Wednesday, September 20, 2006

De Palma Hams A Little Off

Brian de Palma's The Black Dahlia (2006) centres on a celebrated real-life murder case from the '40s, but concentrates less on known facts than on a liberal interpretation of James Elroy's own very much fictionalised account of the same name. Does this sound already like a potentially messy idea for a film to you? Good, you're paying attention.

Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart play rival pugilists-turned-police-detectives (don't ask) trying to solve the titular murder mystery in between taking turns at getting gooey-eyed over Scarlett Johannsen (seemingly yet to discover that big boobs and her momma's clothes don't make her a woman just yet). The first half of the film is apparently more faithful to the source material, and works best - despite some risible dialogue and eccentric performances (Eckhart in particular plays broader than Norfolk), the plot is intriguing and moves at a fair clip; there are some trademark directorial flourishes from dePalma, and the period flavour and hard-boiled characters recall Curtis Hanson's (admittedly far superior) LA Confidential.

The film then starts to explore the lesbian demi-monde in Hollywood and the eccentric family of the Hilary Swank character Hartnett meets in a sapphic nightspot, but while these aspects may sound intriguing the plot never really goes anywhere interesting with them and instead slows down amongst the murk and melodrama. As ever, dePalma is more interested in elaborate pastiches of older films than creating a realistic milieu - you never sense that the characters have any lives or existence beyond the scenes they feature. So when Josh Hartnett's troubled detective is despairingly emoting about not being able to save a colleague's life you really feel desperate for him - Hartnett, that is, not the character, for we haven't seen anyone so lost and and out of his depth since Leo DiCaprio sank into the ocean.

With its syrupy strings, ham acting and ludicrous set-ups The Black Dahlia often crosses the line between a retro feel and just plain old-fashioned ham-fisted nonsense. The resulting farrago is as fascinatingly gruesome as the murder on which it is based, watchable and memorable but mainly for the wrong reasons.


Blogger Graybo said...

so it's not any good then?

9:33 PM  
Blogger Dead Kenny said...

Well, I'd definitely wait for the DVD. On a wet Monday night. Maybe.

6:07 PM  
Blogger Twenty Major said...

What a shame. The book was fantastic.

10:05 PM  
Blogger Dead Kenny said...

I can believe that, Twenty, because the first half of the film (apparently more faithful to the book) was mostly good but things fell apart badly during the second half (bit like the West Ham defence these days).

There is a small minority of critics who hail it as some sort of post-modern masterpiece, a film about the art(ifice) of film-making rather than the murder mystery itself. But I think for the film to work it has to make sense on both levels, and this clearly doesn't.

7:32 PM  

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