Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia comes out on Blu-Ray this week, but I doubt that it's going the be the second chance the film deserves. Released in 2006, the film received generally unfavorable notices and audience response, but it has basically one major problem: it's not L.A. Confidential. That movie was written by Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland, based on the James Ellroy novel, and it remains a superb model of adaptation. It's an incredibly smart, literate script and a very good film; many talents contributed to its success. The Black Dahlia represents the vision of one man: Brian De Palma. It doesn't even have much to do with James Ellroy, really. Once you can get past this essential difference, one can go on to appreciate The Black Dahlia as something extraordinary.
Sadly, this is not the first time Brian De Palma has had trouble like this. He has been mostly misunderstood and underappreciated his entire career. Born in 1940, he became one of the well-known generation of film brats, including Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas, raised on films rather than entering the film business through other routes. He was the son of a surgeon, and according to Julie Salamon's superb book The Devil's Candy, he became obsessed by voyeurism at an early age, apparently climbing a tree outside his home to try to catch his parents in the act... of something. But he did not start out making films of suspense and obsession. He began as a liberal hippie in the 1960s, making anti-establishment comedies like The Wedding Party (1963, released in 1969), Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970), all starring a young Robert De Niro. He also made Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972), with one of his moviemaking heroes, Orson Welles. They all began toying with themes of spying and filmmaking.
In 1973, he turned a corner with Sisters (1973), a very stylish suspense/horror movie with deliberate nods to Hitchcock, and including one of the final music scores by the legendary composer Bernard Herrmann (who, of course, worked extensively with Hitchcock). Margot Kidder gives an incredible performance as twins, one of whom is a homicidal maniac. With this film, De Palma perfected his use of split screens, voyeurism techniques and brutal, bloody suspense. He followed this with the enjoyable musical/comedy/parody Phantom of the Paradise (1974), which became a hit on the midnight cult circuit.
Finally came Carrie (1976), a breakthrough made around the same time that Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas all had their big breakthroughs. Based on a novel by Stephen King, Carrie was a smash success, and even earned a couple of Oscar nominations for actors Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. Carrie is still a beloved horror film, meshing King's novel with some of De Palma's pet obsessions, as well as some legendary moments like the "pig's blood" sequence. Earlier that same year, De Palma released Obsession, which was even more closely modeled after Hitchcock, specifically Vertigo, with another Herrmann score.
Even though, up to this point, De Palma had delivered a pretty varied slate of movies, and definitely with his own dark personality, but critics began accusing him of being a Hitchcock ripoff artist. It didn't particularly matter that Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and Roman Polanski had also used Hitchcock influences in their work; it was almost arbitrary. Something about De Palma simply inspires attacks. It also didn't help that De Palma responded with a series of superb suspense films, continuing the Hitchcock comparison, including The Fury (1978), Dressed to Kill (1980), and Blow Out (1981). On that last one, he was also accused of ripping off Antonioni, even though Coppola had done the same thing with The Conversation and got away scot-free. (Disregarded at the time, Blow Out is now considered one of De Palma's masterworks.)
Most of these movies had performed well, which probably only fueled the fire. On top of the Hitchcock thing, detractors began to accuse De Palma of misogyny. (To be fair, his movies did have a lot of prostitute characters.) Despite that, the female film critic Pauline Kael came to his defense, time and again, defending his style and his cinematic invention. Next up, De Palma delivered Scarface (1983), a kind of remake of Howard Hawks's 1932 classic. It was a crazed masterpiece, splashed in blood red and cocaine white, with a conclusion borrowed from Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood. Roger Ebert awarded it four stars, and even if it didn't have much of an impact at the time, it has since become one of the all-time cult classics, and having an undeniable influence on hip-hop culture.
Hardly anyone could defend Body Double (1984), which was another tribute to Hitchcock (Rear Window this time). The film has a lot of style, but it's saddled with a less-than-interesting leading man (Craig Wasson). Despite that, Melanie Griffith gives a potent, sexy performance, and the film reportedly has something of a belated cult following. Again, Ebert was one of its early defenders, but Kael decided it was old material that De Palma had "grown past."
Perhaps tired of the Hitchcock comparisons, De Palma spent the next few years branching out again, first with a comedy, Wise Guys (1986), then with the old-fashioned gangster film The Untouchables (1987), which became one of his biggest hits and resulted in an Oscar for co-star Sean Connery (it also reunited De Palma with De Niro). The Untouchables contained one bravura sequence in which the hero Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) must rescue a baby carriage as it rolls down a flight of stairs, all the while participating in a shootout with the bad guys. Critics were annoyed that De Palma had borrowed from Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925) for the sequence, but no one pointed out that Terry Gilliam had done the same thing for his Brazil two years earlier.
Next came the powerful Casualties of War (1989), set during the Vietnam War, about the rape of a young Vietnamese girl by American soldiers, and its subsequent cover-up. Kael came out of the gate with her trumpets blaring. Her opening paragraph dug out such classics as Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion for comparison. "The culmination of his best work," she said. She also called it "feminist." Unfortunately, there were two things wrong with this one, and once again neither of them had anything to do with the film itself. Firstly, it came at the end of a long string of Vietnam films -- including three Rambo films, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket -- and no one was interested any longer. Secondly, it was one of a series of attempts by the actor Michael J. Fox to shake off his comedy persona and turn into a "serious actor." Again, no one cared.
The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) is usually mentioned alongside Ishtar as one of Hollywood's most expensive flops. Salamon's book documents the entire making of this film in gory detail, and it shows how everything went wrong, practically in slow motion. It was based on a popular and acclaimed novel, and featured some of the biggest stars in Hollywood; the film was molded to fit the actors, and the tone changed and nothing made sense anymore. I suppose this kind of disaster can happen to any director, if enough cooks are on hand to spoil the soup.
De Palma responded by returning to his beloved thriller genre, complete with "double" themes, with Raising Cain (1992). Barely anyone noticed or cared, but the notable Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman singled it out as one of the year's best films. Also, nobody noticed the superb Carlito's Way (1993); people complained because -- get this -- De Palma was ripping off himself and Scarface. Actually watching it reveals an entirely different kind of film, a great, tense drama with two great performances. The prestigious French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema called it one of the ten best movies of the decade.
The director disappeared for three years and returned with no less than a summer blockbuster: Mission: Impossible (1996). It was a genuine hit, and the biggest success of his entire career (although it was surpassed that year by the likes of Twister and Independence Day). From a director in love with the art of spying, here was his first actual spy movie. For a summer blockbuster, it's uncommonly stylish, and has at least two show-stopping set pieces; no one can deny that Tom Cruise breaking into the pressure- and sound-sensitive room didn't have them holding their breath. The idea of characters disguised as each other -- more doubles -- must have made De Palma smile.
His follow-up, Snake Eyes (1998), featured an astonishing first half-hour followed by an increasingly brain-dead 69 minutes. But that first half-hour was among the finest cinema had to offer that year. Not even I could defend the sub-literate Mission to Mars (2000), so I will refer you to Cahiers du Cinema, as well as our favorite crackpot Armond White, both of which selected the movie as one of the year's ten best. Also to Slant Magazine, which made an intelligent attempt to validate the movie in their 2006 study on De Palma. In retrospect, however, I will concede that the movie has one of Ennio Morricone's very best musical scores.
Both those movies lost money, so De Palma did what most great, misunderstood American filmmakers do. He went to France. Femme Fatale (2002) wasn't a hit by any stretch of the imagination, but it became a darling among a certain cult of American critics. It was De Palma's first original screenplay in years, and once again, it dealt with movies, doubles, spying and voyeurism, but it also contained his strongest-ever female hero, and a more hopeful outlook as well (a second chance). Oddly, it begins at the Cannes film festival, and the featured film is a total bore, Regis Wargnier's East-West (1999), which received much better reviews than De Palma's film. Could this be the first time that De Palma thumbed his nose at "respectable" cinema?
This brings us up to date with The Black Dahlia (2006), and then with De Palma's ill-fated Iraq War film, Redacted (2007), about a very highly-documented war that has yielded tons of footage, and yet all that footage can still be spun into a certain story. It's a tough film to watch, and although I defended it in my review, I'm not anxious to see it again.
All these films have in common a very psychological approach, which makes them slippery and hard to pin down. The characters in these films behave a certain way, but viewers are required to ask why... something that most viewers are not inclined to do. For example: why are there so many doubles and twins in De Palma's filmography? Is he still just copying Vertigo, or has he returned to the core of the problem, the thing that inspired Vertigo in the first place? Does De Palma use his trademark split screen effect for the same reason? I think he does. He knows that everyone has his good and bad side; the film screen has a right and left side, and viewers have two eyes. Everything can be addressed from two angles. But of course, this is too much trouble for critics and audiences accustomed to viewing things from one angle only.
De Palma's films also share a dark, pessimistic sensibility; even after viewing from two angles, he still generally doesn't like what he sees. He's still expecting to climb that tree and find people cheating on one another, or being violent to one another. Traditionally, Hollywood is about reassuring us and letting us know that things will be OK; it's about heroes. There are few real heroes in De Palma's films. The most heroic people find themselves duped or betrayed. (The Untouchables is one exception to these rules, which may explain why it's one of De Palma's most accepted films -- and my least favorite.)
Finally, I think I love De Palma because he has chased his demons through his films for 40 years; he's one of the ultimate in personal filmmakers. He's not afraid to hide anything from us. His fearlessness probably scares people, and they draw away from him, cooking up lame excuses as to why this doesn't compare to that, or whatever. Ultimately, he knows that somewhere out there he will find at least couple of viewers that share the same demons, and will understand.