It makes sense that David Denby, who writes film reviews for The New Yorker, is himself a New Yorker. But a clichéd New Yorker? Really, with transcontinental flight and teevee and the internets, I thought stupefying idoicy about Los Angeles was something most New Yorkers had left behind. Yet consider this opening line of Denby's review of The Black Dahlia:
New York, rising high, eliminates its past with a wrecking ball; Los Angeles, spreading out, broods over its history until it rots.
Let's quickly acknowledge that leading with NY to review a movie (and book) that never treads east of Nevada is shaky at best. And now to the truth of the matter: Los Angeles knocks down its history with a vigor and frequency entirely beyond New York's wanna-be destructo dreams. As NY's Plaza Hotel went condo, Los Angeles' historic, defunct Ambassador Hotel was bulldozed to make way for a public school. Heck, we even tore down the cheap and boozy bowling alley that was the setting for The Big Lebowski. In LA, history is an embarassment; no building is sacred.
See, to shoot the 1940s-era exteriors for The Black Dahlia, the cast and crew had to fly all the way to Bulgaria.
I couldn't take Denby's review seriously. Instead I re-read the book and headed out for a bargain, hungover matinee. I don't recommend this -- the book re-reading, that is. Hangovers are fine in my book if you earn them in good fun.
Anyway, if you were thinking you might want to read The Black Dahlia before seeing the movie, don't bother. You'll spend the first half of the movie swimming in the narrative of the backstory: you go from glee of recognizing why they bust a guy to disappointment that his fate -- heading to the electric chair -- isn't big enough to make the film. And I honestly can't be sure if the film flows well for the first half, because it's so faithful to the book. At times I marvelled at how well it was sticking with Ellroy's story.
It looks beautiful. The costumes and makeup and interiors are almost perfect. The Bulgarian exteriors -- well, they didn't fool me, but I was happy to go along for the ride. Atmosphere, tone, story: it was all good. While I'd feared Josh Hartnett was too pretty to play one of Ellroy's ex-boxer cops, I thought he did just fine. Aaron Eckhart, too.
But the movie jumps its shark midway, as Hartnett trails his partner, Eckhart, to a meeting at a deserted building. This is where it diverges from the book; this is where De Palma gets really grisly (the first time). This is where the film sashays into camp, and if you think De Palma means the funniness that comes with camp, then you'll love it. Part of me would like to believe that De Palma was only kidding when he directed that, in a heated rush, Hartnett whip the tablecloth off an elaborately set dining table to make way for his coupling with Scarlett Johanssen. But the swooping music says it isn't a joke. The camera that pulls back discreetly from the window says it isn't wink-wink exploitation: it's drama. Award-aspiring drama. And as drama, it falters about halfway through.
Other than the melodramatic tone that sets in as the plot teeters like a drunk matriarch, the movie's greatest failure is Hilary Swank's accent. That is, unless she was trying to portray someone who invented a snobby accent but couldn't stick to it with any consistency.
The book The Black Dahlia didn't just revive an old, grisly LA murder; it blew out the walls of the detective genre. College kids, punkers, ironists and literati (a few) read it and liked it. With its freakish, iconic girl-cut-in-two as a lynchpin between crime, cops, the underbelly of Hollywood and one wealthy family, it had massive movie potential: Raymond Chandler but with modern gore, modern sex, modern brutality. But the book's ending was flawed, and it needed a brilliant hand to guide it into something grand on screen. Unfortunately, not De Palma's.