Sunday, June 3, 2012

RUTZ Classic Movies: The Black Dahlia

Directed by Brian De Palma    

Line that stays with me:  “Who are these men who feed on others?”

Essay Warning: There are no spoilers or story details. I want to offer the emotion that a film can access within us. Plus I think the best way to watch a film is by not knowing anything about it. Just Go In…So if you haven’t watched this film yet please don’t read this essay. Read it afterwards so we can enjoy the “feeling” together. 

Of all the underrated films on my RUTZ classic movies list “The Black Dahlia” is the one that mystifies me. I do not understand how anyone can label this film mediocre. The only reason I could find for this sad error is that critics always harshly review directors like Brian De Palma. Directors with filmographies so stunning critics expect them to reinvent the wheel every time.  The perfect example of this is Jackie Brown directed by one of Brian De Palma’s accidental creations Quentin Tarantino. When Jackie Brown first came out very few claimed it was excellent (which it is) and now everybody loves it. In a recent Tarantino poll it was voted his best film. So what happened? Why didn’t audiences love Jackie Brown in 1997? I think audiences and critics were too caught up by some of the nuances of Tarantino’s style. It took Tarantino 3 years to deliver another film after “Pulp Fiction”. During that time I am guessing he wanted to grow as an artist and create something new, change the canvas a bit before it gets stale. Of course people were expecting something else. I think the same goes for “The Black Dahlia”. I suppose Critics were expecting the narrative to be epic, rather than the confusing story of a poor broken down hero. Audiences were probably expecting something more straightforward or something like the film “Seven” because that’s how the studio sold it in the trailers. At the end of the day it is a film that is never going to instantly please critics or audiences. Critics were unhappily confused and audiences didn’t have the patience. I think the film is classic film noir. I love it.

First off, if you are a film nerd and you love film noir, you get very excited when you hear about a new film noir type of movie. Not many crime film noir movies are being made these days. As filmmakers we love the genre because it lets you play with so many cool elements. The cold stares with voiceovers, shadowy figures and sexy dames, and fantastic imagery all driven by basic human desire.  I love the film noir genre; it is a great playground for filmmakers who have developed their style and love genre films. That’s why I love Brian De Palma’s work; he respects every genre he’s ever worked in. He’s done almost every genre except a western, wouldn’t that be something, a Brian De Palma western.  Many critics think Brian De Palma is all style and no substance, but in films style is substance. Film is a visual medium and like any other artist producing images, creating your style is very important. Unfortunately, when these directors style make other films pale in comparison, critics will call directors like Brian De Palma or Wes Anderson “showy”. I think that sort of media criticism is really making many run to the internet for REAL film criticism. I don’t understand it. When I go watch a Wes Anderson film I am expecting to watch a film that truly cared about its production design, costumes that match their characters and basically wonderful imagery all around. If I went to a Wes Anderson film and it turns out that he decided to make his film look like a Brett Ratner movie, I would be furious! Style is substance, these filmmakers are unique because they have developed a style that fits the stories they want to tell. “The Black Dahlia” is a Brian De Palma film noir and unfortunately audiences were not ready for it. 

Right from the beginning of the film we have the marriage of film noir and Brian De Palma’s style in full force as Bucky Bleichert catches us up on the story. The opening takes us to flashbacks upon flashback as we get used to Bucky Bleichert’s voice, very effective. I can understand how people got confused by this film; I mean it is something De Palma loves to do anyway. This is a movie you have to keep up with, but not in an overly intense manner the whole way through.  The film is a first person account through the eyes of Bucky Bleichert. It may not seem that way the first time you watch it but the whole film is a first person account. That’s what surprised me in my last viewing; it really made me care about Bucky Bleichert’s journey to the Hollywood hells. Watching Bucky throw a fight so his father can have a home was a perfect way to show us the (audience) what kind of character our hero is. Now that is of course attributed to the writing, but the way De Palma handled those scenes is what makes it special. Perfect example is the Mr.Fire VS Mr.Ice boxing scene, where De Palma made sure to show Bucky blocking punches, so when we notice Bucky move his arm out the way in the knockout scene we would know what will happen next. That’s a director thinking things out; setting us up and it works, that scene is extremely effective. Another director would have just shown Bucky getting knocked out, and CUT to next scene. Brian De Palma’s style gave it weight. It is a great set piece, something not many directors do anymore but something Brian De Palma is famous for.

What is a set piece?  To me, it is a complex sequence created to be a grand moment in a film. You are not going to instantly remember every scene in a film but you are going to remember the set pieces. One of my favorite set pieces ever to show a clear example of what a set piece is comes from “Jurassic Park”. The scene where the T-Rex attacks for the first time is one of the best set pieces ever put together.  It goes from BOOM, BOOM, water in cups shaking, to kids screaming, to T-Rex chasing Jeff Goldblum, to T-Rex eating man hiding in the bathroom, to more kids screaming, to T-Rex pushes a Jeep with a kid still screaming for his life inside, EXCELLENT. Everybody remembers those ten minutes or so, it is an excellent set piece of high intensity.“The Black Dahlia” has a good amount of amazing set pieces. One of the set pieces features a sexy lesbian song and dance number. How rare is that? My favorite set piece involves Bucky meeting Madeleine Linscott’s bizarre wealthy family, that scene is hilarious. The screenplay by Josh Friedman is perfect in my opinion. The dialog feels right and there’s several moments of dark humor sprinkled throughout, which is another Brian De Palma staple that makes you reevaluate what you are watching. While I watch all these strong ideas and great execution on display, because of the film’s reputation, I continue to try and find faults in the film in any area. I couldn’t find anything truly wrong. I can understand if Brian De Palma’s style doesn’t match your interest but to call it a bad film because you don’t like its style is very cheap. The film looks amazing; the cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is incredible, it makes your average film look like a reality show. Great production design, a perfect film noir-ish score by Mark Isham, top-notch performances and a story that develops never quite the way you thought it would.

The film’s noir-ish elements set the perfect the tone for Bucky’s tragic tale of resolution.  Knowing about Brian De Palma’s anti-authoritarian attitude I always wonder what he is truly trying to convey with this film. The first thing I noticed is that Bucky’s character is always being lied to or forced to live a lie. That theme and others throughout the film, to me, expresses the terrible reality of the American dream. What better setting than “Hollywoodland” the place where dreams are made and dreamers flock to make their dreams a reality. This is bait for girls in the middle of Nebraska somewhere with nothing to do and nothing exciting to look forward to. Poor girls like Elizabeth Short who were lead to believe that Hollywoodland is worth the trip only to find out how horrible people can truly be. That’s one of my favorite things about the film; it shows how we Americans deal with corruption. In the film Bucky’s partner Lee Blanchard uses corruption to keep a large amount of dirty money, and get his face in the papers. Mr. Linscott, corrupted the city with shoddy homes which he made a fortune from.  When Mrs. Linscott kills herself we see that the newspapers labeled her death as “accidental”. Throughout the film, Bucky becomes a man who is sick of being lied to and, sick of the dark world of lies around him. His partner Lee lied to him, the women in his life, and his boss made him lie about the death of his partner. The only explanation people give him is that there is no other way. Thus that is where we are at as Americans today; the lies will never stop because this country has deemed the truth to damaging to their position of power. The truth gets people fired and we can’t have that happening can we?  That’s why I love the ending with that terrible quick glimpse of Elizabeth Short appearing on the lawn of Kay’s house. Bucky has seen the ugly truth, a truth that he now has to live with, and even if it disappears he knows it’s there.

The film ends with Bucky entering Kay’s house, trying to find relief from the horrors he has uncovered. Not quite the standard tragic film noir ending, but “The Black Dahlia” ends on the hope of personal survival by means of not letting cynicism get the best of you.  A beautiful ending for a film that showed us awful human behavior from a time and place that would shape American dreams of glory for the next fifty years. It offers the hope and tranquility of coming home. The performances in this film are also great in every category. I think this is Josh Harnett’s best performance, Aaron Eckhart kills every scene he’s in, Scarlett Johansson makes her character work using her sultry voice and terrific facial expressions, and Hilary Swank playing a sexy role I think for the first time, is in full control of her talents. She is amazing to watch. The supporting roles are all performed by great character actors like Partrick Fischler, John Kavanagh, and Mike Starr. Plus let me not forget Mia Kirshner who played the role of Elizabeth Short, many still think she should have been nominated for an Oscar. That’s why I am scratching my head when it comes to this film’s poor rating. I mean if I read a book that’s well written but isn’t my favorite genre I am not going to say it sucks. I’ll say it was excellent writing but it’s not my thing. Unfortunately “The Black Dahlia” didn’t even get that sort of respect, maybe because it doesn’t have a grand message. Maybe because the truth the movie has to offer is too bold and the truth is something we have never been allowed to value as American citizens.

ABOUT RCM: Rutz Classic Movies is dedicated on writing film essays for films that in Rutz's opinion, have not gotten the credit they deserve. Next Essay: Mary Lambert's Pet Sematary 

1 comment:

  1. Quite possible the most underrated movie of the last decade.