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The Cinematic Katzenjammer: Guest Review: The Black Dahlia


Guest Review: The Black Dahlia

So Ries Murphy, a Marine in the United States Military took some time out of his "Fight of the Good Fight" to write another review for The Cinematic Katzenjammer (He wrote a review of The Frighteners in August and one for The Trip in July)

I recently had the unusual and unfortunate experience of watching Brian De Palma’s take on the James Ellroy novel, The Black Dahlia, within forty eight hours of finishing the novel itself. For a few reasons, this review will be a little longer than others, and perhaps a little more serious than this site is used to. I think I do this partly because the subject matter is very real (Elizabeth Short aka The Dahlia was very much a real woman and was very much murdered in a very real-world Los Angeles) I usually like to write spoiler-free reviews, as I find nothing grates on me more than not being able to read a review of a film because it gives away what happens over the course of the movie. That’s especially pertinent, I think, when it comes to a noir film. I mean, come on. That would be like if someone told me the end of Chinatown. I’d probably slap them until they told me something else.

That’s how the hard-boiled did it in the 40’s. 

But here’s the skinny on it - The Black Dahlia is so fundamentally different between the two mediums in question here that spoilers are kind of necessary to explain my complaints. Bear in mind that two seconds worth of research into the real life murder of Elizabeth Short will reveal her mystery to be unsolved, so any and all “twists” I reveal from this fiction are just that - fiction. Some rogue part of me picked up the book wondering how Ellroy would tackle one of the most infamous unsolved murders this side of Jack the Ripper. That rogue part of me was not only satisfied by novel’s end, but horrified, mesmerized and also slightly obsessed. Then came the film junkie side. He wanted to see how De Palma tackled the book and fit it into a movie. The result, I’m afraid, was anything but memorable, and I think I know why.

The Black Dahlia stars Josh Hartnett, and Aaron Eckhart as 1940’s LAPD cops Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard. Also noteworthy are the sultry Scarlett Johansson as Kay Lake and the ever marvelous Hilary Swank as the enigmatic Madeleine Inscott. These leading cast, I feel, are the strongest points of the film - Eckhart’s Lee Blanchard in particular was spot on the money. Even though we’ve seen Eckhart go to the dark side before as Two-Face in The Dark Knight, his transformation as portrayed here is no less upsetting or surprising. I honestly believe Eckhart is one of our most underrated actors, one who can portray surprising versatility, especially when displaying a fall from grace. It’s unfortunate that two of his most memorable performances so far were either overshadowed by a once-in-a-lifetime performance by Heath Ledger or a not-so-impressive-film by De Palma. Either way, kudos to Eckhart for bringing Lee Blanchard to the silver screen in a way that I feel stuck close by what Ellroy brought to life.

Harvey Dent’s grandfather, circa 1947. Obsession and consequent insanity must run in the family.

To understand the discrepancy between The Black Dahlia and The Black Dahlia, first you must have a basic understanding guessed it...the Black Dahlia. In 1947, a woman was pushing a stroller along the side of a Los Angeles road when she came across the remains of a young woman. The remains were grossly mutilated - the woman was cut in half, her reproductive organs and other vitals removed. There wasn’t a drop of blood left in her body, nor was there any to be found at the crime scene or around the two halves of her torso. Her legs and neck were broken, and her head was virtually crushed by some blunt force trauma. What we remember most, however, about the Dahlia is the infamous Glasgow Smile - the fact that someone had cut her face from ear to ear in a leering grin. (For those playing the home game, Christopher Nolan’s Joker from The Dark Knight had the scars of a Glasgow Smile.)
Yeah. Some seriously cheerful sh*t. 

There’s something so indescribably horrifying about murders like this - they appear at random, are never solved, and are so insanely brutal that we cannot even comprehend what would drive someone to commit such atrocities. It makes it worse that it’s real, and that reality lends itself to a certain sort of fear. It’s a kind of fear that isn’t contained by the edge of the screen. It’s not like Alien, where you can go home and comfort yourself that some Space-Jockey-Face-Sucker isn’t going to jump out of your air conditioning vents or splash up out of your toilet while you’re dropping some logs.

Have fun imagining that one, kids.

James Ellroy understands this fear - he understands not only the fear but the madness that produces the fear. He gets it, and the book is horrifying.

The movie, on the other hand, is anything but.

For one thing, we see a single glimpse of the Dahlia herself in the last scene of the film. This can be worked in one of three ways - either the suspense builds itself up to the point that we can’t handle it anymore, or we just stop caring what she looks like because we’ve moved on with the picture, or the third option is that when the big reveal finally comes, it’s wildly anticlimactic because we’ve spent the whole movie waiting for it. What De Palma did fell victim to that third slot, plus it lost points for being wildly inaccurate. If you’re going to reveal to us what the Dahlia’s face looked like, show it to us the way it really was. The real version is terrifying enough. You don’t need to stylize a murder that actually happened.

Another upsetting trait of the film is that the Dahlia is pushed largely into the background to make room for other story-lines that happen closer to the front. Okay, I’ll buy it. The book had a lot of sub-plots, so why not follow them, right? The movie seemed able to handle this for the first half of the film - it stuck close enough to the book that I was jazzing along, mildly impressed with how De Palma was converting the text to film form. Of course there were abbreviations here and there, and he took liberties with the monologue. All of that would be okay - if the movie addressed the actual Dahlia storyline for more than a total of twenty minutes, and if it didn’t cut out half (and boy, do I mean half) the book.

I know what the naysayers (to the naysayer) would reply. “You can’t compare the book to the movie!” Well, yes, I can. The movie was uninteresting, and the reason why it was uninteresting was because it went from character development to happy resolution in a total of about thirty minutes. The reason the book worked was because it took you on a roller coaster from hell through the grungy underbelly of 1940’s LA. Where was that in this film? We see one soft-core porn film, some lesbians making out at a bar and that is about it. I’ll give you a hint: that is nothing to what we read in the book. Some are crying, “The book, the book, shut up about the book!” Absolutely not. This was like seeing a really terrible remake of a great movie. A remake so bad, in fact, that the new filmmakers thought it would be alright to cut out literally half of the storyline and change the ending, as well as four enormous plot points in the middle.

The genre-defining novel’s award-winning plot really tied the room together, man.

The result is a film that should frighten, but just barely amuses. Gone is the macabre fascination that transforms into obsession that comes with the Dahlia. Gone is the horror of her murder. Gone is the police corruption that is explored in enormous depth in the book. (For example: Two side police-style characters are introduced for a single line in the film. Both of the were integral to Bleichert’s investigation into the Dahlia murder in huge neon twist fashion. As in, one of the cops was getting laid by the Dahlia before she was murdered. That would be in the movie, right? Nope.)

Gone is an entire storyline about Bleichert’s partner, Blanchard, going missing. (In the book, Bleichert goes on an acid-trip-esque journey south of the border into Mexico to find his lost partner. Instead he finds the origins of the phrase “dive bar,” a lot of Tijuana drama and Blanchard’s body buried on a beach after about 150 pages of not knowing where he is or what happened to him. He then has to buy out local police and survive being followed by the local law. Compare this to the movie, wherein Blanchard is missing for about ten minutes before falling to his death and having his head exploded on a fountain after getting tackled over a balcony during a shootout.) All I can think of is Eddie Izzard’s monologue on what happens when studios get hold of a good independent film and decide to remake it American style. 

Prophet. Madman. Executive transvestite.

Last but not least, gone are the women. The two women of the tale, Kay Lake and Madeleine Inscott, form the two warring factions for Bleichert’s attention throughout the book. Kay Lake is tough as nails, smart and beautiful. Madeleine is a particularly vulgar and seductive prostitute who makes her money by luring in servicemen off the street. Hilary Swank’s portrayal of Madeleine is a sympathetic, almost lovable character, and Scarlett’s Kay Lake is a sweetheart who’s been through some vague ringer. Kay Lake is anything but a sweetheart in the book. She’s tough, she’s kind of ruthless, and she’s awesome. She lays down the law on Bleichert on more than one occasion, and she becomes the character the reader turns to for strength. Again, not so in the film. Kay Lake is more eye candy and inconsequential filler sensuality than anything else.

As if to tie a bow on everything, The Black Dahlia has a happy f*cking ending. I won’t spoil anything in to much detail here, but let’s be succinct - the book does not have a happy ending. The message the film leaves you with is hopeful, while the message the book leaves you with is...bleak. All in all, this movie was incredibly disappointing to me. I loved The Untouchables and I loved the book. You’d think the film wouldn’t be so explosively bad on my scorecard. Alas, however, it really was. Hopefully I can be rich enough someday that I can convince another director to remake this book the right way. David Fincher, anyone?

The Bottom Line: Read the book. (And no. I don’t say this every time.)
Overall Score: 3.5/10 


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At September 24, 2012 at 12:42 PM , Blogger Sati. said...

Terrific review! This was one awful movie. It was such a mess - De Palma put so much stuff in this one, that Dahlia actually seemed irrelevant at one point. The film about her would be much better if she was a central figure and someone else directed it - Mia Kirshner was actually one of the very few things that worked here. I'd argue that the movie is memorable, though - Hilary Swank's accent is one of the most atrocious things I've heard - I will never forget how ridiculous she sounded in this movie.

At September 24, 2012 at 4:14 PM , Blogger Nick said...

Personally, I haven't seen it completely, but I do remember how horrible Swank was. Hell, overall she's a terrible actress, why she's in stuff like this I don't know.


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