppers to stay awake and immersing himself completely in Short’s life, ignoring his own.
Meanwhile Bucky discovers the seedier side of Elizabeth Short – a dalliance in LA’s lesbian underworld and a porn film. He meets Madeleine Lindscott, a woman who bears a striking resemblance to Short and who slept with her, just to see what it would be like to fuck someone who looked like her. She and Bucky start sleeping together and have a passionate affair, one that threatens to complicate both their lives and the investigation. As all of this is going on a man from Kay’s past is getting out of jail, and Lee decides he needs to take care of the guy once and for all. These pieces collide, leading to shocking revelations, death and the eventual solving – and covering up – of the Dahlia killing.
There are a lot of theories about who killed the Dahlia – books are still being written about it. I never liked Ellroy’s solution, and the film keeps it but wisely backgrounds much of the Dahlia case. De Palma’s film is really about the pentagonal web of obsessions between Bucky, Blanchard, Kay, Madeleine and the Dahlia. The central figure in that mess is Betty Short, and she’s dead from her introduction, which could make it hard to understand why Bucky and Blanchard are so into her case. Luckily De Palma has a secret weapon: Mia Kirshner plays Short in a series of audition clips and I defy any man in the audience to not fall in love with her. Kirshner is incredible in the limited role; she’s defiantly sexy, engagingly charming and mortally emotionally wounded. She’s the glue that holds everything together.
Kirshner is the glue, but the driving force is Josh Hartnett. I would be underplaying it if I said that his casting was met with consternation on the internet, but the guy completely proves himself in the role. Many people complained that Hartnett is too young looking to be Ellroy’s Bucky, but it works in the film – this guy hasn’t been around the block. As the film goes on the weight of the case and his life begins to weigh on Hartnett’s face. This is the role that’s officially announcing Hartnett’s advancement to more serious and adult films.
Aaron Eckhart isn’t given enough to do while Scarlett Johannson may have finally found the role that best suits her affectless delivery, the distanced and scarred Kay. The only real misstep in casting is Hilary Swank. She and Kirshner don’t look a bit alike, which is distracting when everyone keeps claiming they do. But she also comes down on the wrong side of the noir acting style – everyone else manages to mix modern, naturalistic acting with a more theatrical feel reminiscent of the 40s. Swank feels like she’s just aping femme fatales of the past, especially with her goofy “upper class” accent.
In many ways the real star of the film is De Palma anyway. It’s refreshing to sit in a theater and watch a movie on the big screen that’s been made by someone who thinks about shots, who places his camera for a reason, who composes the frame to have some meaning. Too many modern directors look at the work of a master like De Palma and see cool shots and not what the shots convey. There are scenes where the camera tells half the story, like one where Bucky confronts Kay over a wad of cash he discovers under the bathroom floor tile – Bucky is reflected in a series of mirrors, something which not only looks great but represents all the directions he feels torn. There’s one action scene set on a hotel lobby staircase that makes such great use of shadow and angles that I could watch it again and again.
The inevitable comparison is going to come up between LA Confidential and The Black Dahlia, but I don’t think the films can be compared. Confidential is a very modern period piece and works on its own terms. Dahlia is trying to be of the period while not completely alienating modern audiences. Confidential is a great film, but Dahlia captures exactly what I see in my head when I read James Ellroy’s novels.