Brian De Palma arrives in the final third of 2006 with one of his best films, and yet no one will realize it for years to come. De Palma's work is routinely ignored and undervalued for the very simple reason that he makes cinema. He hasn't shown much interest in making socially significant films; he probably won't make a To Kill a Mockingbird or a Hotel Rwanda anytime soon. And he's not much interested in adapting Henry James or E.M. Forster for the big screen. As a result, he is often seen as inferior. He never reaches beyond cinema into other realms; he only makes movies.
Thirteen years later, many see Carlito's Way as arguably De Palma's greatest achievement. (The film critics at Cahiers du Cinema selected it as the best movie of the 1990s.) And yet in the thick of 1993, no one cared. Schindler's List, The Piano and The Age of Innocence were the rage. And it's noteworthy to remember that, as beloved as his Scarface is today, De Palma received a 1983 Razzie nomination for his trouble (he has received five in all).
The truth is that De Palma can only make films. He would be a flop as a novelist or a painter. His specialty is voyeurism, sitting in the dark and watching things. And the best things to watch from such a dark, secret place are life's most lurid elements: Sex, violence and obsession. Because these things require an abandonment of intellect, critics tend to resist them. (The same goes for horror films, which are regularly panned.)
But there's yet more trouble. De Palma's new film The Black Dahlia comes from the same cycle of James Ellroy books as L.A. Confidential, so it's impossible to avoid inevitable comparisons between the films. L.A. Confidential comes from an incredibly literate script, perhaps one of the greatest scripts ever written, and contains an "A" level cast to die for. It tells its story well for more than two hours (a good length for Best Picture consideration), and hints at a swirling darkness below the bright surface. Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia delves into a much more visceral place, slashing through logic and proceeding from a purely physical, lascivious standpoint. To put it simply, L.A. Confidential is literature and The Black Dahlia is cinema.
In The Black Dahlia, two ex-boxers, Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) wind up joining the police force. Lee is married to Kay (Scarlett Johansson) and the three remain the best of friends, in spite of Kay's shady past and her subtle flirting with Bucky. The partners are assigned to catch a violent hillbilly who mugs old ladies, but they become increasingly entangled in a lurid murder case; the body of a beautiful would-be starlet is found with her mouth sliced into a gruesome grin (as in the silent era classic The Man Who Laughs). It's precisely this subplot -- the fact that Lee and Bucky are supposed to be working on a less glamorous case, hunting for a man -- that makes the obsession angle work.
Hilary Swank co-stars as a high-profile society daughter, drawn to underground lesbian clubs, who may have spent some time with the victim. Though Swank is a double Oscar-winner, it's unlikely that The Black Dahlia will generate the kind of adoration for its actors that L.A. Confidential stirred up. And it's true that Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, et al. are quite a bit more talented (and more experienced) than the young Black Dahlia cast. Of course, performances have never been De Palma's specialty (despite great ones from Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Sissy Spacek, etc.). Like Bresson, he's more interested in using actors as models. Their looks are important, and where they appear in the frame, but the director's presence is of primary importance. There's no room for show-offs or Oscar moments. Thus, we get an image of Bucky, preparing for a fight, sitting alone in a wide, empty, dreary locker room, or of Lee and Bucky crouching over the body of the dead Dahlia, the camera pointed up at them from her point of view, seducing them downward.
Ellroy based his 1985 novel on a real case, but imbued it with images and emotions surrounding his own mother's unsolved murder. Working with such solid source material, De Palma balances the emotional depravity and Ellroy's complex plot machinations up until the final moments. He avoids some of the bad writing that has haunted his past productions, from the second half of Snake Eyes (1998) to all of Mission to Mars (2000). And De Palma takes it one step further, adding in his own pet themes. In this version, we actually see the Black Dahlia in a series of audition films made prior to her death. Mia Kirshner plays her, flirting with the camera (and consequently with the audience), with alluring shades of vulnerability and bravado. Now we can see and feel the reason behind all the fuss.
For those who succumb, The Black Dahlia is a remarkable achievement, a worthy follow-up to De Palma's smashing Femme Fatale (2002) and perhaps one of the year's best films.
For another take on The Black Dahlia, check out Karina Longworths' Netscape at the Movies video review of the film.