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« TIFF on Fire: "Pyromaniac"and "Death in Sarajevo"| Main| Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (S1.E15-16) »
Thursday
Sep 15 2016

10th Anniversary: The Black Dahlia

Davidlooks back at Brian de Palma's wildest film,ten years on from its release.

The Black Dahliais a curious artefact.It is likely to be remembered simply by virtue of being in the catalogue of Brian de Palma,even if the film's quality is negligible compared to his biggest hittersCarrieandThe Untouchables.When compared to the other famous James Ellroy adaptation,the Oscar-winningL.A.Confidential(which celebrates its own birthday,its 19th,in just a few days),de Palma's effort certainly pales.In the career of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (the film's sole Oscar nominee),it's likely to be a footnote in the late man's incredible career,coming after his work with Spielberg,Cimino and Altman.The film's stars probably took a year at most to write it off as a failure on all their parts.

Yet the film continues to fascinate - to lure you back into its craven web...

I read Ellroy's novel back in high school,desperate for more after usingL.A.Confidentialin an essay,and its twisted psychology seemed a whole level deeper,its narrative construction brasher and more convoluted.The film may present an even more fractured narrative structure,but it retains the dominant theme of its characters grasping desperately into the past: Lee's obsession with the image of a dead woman;the Linscotts' crumbling facade of stature;Bucky's awkward involvement in Lee and Kay's disintegrating relationship.De Palma's adaptation has its own nostalgic obsessions,from the genre modes it inhabits to how it foolishly tries to cast its actors in the mould of the Hollywood star system that the plot makes reference to.

Josh Hartnett is the bland,handsome Glenn Ford type,mocked early on when Lee snatches the newspaper out of Bucky's hands as he drones boorishly.Scarlett Johansson is the Virginia Huston,innocent and damaged,although neither film nor actress give Kay any edge of intrigue or tenderness that she requires to make the audience invest in the central love triangle.Aaron Eckhart showcases his pre-Two Face elasticity with a performance that is somehow exaggerated yet extraordinarily dull.And Hilary Swank vamps her way on to the screen,flailing around like a vague impersonisation of a whole collection of femme fatales.

Look beyond the leads,however,and you'll find the two main reasons why its worth returning toThe Black Dahliadespite its multitudinous flaws.Mia Kirshner,as Elizabeth Short,the eponymous victim,and Fiona Shaw,as twisted matriarch Ramona Linscott,each giving performances so indelible that individual moments - Kirshner's tearful gaze,Shaw's twisted smile - are seared into the memory.Their performances are so detached from the dominate mode of pastiche that they seem to have walked in from alternate planes of existence,the very rhythm and timbre of their personalities out of sync with the film around them.

Yet it's these very distinctions that make them so effective.They're performancesneedto be in a different register due to the purpose they serve.Elizabeth Short is exactly the vivid mystery Lee's obsession dictates,and Kirshner gives her such emotional clarity that your own heart responds to her,too.As for Fiona Shaw,I can find no way to put this better than TFE friend Nick Davis did in hismemorable reviewat the time:

Shaw cracks the movie open like she's breaking the shell of a lobster,and then she gobbles the movie,and then she spits it back out".

The two actresses are absolutely mesmerising to watch,in such different ways.Although this further explodes the conceit ofThe Black Dahliaever being a coherent film,the way these two performances are thrown piecemeal across the narrative effectively mimics the dismembered corpse of the title,and ultimately makes for a strangely honest adaptation.In similar ways,various aspects of the production are just as wildly inconsistent: the music's shifts between jazz and baroque classical;the camera's grace in a remarkable crane shot connecting two crimes scenes contrasted with the studio-bound falsity of a smoke-filled night-time close-up.I wish that the film were a great one,but such oscillating highs and lows are surely preferable to a solid workmanlike success.At its best,The Black Dahliais genuinely awesome,an intoxicating,poisonous thicket of a film.I,for one,will never forget it.

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Reader Comments (23)

Mia Kirshner is so good in this!The rest of it is kind of unintentionally hilarious.Especially Hillary Swank.Her line readings,and the terrible dialogue never fail to crack me up.A guilty pleasure.

September 15,2016 | Unregistered Commenterchoog

This should have taken Mia Kirshner's very strange career to a whole new level.Pity it didn't.Her performance is haunting.It's the only thing I remember from it.Other than Rose McGowan's very short scene.

September 15,2016 | Unregistered CommenterBushwick

The auditorium doors flung open with people pissed they spent money to see this.Have yet to see it myself but the De Palma doc didn't sell me on the urgency to do so.

September 15,2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Fiona Shaw eats the screen apart!

"What who drive who crazy!"

September 15,2016 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Lewis

Shaw is simply awful,"AWFUL"should be called out when it is there for all to see,Swank is a great camp pleasure I like watching her be bad in both senses.

September 15,2016 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordon

Thanks for this review,now I actually want to watch this infamous outing

September 15,2016 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

It's been a while since I've seen it as I was excited about seeing it largely because it was Scarlett being in a Brian de Palma film.My initial reaction was alright but having read the book months earlier,I felt the film lacked that air of psychology in favor of camp.Re-watches made me realized how deeply flawed the film is.I do like Mia Kirshner while Fiona Shaw's campy performance was just fun to watch.Aaron Eckhart is alright while Scarlett has her moments.I was annoyed by Hilary Swank's accent in the film while Josh Hartnett was just bland.I love Vilmos' photography and some of the compositions de Palma makes.It's just a mediocre film but still interesting because of de Palma.

September 15,2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

I would've given Shaw the gold that year.She was BEYOND.So good in fact that I feel like I remember the film way better than it really ought to be remembered simply because I know she's in it and it's extraordinary.Kuschner,too,and Rose McGowan while we're at it.

September 15,2016 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

A great disappointment - this seemed like perfect material for DePalma but he fails to deliver a worthy sequence.The cast has been better in other films look how great Josh Harnett was in "Penny Dreadful"but here he seems bland and dull.

September 15,2016 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I agree with Markgordon on Shaw.I half expected her to come off the screen and start devouring the lobby.I saw this as a college freshmen and I talked a bunch of people in my dorm into seeing it (we all walked away disappointed).I did like Kirshner though.I also enjoyed Swank.Who else was going to get cast in that part at that time?Her mystique of being androgynous and sexually fluid (all from Boys Don't Cry- even though she isn't) worked for the role,even though you can see the twist with her character coming a mile away.

September 15,2016 | Unregistered CommenterTom

I also didn't like the fact that the film takes such drastic liberties with the story to the point that it could almost be a completey different from from the reality.It made me feel uncomfortable,like they were defaming poor Elizabeth Short.

September 15,2016 | Unregistered CommenterTom

Mia Kirshner was frankly remarkable.

The rest is so bad.My favourite line being Scarlett's "SHE LOOKS LIKE THAT DEAD GIRL!HOW SICK ARE YOU??"

September 15,2016 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

Can someone be a great filmmaker if a vast majority of his or her movies are bad?The career of Brian De Palma begs this question.

September 15,2016 | Unregistered CommenterMJS

Why would someone celebrate this mess???????

September 15,2016 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Oh man,Scarlett was soooo bad in this movie!
On the positive side,she's never looked more beautiful than she did in this movie - the period hair,period clothes,lipstick,painted nails - really looked awesome on her.
But boy,did she suck!
Her line delivery was completely off,the whole movie.
Her worst performance by far.
But...the most beautiful she's ever looked.

September 15,2016 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

MJS poses a great question.DePalma has had a vast drought unless I'm forgetting something.

September 15,2016 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Hollywoodland came out around the same time and I remember people comparing them.Hollywoodland is better.Diane Lane is awesome and like it or not this was the start of the Ben Affleck comeback.

September 15,2016 | Unregistered CommenterTom

This film had such potential.(The true story is riveting.The book is great,etc.) Alas.

The "she looks like that dead girl"line always cracks me up.The first time I heard it I literally thought,Wait,which dead girl?Is there more than one?That's how unbelievable it was (and is) to me that the filmmakers were trying to pass off Hilary Swank as a Mia Kirshner doppelgänger.Like,what?Huh?LOL

September 16,2016 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

I applaud you for taking on this car-crash of a movie and yielding such a coherent and thoughtful review - I'm not sure the film deserves it!I'm afraid I agree with the naysayers on Shaw - I don't think I've ever seen indulgent scenery-chewing employed to such grating effect - I normally have a lot of time for iconic,batshit performances but this one kind of took the piss!Kirshner on the other hand is indelible,sublime - I'd have had her nominated all over the place and I've never understood why her career never went supernova,she's such an exciting actress.

September 16,2016 | Unregistered CommenterSally W

Thanks,Dave!Maybe my favorite review I ever wrote.Glad to see it's strange and wildly uneven pleasures re-explored.

September 16,2016 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

The Cinematography nominees were so interesting that year.

September 16,2016 | Unregistered CommenterSanty C.

Kirshner and Shaw are so astounding in this!Kirshner is able to actually haunt the movie with nothing but an honestly crafted portrait of the character without any bathos,and Shaw treats the whole thing like some stage play,taking "actressing at the edges"to every extreme and every interpretation.I love how wonky the score is,and k.d.lang's cameo in the lesbian bar.The cinematography sometimes feels the most camp thing in the movie but it works super well,and I love how weird that Oscar nomination is.So rightly fitting for such a weird movie.The leads are all terrible in a mostly boring way,the narrative's a mess,but all the discordant,effective stuff on the edges seems in sync in some way,like what works is telling Elizabeth's story really really well.It gives its weepy sympathy and ire to the wrongly deceased with great force,and it's stuck with me for it.And it was that Nick Davis review that got me to watch it in the first place!Kudos to both of these reviews for selling everything about this mixed bag pretty honestly and fairly.

September 16,2016 | Unregistered CommenterNick T

Fiona Shaw gave me my LIFEEEE,ya heard?!?That is all,bitches.

October 1,2016 | Unregistered CommenterDorian

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