The Boring Dahlia

Lee, Kate, and Bucky at the movies
I’m sad to report that I was pretty disappointed with Brian de Palma‘s The Black Dahlia. He’s one of my favorite directors (Femme Fatale is one of my all-time favorite movies and I also love Snake Eyes, Body Double [though I’m not sure it warrants a special edition], Scarface [which has an awesome special edition], and Sisters). People (including myself) say that he’s a Hitchcock rip-off, but that’s not always bad… I also decided to read the James Ellroy novel on which the film version of The Black Dahlia is based. The novel was so-so, but I really expected the movie to be better.

For starters, the color palette for the movie seemed “off” to me. I really expected dark, bold, strong, sexy colors like those from Femme Fatale or David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Or even something more stylized and shadowy? Instead, the film felt very brown and drab.

I was also disappointed that de Palma downplayed the psychosexual aspect of the film. Granted, Ellroy’s novel didn’t really tease out the strange threesome-relationship between the three main characters (Josh Hartnett as Bucky, Aaron Eckhart as Lee, and Scarlett Johansson as Kay), but I expected that the film, under the right director, might. The threesome relationship as well as the darker aspects of Bucky’s relationship with Madeline (Hilary Swank), the somewhat doppelganger of Elizabeth Short a.k.a. The Black Dahlia (Mia Kirshner). For some reason I’ve always considered de Palma to be somewhat of a dark and erotic director, but The Black Dahlia reminded me that I apparently confuse him with David Lynch or Adrian Lyne or Paul Verhoeven or something. De Palma is more like a creepy voyeur.

Granted, there were some cool tracking shots (such as right after a woman finds the body of The Black Dahlia) and split-diopter (two objects in focus at the same time) shots, but the film just didn’t feel as viscerally rewarding as some of his other work.

The sad thing is, The Black Dahlia is perfect source material for de Palma. It’s got blonde (Kay) vs. brunette (Elizabeth, Madeline) women, potential doppelgangers (Elizabeth/Madeline, Bucky/Lee), suspense (“Who killed the Black Dahlia??”), allusions to film (The Man Who Laughs and the Hollywood setting), etc.

I’m not sure whether de Palma really has become “a director for hire” or what. I hope that Femme Fatale wasn’t his apogee and now he’s all downhill.

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