Los Angeles, the past, old mysterious crimes still “unsolved.” Would these be the obsessions of movie makers if they didn’t all live for the most part in Los Angeles? If the movie industry had settled in, say, Wisconsin, would films be filled with snow, reindeer, and Ed Gein? Or perhaps San Francisco, with its fog, beatniks, and alternative sexualities? Of Miami: lizards, go fast boats, and Cuba as a dream - nightmare?
The other film this year about Superman, as others have pointed out, is Hollywoodland. Directed by Allen Coulter from a script by Paul Bernbaum, it tells, as is well known, two stories simultaneously, that of the late career of George Reeves - minor actor who lucked into the syndicated role of Superman on TV, a career sustained by his affair with Toni Mannix, wife of the then head of MGM, and which ended with a mysterious suicide - coupled with the tale of a fictional sleazy private investigator, who starts out cynical and mercenary but who comes to admire, identify with, and respect the subject of his inquiries (like James Stewart in Call Northside 777 and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown).
The connection to Chinatown is almost explicit. Many of the music cues evoke Jerry Goldsmith’s score for that movie, Diane Lane as Toni has a Faye Dunaway look and sound, there is a crucial fight between a man and a woman in a bungalow not unlike the famous one from the earlier film, and there is even a little crux borrowed from it, in this case where the PI, Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), after a brutal interlude, finally takes a moment to rest … and then the phone rings, mirroring a similar scene in Chinatown.
Unfortunately, the Simo story is boring, and Brody is miscast. He is too lean and cocky to seem like a tough PI; it’s nice that he changes, but his evolution doesn’t seem to have that much to do with Reeves’s case.
On the other hand, the Superman half of the movie is poignant and good natured. Ben Affleck is also miscast, but he does something with the part that isn’t just coasting on charm (Affleck won an acting prize at the Venice film festival), but generally doing three things at once: scheming, searching, but also just enjoying himself.
Because Reeve’s romantic complications and depression are unconnected with
Simo’s existential crisis, I think that most viewers find themselves a little impatient with Simo’s half of the movie (unless they are huge fans of Brody’s). A better story would have been to show a PI as an adult investigating, on his own, the crime that troubled him as a youth by running down all the survivors (though I don’t buy it that little kids all over the nation were burning their Superman costumes in grief and disillusionment) .
If Hollywoodland harks back to Chinatown for its tone and tropes, The Black Dahlia is unavoidably comparable to L. A. Confidential. But Brian De Palma’s film feels cartoony and unlived in, with its picture perfect settings and its nostalgic wipe dissolves. Many of De Palma’s films feel cartoony, and De Palma manages to tilt the film away from the world of source novelist James Ellroy, where schemes and conspiracies pile on top of each other in spirals of infinity, and to De Palmaville, where naifs wander through a landscape they don’t fully understand, only to be betrayed by the one person they deem a best friend.
Josh Friedman’s script is reasonably faithful to Ellroy’s sweeping, intense novel, which has huge swaths of back story presented as present story, but while the book is told in the first person, the movie, which starts out with narration, becomes quickly third person, and we are looking in on Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) as he gets set up in a boxing match with charismatic fellow officer Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart, the film’s Kevin Spacey equivalent role) as a benefit, then becomes his friend (while Bucky is living in what looks like the Pretty Woman apartment building), then his partner, during which routine investigation they stumble onto the perimeter of the real life Black Dahlia case (or that of Elizabeth Short, a young woman whose body was found on January 15, 1947, cut in half and mutilated, abandoned to a vacant lot at the 3800 block of South Norton Avenue in the Leimert Park area of Los Angeles). The case was never solved and formed the basis for other popular works, including the book and film of True Confessions, and even an episode of Hunter.
Once the Black Dahlia enters the picture, Lee leaves it, for long stretches of time, which doesn’t help us understand his sudden obsession with the Dahlia case (explained at the end, if you can follow it), while Bucky gets mired in affairs with both a hot socialite (Hilary Swank, also miscast) who dabbles in Lesbianism, and with Lee’s mysterious girlfriend, Kay (Scarlett Johansson). By this time, The Black Dahlia has become three movies in one, a boxing film, a murder mystery, and a romance. Plus it throws a lot of names at you — Bobby Dewitt, Nash, Baxter Fitch, George Tilden (87 cigarettes into the film and I still don’t know who this guy is suppose to be, though I recognized the actor playing him as De Palma standby William Finley). This is the kind of mystery where a statement made in passing at a dinner table returns via a flashback to illuminate the whole case at the last second.
Though it is fun to see this cast, and others, including Rose McGowan and Mia Kirshner, you have a feeling that they are all second tier. But the cast of L. A. Confidential was also second tier until the film made stars out of all of them, and that may be a mark of the difference between Curtis Hanson, who wants you to believe his films, and De Palma, who is essentially drawing a cartoon and thinking about the set pieces. It doesn’t help that Swank acts all vampy and sophisticated in an unconvincing way (though she is good in the vulnerable moments), or that Fiona Shaw, as a dipsomaniacal socialite, gives one of the worst performances in a De Palma, or any other kind of film. I was also disturbed that a stag film that figures in the plot was too well lit for a porno film (although there might be an explanation for that implicit in the mystery’s solution), and that people were still going to silent movies - in this case, The Man Who Laughs, from 1928, the Paul Leni film starring Conrad Veidt. I don’t think that De Palma is much of a film buff, at root, otherwise he would have striven to get these details right. He is a student of film, but only as a source of solutions to the specific problems of construction he faces on a per film basis. But remembering how much he ridiculed his pal George Lucas over rough cuts of Star Wars makes me think that essentially he doesn’t really like movies all that much, at least pop culture movies.
But the case isn’t closed.
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