I have resisted posting my thoughts on The Black Dahlia for quite a while now. Being the De Palma advocate that I am, and a host of a De Palma-minded forum to boot, I didn’t want my very subjective feelings to affect the enthusiasm of others. It just felt wrong. But now that a few months have passed, I suppose it’s time for a confession: I have mixed emotions about this film.
Not that it’s bad. Hell no! It’s high class filmmaking, no doubt about that. I admire its narrative ambition, the stylized performances (stylized for a reason: everybody’s posturing) and the obvious skill on display. And yet… I don’t really care for it. Not since The Bonfire of the Vanities have I seen a De Palma film so far removed from my own sensibilities. Pretty odd when you consider that all the basic ingredients for a personal favorite (beautiful women: check, murder: check, mystery: check) were present.
Somehow, I missed a heartbeat to guide me. I love De Palma at his most lyrical; when he lifts you up from your seat and smacks you down again with his relentless visual storytelling, when you’re completely THERE in the moment every step of the way. That romantic, emotional roller-coaster side of De Palma (I’ve never seen him as the cold technician that detractors mistake him for) doesn’t get much room in The Black Dahlia: he’s too busy spinning his intricate web of lies around the truth… to the point of the lies replacing the truth. If The Black Dahlia is a study in obsession, it’s a very cerebral one. I realize that’s probably how Ellroy’s mind works, and in that sense, De Palma’s film might be the ideal movie adaptation. But to me, that doesn’t make it ideal De Palma. I guess I’m not much of an Ellroy man…
That said: I adored the movie when it got out of control and took a detour into the bizarre (I wanted the whole to be like that!). The ending was a creepy highlight that gave me chills all over. There were plenty of bravoura shots, great music cues and rememberable moments (the crane shot over the roof that reveals the body in the distance, Johansson shutting the bathroom door, meeting Madeleine’s family in first-person, the shadowy figure with the knife, the reveal of the clown’s painting), but – dare I say it – I was underwhelmed by the set pieces. Especially after having been blown away by Children of Men a couple of weeks earlier.
There’s much to agree with the positive arguments raised by people like Matt Zoller Seitz, Keith Uhlich and Ari the Principal Archivist… It’s just that I expected Betty Short to obsess me as much as the film’s leading characters. She didn’t. Fortunately, this tells you more about me than it does about the quality of the film.