As might be expected from De Palma, the trailer for The Black Dahlia implied several parallels to Vertigo: obsession with a dead woman, involvement with her lookalike (named Madeleine!), a spiral staircase from which someone falls to their death, and Scarlett Johansson wearing Kim Novak’s hair and colors. The movie itself, unfortunately, revisits these themes with little innovation. Though De Palma makes use of one element from Vertigo he had somehow left untouched in Obsession, Body Double, and Femme Fatale, it is not explored here with much insight and is overshadowed by the fact that the movie has more in common with Pearl Harbor than either Hitchcock or earlier De Palma.
That’s not to say BDP doesn’t reuse his own material. One of the attractions of his work is his ability to reexplore the same tropes in such a way that produces something which feels brand new. But in The Black Dahlia, when a cop sees an address inside a borrowed matchbook it doesn’t feel like a new spin on a classic convention so much as De Palma hoping you don’t remember how the same thing turned out in the Untouchables.
Perhaps he’s is a victim of his own success. I was expecting a De Palma film to end all De Palmas, and if not that, then at least the movie event of the year. Instead I got De Palma lite (and boring). Maybe he didn’t want to distract the audience with form and so limited himself to a single “virtuoso” crane shot, but similar shots have been done better as early as Carrie. As it is, my favorite shots are a couple with a diopter lens that simultaneously focus on someone’s head in the foreground and a character in the background (another De Palma staple), as well as a multi-layered shot in which Harnett appears reflected in two mirrors. Hey, I’ll take what I can get. After all, I did like the movie’s vision of Los Angeles in the 1940s, beginning with cops wearing black leather jackets, an image that has become so appropriated by camp culture it was a revelation to see it played straight.
But most problematic (and foundational to the movie) is probably Josh Hartnett who is simply too young for a noir protagonist and has neither the face nor the voice for a hard boiled story. When he tries to talk softly “in his low voice” it cracks and I missed a lot of his narration. Combine that with the reprisal of his role in a Pearl Harbor triangle in which the joke that Hartnett is more in love with the guy than the girl is even more applicable, and it’s not exactly a recipe for classic status. And though Eckhart, Johansson, and Swank are adequate, none of them seem inseparable from their characters like Crowe, Pearce, Spacey, Basinger, and Strathairn were in LA Confidential. Perhaps it is a comment on Hollywood that the best actress in the movie is dead and seen only in film clips watched by the other characters, and a comment on the movie itself that the most memorable scene is one of comic relief by Fiona Shaw (Harry Potter’s Aunt Petunia).
Though it got bad press, I think Femme Fatale will be reappraised someday as the best De Palma picture of this decade, but as of now that’s not saying much, and I’m not holding out great hope for The Untouchables: Capone Rising. But all that said, I plan to see The Black Dahlia again in hopes that my impression will change.