A while back, I talked about the re-emergence of Romantic “blue flower” imagery in films like Batman Begins and A Scanner Darkly. Add one more film to the list – David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Early in Fire Walk With Me, an FBI chief (Lynch) presents two FBI agents (Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland) with a message in code. The message is, in fact, a woman dressed in red, with a matching red wig and a “sour” facial expression. She wears a blue rose on her lapel. Later, when the two agents are decoding the “message,” Sutherland asks Isaak what the blue rose stands for, and Isaak responds, “I can’t tell you about that.” The audience is left to associate the image with the murdered prostitute, Teresa Banks, and – later – with the dead Laura Palmer.
Blue flower imagery in Hollywood films goes at least as far back as 1946’s The Blue Dahlia (directed by George Marshall from a screenplay by Raymond Chandler), the title of which was borrowed by the press to describe the most famous lust-crime of 1947, the murder of demi-prostitute Elisabeth Short, aka “The Black Dahlia.”
The Black Dahlia, Brian De Palma’s fictionalized version of the Elizabeth Short murder investigation (adapted faithfully from James Ellroy’s book of the same name), is as dark a film noir as Hollywood has produced in recent years. Maybe not as dark as 1992’s Fire Walk With Me, but dark and sexually perverse enough to make the recent Hollywoodland (the conspiracy film where there is no conspiracy) look like a kiddies story.
Reviews of the film run the gamut from masterpiece (Matt Zoller Seitz: “one of the filmmaker’s most ambitious and formally complex films”) to mixed (Manohla Dargis) to scandalized pans (Andy Klein). I’ve generally liked DePalma’s films better than most reviewers, and this one is no exception. (Pauline Kael, whom I dislike, loved DePalma’s films, but I prefer to ignore that unfortunate congruence with my own tastes.) While the Ellroy-derived narrative moves in fits and starts – unlike, say, Body Double, Femme Fatale, or other films based on De Palma’s own stories – the film’s formal aspects are as exciting as we have come to expect from De Palma. Moreover, it is a classic restatement of one of the director’s basic themes – individual violence related to corruption in the society at large. (See The Fury, Blow Out, Casualties of War, etc.) In the DePalma/Ellroy version, the murder of Elizabeth Short is linked to police corruption, Hollywood exploitation, shady land deals, and – most importantly – the arrogance of the privileged who see the rest of us as their laborers, cannon fodder, and whores.
In De Palma’s films, no one is completely innocent, only some – e.g., the characters played by Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson – have enough moral integrity left to be less guilty than others. And some, like the wealthy bitch outstandingly played by Hilary Swank (no longer the lovable sweetheart of Million Dollar Baby), are completely shameless. Ms. Swank, with her slinky figure and Katherine Hepburnesque accent, is spot-on. So, at the other end of the moral scale, is Mia Kirshner in a heartbreaking performance as Elizabeth Short (seen only in flashbacks). A particularly exciting bit of casting for De Palma fans is William Finley, who played the scarred, obsessed title character in De Palma’s 1974 The Phantom of the Paradise. Here he is thirty years later, still scarred, still obsessed.
Director Robert Wise once told Bright Lights that for a noir to be truly noir, it had to be shot in black and white. The Black Dahlia is, of course, shot in color (by Obsession cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond), but black and white cinematography is skillfully woven into De Palma’s tapestry throughout. Elizabeth Short’s screen tests are black and white. So is a stag film containing clues to the victim’s murder. So, in a key plot point, is footage from the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs (the hideous carved smile of its title character reflecting The Black Dahlia‘s scarring/mutilation theme). The film’s final reel – in which the aforementioned footage is intercut with numerous other images and flashbacks to explain who did what and why – is a director/editor’s tour-de-force.
The Black Dahlia is a far from flawless film, but as a whole, significantly greater than its dismembered parts. I was thrilled, chilled, and, ultimately, moved.