Critics either love or hate Brian De Palma’s movies but with his latest, The Black Dahlia, his fans might find themselves somewhere in between. You tend to cherish his big scenes -“ highly orchestrated elaborate set-ups with spectacular camera movement, razor-sharp editing and heart-pounding music scores -“ rather than his movies as a whole.
In its favour The Black Dahlia has five or six great scenes, starting with a brutal boxing match that climaxes with one of Hollywood’s most photogenic stars having his front teeth knocked out. Josh Hartnett may be no great shakes as an actor but he’s certainly easy on the eye (and it seems odd he also suffers facial mutilation in The Wrong Man currently screening here). Unfortunately, as both star and narrator in The Black Dahlia he gets the most screen time and he’s not really up to carrying the movie.
He doesn’t get much help from the other stars: a hammy Aaron Eckhart as his LAPD partner; a subdued lacklustre Scarlett Johansson (she’s better in the current The Prestige) as the apex of their little love triangle; and one of Hollywood’s most overrated Oscar-winners Hilary Swank as a bisexual society dame whose taste for lowlife includes picking up fat sailors. The movie’s best performance comes from Mia Kershner (Jenny in The L Word), well cast in the title role as a tragic would-be starlet whose corpse is found cut in half in a Hollywood vacant lot. The sequence where the body is found becomes another stunning set-piece when the discovery is almost overlooked during an unrelated gun battle.
Swank’s first scene is also mind-boggling, taking place during a floorshow in a lavish 1940s lesbian bar with k.d. lang in a tuxedo crooning Cole Porter’s Love For Sale while a bevy of topless babes swirl about tongue-kissing in unison on winding staircases. The fabulous Fiona Shaw (Harry Potter’s Aunt Petunia) plays Swank’s pill-popping mother who, after downing a cocktail over dinner, blurts dark family secrets to her daughter’s date in a bizarrely hilarious scene.
Even more odd is the haste with which various deaths are explained and storylines wrapped up at the end, leaving you wondering if you really followed it all. De Palma is great at organising big scenes in fine detail but not so good at handling actors or plots. His fans should be pleased by the reappearance of familiar motifs from his early classics -“ doppelgangers, kinky sex, a knife attack, an amazing falling scene, over-the-top violence -“ and as usual his collaborators are topnotch. The Black Dahlia glows warmly on the big wide screen and Mark Isham’s beautiful score might entice you to sit through the end credits.