De Palma's Disjointed Dahlia; Superman Saves Hollywoodland

Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, from a screenplay by Josh Friedman, based on the novel by James Ellroy, managed to baffle me for most of its two-hour running time during a last-minute preview screening before its theatrical release. I hadn’t read either the novel or the copious program notes provided by the Universal publicists before I was exposed to the film itself. I wanted this noir flick to surprise me, since it was to be my lead item after my first two-week vacation in 40 years of weekly reviewing, first for The Village Voice (1960-89) and then for The New York Observer (1990-2006). The Black Dahlia surprised me all right, but mostly in a negative way.

After all, I had thoroughly enjoyed Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997), adapted by Mr. Hanson and Brian Helgeland from another novel by Mr. Ellroy. And so I was anticipating more of the same melodramatic efficiency and expertise. Instead, I was assailed by a torturously jumbled narrative lacking either coherence or conviction, with strangely unmotivated characters crashing into each other before they have been adequately introduced, to say nothing of a strikingly unreal re-creation of 1947 Los Angeles. This last count should have come as no surprise, since, I learned later from the production notes, much of the movie had been shot in Sofia, Bulgaria, of all places.

Producer Art Linson seems to have relished the very outlandishness of this imposture: “It was great to have a production crew who maintained the control of duplicating Hollywood. You actually see the Hollywood Hills, but they’re really the hills of Sofia.”

What I also learned from the production notes was that Mr. Ellroy had been driven by the unsolved murder of his own loose-living mother, Jean Hilliker, to write his novel about the real-life unsolved murder of a 22-year-old dark-haired party girl and aspiring act­ress named Elizabeth Short. Mr. Ellroy was only 10 years old when his own mother was raped and killed on June 22, 1958, possibly on a date gone wrong. Her murderer, like Betty Short’s, was never caught by the police, so it’s understandable that Mr. Ellroy would have become obsessed with the parallel lives and deaths of the two women.

As he himself notes: “A personal story attends The Black Dahlia, both novel and film. It inextricably links me to two women savaged 11 years apart. These women comprise the central myth of my life …. I want to close out their myth with an elegy. I want to grant them the peace of denied disclosure and never say another public word about them.”

Unfortunately, Mr. De Palma and his collaborators have been unable to translate Mr. Ellroy’s depth of feeling into cinematic equivalents. There is a pervasive disconnection throughout the proceedings, and the trouble begins with the puzzling reconstruction of the infamous Los Angeles zoot-suit riots of 1947. As the riots are staged here, it seems that the antagonists are almost entirely sailors in white and policemen in blue. It was my impression at the time that anti-black or anti-Hispanic racism (or both) was involved in the disorders, but I failed to spot more than one or two of the fabled zoot suits onscreen. Anyway, it is at this riot that we get our first glimpses of the film’s male co-protagonists, Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). Both men are former fighters who continue in the ring under the auspices of the LAPD. Shortly thereafter, we are briefly introduced to Lee’s girlfriend, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), with whom Bucky seems to have a reciprocal affinity, though the leads act for the most part as a properly companionable threesome rather than an improperly hot sexual triangle. Still, Kay does get to model some period lingerie in her inconclusive come-ons to the conscience-hobbled Bucky.

In one typically out-of-nowhere scene, Bucky’s mentally defective father, Dolph (James Otis), makes a grotesque entrance shooting pigeons from his upstairs window. In an impromptu voice-over that is always a bad sign in a screenplay, Bucky confides to the audience that he is throwing an LAPD-sponsored fight with his buddy, Lee, so that he can put his demented dad in a nursing home. When what ensues is a bone-crushing, tooth-shattering bloodfest between the two “buddies,” all I could do was sit there, puzzled and perplexed. Through all the carnage, Kay looks on in concern for both men with an expression that remains insipidly anguished to the very end of the picture.

Belatedly, it seemed to me, the two detectives are assigned to the Black Dahlia case, and here the story veers backward and forward in time, dragging in a bewildering array of new characters, each contributing a dollop of decadence to the De Palma-Friedman-Ellroy conception of 1947 Los Angeles as a hellhole of political and police corruption, organized crime and pansexual perversion. A dazzling display of crypto-lesbian chorines cavorts down an ornate nightclub staircase to a rendition of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” (sung, for good measure, by K.D. Lang). This was reportedly the last scene shot in Sofia, and the zest of the Bulgarian extras involved in the number made me wonder if the world has actually become too decadent to self-destruct.

In the end, both Bucky and Lee are consumed by the case, Lee fatally, but don’t ask me how or why. My guess is that the screenplay covered too many of the book’s many tangents without properly preparing the audience for these dizzying shifts of focus.

Ms. Johansson remains becalmed in a pallid part, in contrast to the overcooked temptress of Hilary Swank’s Madeleine Linscott, who projects both a heterosexual hubris with Bucky and a lesbian libido with the reluctant murder victim, Betty Short, played winningly by Mia Kirshner. As it happens, Ms. Kirshner is the only performer in the cast that I considered more than adequate, despite what would normally be the insurmountable task of evoking a Vivien Leigh– or Hedy Lamarr–style brunette beauty in her screen test and stag film.

As for Madeleine’s snooty-rich and crazy parents, Ramona and Emmett Linscott (Fiona Shaw and John Kavanagh), they are so far over the top, both as characters and performers, that they evoked widespread giggles of disbelief. Mr. Eckhart, usually a superlative presence, was handicapped here by not being a more dominant figure. He wasn’t free to explain his own bizarre behavior without being perpetually prejudged by both Bucky and Kay.

Yet as I watched the film during its late, confusing climactic sections, I was strangely moved by the musical score, not so much for its aptness in the film as for its evocation of another De Palma movie, The Untouchables (1987), with music by the great Italian film composer Ennio Morricone—specifically, the haunting trumpet melody mourning the murders of the T-men played by Sean Connery and Charles Martin Smith. For all I know, jazz trumpeter and composer Mark Isham, who composed the music for The Black Dahlia, may have played for Mr. Morricone on that occasion. But nothing in The Black Dahlia moved me as much as those two deaths in The Untouchables, which still resonates in my memory after almost 20 years. I have to give Mr. De Palma some credit for that. And while we’re talking about Ms. Kirshner, her luminous performance in Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994) still lingers like music in my memory as well. As for Mr. Hartnett, he is, as always, merely O.K., as is Ms. Swank.

The media mavens of the 40’s exploited the “Black Dahlia” tag in their headlines after a popular noir movie, The Blue Dahlia, was released in 1946, just before the gruesome Betty Short murder. The movie starred Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake and was directed by George Marshall, with a screenplay by the redoubtable Raymond Chandler—but aside from the (far more comparatively tame) murder of an oversexed party girl that gets the plot going, the movie has no thematic resemblance to The Black Dahlia.

Super Ben

Allen Coulter’s Hollywoodland, from a screenplay by Paul Bernbaum, works much better than it should because of Ben Affleck’s stirring reincarnation of the ill-fated George Reeves, whose pathetic claim to showbiz fame was his brief 50’s vogue, especially among the kiddies and their parents, in television’s The Adventures of Superman. Hollywoodland gets a few laughs from the show’s cheesy Ed Wood–like production effects, but the dignity and sobriety that Mr. Affleck projects as Reeves keeps the sheer ridiculousness of his limited career options from ever becoming too campy. Indeed, the most startling moments in the movie arrive unexpectedly, such as in a scene where Reeves is doing a promotional appearance as Superman. Suddenly a little boy steps out of the crowd with a real loaded pistol in his hand and asks Superman if he can shoot him so that he can watch the bullets bounce off his chest. Mr. Affleck manages a masterly blend of steely-eyed fear and vocal calm to persuade the boy to let Superman have his gun so that the bouncing bullets don’t hurt anyone in the crowd. A strategic close-up of the pistol reminds us that Mr. Coulter, though making his theatrical-film debut in Hollywoodland, has sharpened his directorial skills with some of the most impressive episodes of such excellent cable-television series as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Sex and the City. Hence, Mr. Coulter’s direction isn’t long on scenic grandeur and crowd scenes, but it is very adept with dramatic confrontations and revelatory insights from the actors. On the other hand, Mr. Bernbaum’s screenplay has been roundly condemned for its rigorous alternation of episodes from the past, leading up to Mr. Reeves’ supposed suicide in the 50’s, and the bitter aftermath, centered on an investigator named Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) who is trying to reopen the case and prove that Reeves was actually murdered.

As the movie plays out its improbable premises, I am far from convinced that the adverse criticism is at all justified. In these situations, as in the much-cited Citizen Kane, the past is usually more compelling than the present—but somehow, I don’t think that the misadventures of George Reeves in Hollywood were substantial enough to carry the movie on their own. His liaisons with the bountiful older wife of a movie executive, and his last days with a conniving younger woman, are best taken intermittently and in small doses. This cautionary dictum applies even though both Diane Lane as his generous mistress, and Robin Tunney as his bitchy last fling, give a great deal extra to their parts to avoid facile stereotyping.

For his part, Mr. Brody invests his seemingly thankless role of a troublemaking loser with so much underdog indestructibility that he keeps the movie going even as the Reeves character is sinking deeper and deeper into the slough of despond. Without the would-be sleuth’s always engaging life force, the dismal story of George Reeves would have nowhere to go except straight into the trash heap of broken Hollywood dreams. It helps that the movie is also enhanced by the sterling contributions of an exemplary supporting cast headed by Bob Hoskins as studio honcho Eddie Mannix, the patient husband of Reeves’ mistress; Lois Smith as Reeves’ calculating mother; Jeffrey DeMunn as Reeves’ poignantly loyal agent; and Joe Spano as studio trouble-shooter Howard Strickling, who gives Mr. Brody’s private eye the most trouble in his efforts to upset the peace of mind of the Hollywood powers-that-be. Simo winds up not only abandoned by his wife Laurie (Molly Parker) but also rebuffed by his little boy Evan (Zach Mills)—who, ironically, is inconsolable over the death of Superman. Take my word for it: Hollywoodland is well worth seeing.

Dillon’s Song

Bent Hamer’s Factotum, from a screenplay by Mr. Hamer and producer Jim Stark, is based on the novel by Charles Bukowski, as well as excerpts from his books The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills, What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire, and The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship. The boozy, bohemian world of Bukowski (1920-1994) has been cinematically celebrated before, most notably in Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly (1987), starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, with a screenplay by Bukowski himself. Factotum is right up there with Barfly as a distillation of Bukowskian badinage, despite the current film’s sketchier provenance. The main reason for this is the deadpan resilience of the splendid cast, headed by an interestingly maturing Matt Dillon, a luminously lyrical Lili Taylor and a casually sensual Marisa Tomei. Their Hank, Jan and Laura, respectively, provide the self-indulgent Bukowski with more selfless humanity than I think he deserves. Mine may be an unfashionable opinion, but after I applaud the actors, I sit on my hands when the author takes his bow—and I mean Bukowski, not Mr. Hamer nor Mr. Stark. They are budding authors. De Palma's Disjointed Dahlia; Superman Saves Hollywoodland