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Black Dahlia – noir-lite, plot-lite, charisma-lite, sort of, well, LITE.

nice wide smile now

nice wide smile now

The Black Dahlia – Brian de Palma

De Palma makes heartless movies. He shows no warmth of feeling for character nor commitment to the logical demands of a convincing plot. Technique is the artifical engine that pumps life into his always skillful, sometimes suspenseful, but never for me, likeable movies. Dressed to Kill (1980) remains the most profoundly misogynist movie I have seen. The most youthful heir to De Palma’s directorial style is perhaps Tarantino.

This lack of feeling extends even to genre. Dahlia is never more than noir-lite. Its sepia tints and stark exteriors respect the technical style of noir but not its battered and bruised but finally, moral epicentre. Phillip Marlowe was in, but not of, the dirty world he worked with. He was trying to beat the corrupt system, not exploit it better than the rest.

The cold detachment of the visual tone in Dahlia echoes de Palma’s idol, Hitchcock. But not his lazy indifference to anything approaching an intelligible plot let alone stylish dialogue. Plot isn’t everything – you can blag it with believable characters, convincing performances, or just take us on an exhilarating wisecracking, witty, ironic, lippy ride. Dahlia has none of these. Josh Hartnett has the looks of a matinee idol and the charisma of a potato. There is a great deal of ACTING going on throughout Dahlia – not least from Scarlett Johansson whose instinctive talent in Lost in Translation has finally been reduced to a knowing twitchyness that simply grates. That fine actress Hilary Swank (Madeleine) struggles pluckily but soon loses out to a script to die before. Even she can’t restore credibility to scenes where Fiona Shaw as her mother goes so far over the top she needs a parachute and her supposedly Scottish father (John Kavanagh I) betrays the slippiest accent since Dick Van Dyke’s turn in Muhrry Pawpins.

Two boxers – volatile Lee (Aaron Eckhart) ‘Fire’, and Hartnett’s ‘Bucky’ Bleichert ‘Ice’ (no I’m not making this up), team up as cops and joint chums to Kay – Johansson, in now de rigeur Monroe mode. Lee has stolen Kay from crook Bobby DeWitt who before Lee sends him down for 10 to life for a dodgy bank job, carves his initials just above Kay’s right buttock. Just a sweet old-fashioned romantic.

Bobby’s imminent release is only one of a number of bewilderingly intersecting plot lines offering De Palma salacious visuals on corruption, Lesbian porn, and incest. Sort of David Lynch-queasy without the mystery. The gem is a lesbian nightclub scene with a DJ’ed kd laing knocking the gals and gals dead with a feisty “I’m in The Mood for Love”. Somewhere in the middle of this thickening dramatic stew, a casting couch wannabee and reluctant on-the-jobbing amateur porn actress Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) gets beaten to death, cut from ear-to-ear, bifurcated and disembowelled. Frankly a bad case of over-kill. She is the ‘Dahlia’ of the title and this everyday tale of LA folk is apparently based on a real, unsolved murder. Elizabeth looked like Madeleine and apparently they knew each other biblically to see what it would be like. Meanwhile Bucky falls in love with Kay but into bed with Madeleine. Lee becomes obsessed for family reasons with the de-construction of Elizabeth and DeWitt gets out of jail looking for the bank robbery loot that Lee has thoughtfully deposited under the bathroom floor-tiles and which Bucky uncovers while doing a bit of off-duty grouting for Kay. Lee gets DeWitt then his come-uppance through a mixture of garrotting, cut throat and a 6 floor head-first stairwell free fall dive – without pike. Culprit – a shadowy anorexic Zorro-like figure in a very chic black hat.

More people get killed. Fiona Shaw puts herself and us beyond more thespian despair with a derringer to the uvula and this farrago of impenetrable plot, fatuous characterisation and phoney emotion just sort of staggers to an end. The music’s not bad and the advertising graphic is simply brilliant. If you want similar themes properly realised with great acting, real suspense and some genuine style – rent Chinatown on DVD and give this one a miss.

(October 2006)

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