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September 27, 2006

What happens when you give a terrible director an extremely difficult job? You get a truly appalling film: The Black Dahlia - Brian De Palma

Posted by Christopher Peachment

The Black Dahlia
Directed by Brian De Palma
certificate 15, 2006

James Ellroy's series of crime novels, set in the 40s and 50s and exposing the corruption that lies at the foundations of LA, have been sitting at the top of Hollywood's script wish-lists for more than two decades now. With major directors salivating over the prospect of making a new Chinatown for our time.

Alas, there has been only one successful film version of one of Ellroy's books, LA Confidential, and that was nearly ten years ago now. Given that it was a box office success, it might seem surprising that Hollywood has not followed up quickly with more. But that is to underestimate just how hard it is to translate Ellroy books into movies. I discovered this the hard way, when a producer commissioned me to do a film script of one of his earlier, lesser known, serial killer books, Killer in the Road.

Everyone seemed quite pleased with the resulting script, but the plot was so frightening that it is still looking for a director. All of them so far, including members of the A-list, have passed on it, saying it is too "dark". Though when I told this to one veteran British director, he did say, to his credit, "but that's the fucking point".

One thing that you realise quickly with Ellroy's books is that there are no heroes. There are protagonists, but they are as mired in sin as the villains. This is something which the film of LA Confidential managed to dramatise, to its credit, and I suspect it must have taken director Curtis Hanson a lot of time to persuade the studio to allow him to make a film in which a cop is so corrupted by the political system, in which he works, that he can shoot his own police chief in the back, and gets away with it by feeding another corrupt officer to the press as a scapegoat. And do it all with the knowledge and connivance of his superiors.

His partner suffered from a neurotic protective urge and would beat men to a pulp if they were less than courteous to a women. And there was a third cop who staged his executions to look like gang killings, and would do anything dirty to get his own TV series. And these were the good guys.

In my script, the hero is a serial killer, but that is only the beginning. He acquires a stalker. And the stalker then turns out to be a cop who is on his trail. And this cop who is a stalker turns out to be a serial killer also. And then the two cops fall in love. And then they start trading killings as love tokens.

From this mild beginning, it just gets worse. The ending is a massacre which would make the shade of Peckinpah stir and go pale with horror. How anyone could make a film of it is beyond me.

And now we have De Palma's The Black Dahlia, about which I had high hopes, if only because the Black Dahlia case is as famous in LA's mythical history as the Ripper's crimes are in London's. Ellroy himself feels an affinity with the case, because of his own mother's death, only a few years later. Her body was discovered mutilated under a hedge, in similar fashion to the Dahlia, who was found on waste ground, sawn in half, with her blood drained and her inner organs removes. Police wondered if the murderer was a magician, because of the sawn-in-half aspect. As with the Dahlia case, the killer of Ellroy's mother was never discovered.

The Dahlia case seems recently to have been solved, to many people's satisfaction, by a man who claimed to be the son of the man who did it. His father was a local cop. And Ellroy too has solved his mother's murder to his own satisfaction by using retired LA homicide cops to go back over the case. It seems his mother's murderer was more than likely a local doctor.

I have delayed talking about the film of The Black Dahlia because it is such a disappointment. I don't want to go into Brian De Palma's manifold deficiencies as a director here, they have all been well enough rehearsed before and they all show up again. His trudging along behind Hitchcock's footsteps in diver's boots was an embarrassment twenty years ago, and it is time he grew out of it.

His liking for empty bravura camera movement is still prevalent. Here it is a long crane shot up the side of a "shine fuck-pad" - a black brothel, though they wisely dropped the "shine" from the film. There is a shootout going on inside. The camera goes over the roof, and back down the other side of the building to take in more mayhem in the car-park. This long shot discovers the Dahlia's body, almost incidentally, in the distance on some waste ground. It doesn't add anything to the film by way of thought or emotion. If you asked the director why he did it, the only honest response would be "because I can".

He is still recycling his tired set-pieces, such as a climactic shootout on a grand staircase, which he first used in The Untouchables, and which he has reprised to less and less effect ever since. It was borrowed in the first place from the Odessa steps sequence in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin.

True, he manages to reproduce LA of the late 40s very well, in Bulgaria of all places. And Vilmos Szigmond's photography has the right sepia tone look to it, But anyone can do that, on the right budget.

De Palma has always suffered from his inability to cast the right actors or then get good performances from them. His films don't have anything approaching precise human truth. And there is a look to people from the 1940s which few actors can manage these days. Josh Hartnett as the lead is just another pretty boy, straight out of a Calvin Klein underwear ad. Never mind the 40s, this toy-boy couldn't do the 90s. Scarlet Johansson is a vacuous fashion plate, pouting and posing, but with no interior. British stage actress Fiona Shaw puts in an appearance as a barmy old grande dame, and I can't remember a more ridiculous performance on film since biting my knuckles, when still a child, over Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

The one exception is Hilary Swank, who has clearly done her homework and puts together her 40s femme fatale with the right hints of Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford. She even curls her upper lip back from her teeth when speaking, in the manner of Katherine Hepburn, while still remaining her own woman, and convincing us of a living, breathing woman. But she's doing it in a vacuum.

The obvious thing about casting any modern take on a 40s film noir is that there are perfect casting models in any of the originals. After watching ten minutes of The Black Dahlia, I longed to see Robert Mitchum stroll through the debris, with his customary air of a man who has read the script but is still hoping for a miracle.

I would even have preferred to watch Alan Ladd in it, and that is a sentence I never thought I would write.

I have never managed to work out a theory as to why it is possible to watch a bad film, whereas it is not possible to watch a bad play, read a bad book or look at bad art without walking away. I suspect it has something to do with incidental pleasures. Those small grace notes, which always seem to take you by surprise in any film even as you are squirming.

Here it is a cameo appearance from kd lang, playing a torch singer in a lesbian night club, while wearing full male evening dress. She is looking a mite chunky these days, and very butch. But when she reaches the climactic note on Cole Porter's "Love for Sale", you are left transfixed in the sure knowledge that she has a voice to die for.

If only some enterprising record producer would get her to do a Cole Porter compilation, we might get something to rival Ella Fitzgerald's famous album. It would be the one good thing to come of this sad attempt on a great story.

Christopher Peachment is the author of Caravaggio: A Novel (Picador, 2002) and The Green and The Gold (Picador, 2003). He has been Film Editor at Time Out and Arts and Books Editor at The Times.


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Thank you for trashing the hack known as DePalma. He sucked to begin with but has gotten worse and worse and worse as the years have rolled by. My disdain for him is further fueled by my observance of him making an ass of himself in a computer store about 10 years ago. What a dick this man is.

Posted by: jimmy the geek at December 27, 2006 11:09 AM
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