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Monday, August 29, 2022

Film Noir #12

Noir: The Black Dahlia and Black Rain

THE BLACK DAHLIA (2006) --- Was the expression “Listen up” in common usage during the mid-forties? Moderns can dress a room to pin-accurate period setting then blow it by a single word or phrase. Writers vs. art directors. The Black Dahlia was based on a James Ellroy novel, but outcome isn’t like L.A. Confidential, which had Black beat so far as structure/coherence but did not boast direction so showy as Brian de Palma’s, whose last lavish and starry work this appears to have been. The Black Dahlia boasts a singular filmmaker nearly getting a best of truant storytelling, so it helps to like De Palma and give him allowance for others providing less well. I lost thread of the tale but was reassured by then-reviewers similarly confused. The Black Dahlia was panned and did soft business. Who recalled or cared about the Dahlia case by 2006? I barely know it but for grubby insert to the Kenneth Anger book, which since discouraged further inquiry. “Elizabeth Short” of ’46 offing was cleaved by half, disemboweled, blood drained, mouth carved ear-to-ear, a visual banquet for De Palma and corpse customizers. The killing was apparently not solved, but he gets to a sort of bottom via big reveals coming so thick and fast in a final third to leave even the most alert woozy.

There are femmes who both emerge fataleish (Scarlet Johansson, Hilary Swank), and I kept wondering which Classic Era actress Johansson was trying to evoke. Lead boy Josh Hartnett mumbles and sometimes whispers, for which thank be to subtitles option. Were I younger, there would be a George Arliss School of Elocution, myself as sponsor, or at least silent partner. I enjoy the way De Palma outlandishes everything, like where Hartnett and Johansson sit down to a nicely set postwar table with roast chicken, green peas, other tasties (yes, I took inventory for kind of knowing what was going to happen). Sure enough, they engage a fit of passion, and yank goes the tablecloth (Hartnett), Johansson down w/thud on hard surface (would she/anyone opt for this in real life?), me the while focused upon fate of chicken gone cruelly to waste, peas scattered about that someone (her?) will be expected to clean up. Rest assured brute man Hartnett will leave the messy job for Scarlet, or Beulah the maid. No director can dictate what engages us in a scene, but does De Palma ever try. There are complex tracks from streets over tops of building, around corners, back to source pavement again, all of which would be lots more dazzling if we understood what heck was going on and who is shooting at who to what purpose. Still, De Palma is a creative force doing darndest, sensing anchors that pull, his exertion the more praiseworthy for keeping the yarn off sandy bottom. For all of disadvantage visited upon him in the new century, you'd think DePalma was still doing high-test seventies work that made his name, and bravo to him for full-on effort. There is “underground” L.A. for the director to dress like Busby Berkeley, a lesbian bar beside which the Cotton Club seems wan. Complaint re authenticity? Not from this quarter.

Situation and solution turn on, of all things, The Man Who Laughs from 1929, principals seeing it at a theatre in 1947. Like anyone could see The Man Who Laughs in a theatre, or anywhere, in 1947, but let’s not buff-out, attend rather to how minor confusion will all-consume where writers lay down one after other false endings. I bet Ellroy goes hard on The Black Dahlia whenever anyone mentions it to him, as from what I hear of this novelist, he is disciplined and makes points plain. For noir standing, there is real-life Chamber of Horror E. Short occupies, a poster girl for maximum gore. I doubt this case was topped until Manson’s crowd went to work. De Palma stages preamble to the murder as almost a throwaway, a woman seen from above and at distance that we assume to be Short. The Black Dahlia surprisingly does not zero on the case, rather other crime and criminals, plus complex back story of cop pals and dangerous women they engage. Noir digested easier before it became so massively overproduced. Would De Palma have been happier given a third of what he spent? (fifty million it is said)

Something tells me there are backyard noirs done on phones to beat tusks off elephant industry tries, and current question arises … will there again be mainstream outlay at such level for something like The Black Dahlia, now that there really isn’t a mainstream anymore? Will there be “good old days” status for The Black Dahlia, old-timers like De Palma looking mistily back on a “Hollywood” that long ago existed? Technical query to experts … I watched The Black Dahlia on Starz, via Amazon Prime. Ratio was 1.85 “widescreen,” though Google says the feature was scope 2.35. At no time did the frame feel cropped. Are filmmakers sticking w/ safe areas to stage action, knowing their compositions will be distorted by later TV and streaming? I would not enjoy De Palma’s Scarface so defaced, being long since accustomed to it on scope terms. Am I not as alert to intended framing as I should be?

BLACK RAIN (1989) --- So how come I took for granted all those swell action pictures from the eighties into the nineties? Not just acknowledged (by me) masterpieces that were The Last Boy Scout, Road House, others, but to turn up my nose as I did at Black Rain, rediscovered of late to increased satisfaction … well, it might just be time to explore Van Dammes and (Steven) Segals that eluded me, seen or not but in neither case properly appreciated. I remember flap over Black Rain’s portrayal of Japanese culture, and yes, Michael Douglas runs over hosts when he travels there to deliver a fugitive killer, whom he promptly loses. This is attitude noir, Douglas that is, as live a wire as he was in Basic Instinct, and customary fun to watch. Law enforcement’s enemy is no longer criminals, but “suits,” internal affairs, those within the department out to “bust my ass” as MD repeatedly puts it. He is never without a dangling cigarette, may be thieving from drug dealers, which he regards as OK because he’s got a house and children of a failed marriage to support. Were real cops flattered by depictions like this? I bet so, in a same sense reporters were by Dad’s “Chuck Tatum” in Ace In The Hole. From such character personnel, a well-entrenched cliché by the eighties, came absorption of cop thrillers into Noir category which was company filmmakers wanted to keep, but picture a 40’s Dana Andrews being only what he was in Where The Sidewalk Ends, and never the straightforward investigator of Laura (sans obsessive interest in an apparent murder victim). If 80’s law enforcers had leave to enjoy normal homelife, it would have been Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon series, that to enable better contrast with broken partner Mel Gibson, who himself cleaned up as sequels gave way to comedy.

Douglas is single-minded and partners must be sacrificed to get his job done. This all is stylishly put over by director Ridley Scott, who I wish had done more police thrillers. Japanese locations were always welcome novelty, from second unit on Tokyo Joe to House of Bamboo to You Only Live Twice, but now with near-portable cameras, no sky is a limit, and director Scott uses far-off setting like no one as of 1989 had before. Genre pictures get a boost for exotic backdrops, Black Rain scoring too for familiar beats a lifeblood of the formula since Coogan’s Bluff or well before. I often wonder if writers of these things still write, find too often that after-work for talent was less frequent. I guess the town always had more scribes than it could support. Query: Do “spec” scripts still sell, millions paid after furious bidding for a “hot” story, or was that just an 80-90’s thing? Black Rain took almost three times its American rentals from foreign receipts, plays well today, or maybe that’s me relaxing rigid standard applied back when it was new. Nostalgia is no determinant, as I feel none for 1989 … maybe films like this, from then, seem better by comparison with what there is now. But then I watch practically none of action films currently made. Are any as good as Black Rain?


Blogger Jorge Finkielman said...

Black Rain is an OK film, if an unremarkable one. I went to see it back on its day in Buenos Aires at a walking distance from my old home in a movie theater that was within the Italian Club, where I saw a number of films a multiplex opened at basically the same distance. It is a very entertaining film, but too stuck on clichés and I saw no relationships to film noir at all. The story is very conventional as its ending, but when it seems that it was going to keep going against the clichés on display they almost immediately went back to them. At least, the cast is good.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Marc J. Hampton said...

DePalma is at his best with very simple, seedy tales that he can turn into grand opera. He wasn't the guy for Ellroy's incomprehensible novel (I tired to get through that book twice)...he made it even slower and more baffling.

Did you ever hear Ellroy's boozy commentary (with Eddie Muller) on the DVD of Crime Wave (1954)? It's really something.

7:52 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Watching THE BLACK DAHLIA in the day I thought to myself, "There is no way a big movie theater ran a 1929 silent movie in 1947." Still, it was great fun to see THE MAN WHO LAUGHS. Love the film. Like THE BLACK DAHLIA.

1:03 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I watched The Black Dahlia once and, as with so many modern-day crime films set in the past, found it fatally flawed by a cast that looked like a group of children playing dress-up in adult clothes; as though Hal Roach's Rascals were solving an actual murder.

It's embarrassing to see those things, especially if one has any familiarity with actual teens in the 30s and 40s who successfully played adults (I'm thinking specifically here of pre-Code Loretta Young, Linda Darnell, and even Joan Leslie, for gosh sakes.)

One of the many reasons I so loved the remake of Nightmare Alley was that Bradley Cooper, of all people, knew how to smoke and wear a suit and hat. something seemingly impossible for most current actors.

4:43 AM  
Blogger Rodney said...

I actually am among the few who saw Black Dahlia in the theater upon initial release. I remember liking it well enough, but not remembering anything about it, not even the salacious scene that spoiled the roast chicken.

9:17 AM  
Blogger Jim Cobb said...

I remember being thrown by all the anachronisms in the dialog for BLACK DAHLIA. When Johansson used the phrase "Back in the day" I was pretty much done with the film. Similarly several years ago there was a tv version of SOUTH PACIFIC where two sailors are heard to say "Hey dude, check it out." The DOWNTON ABBEY series is also filled with these out of period terms. I realize that writers must try to make the past relatable and at 68 I am a curmudgeon about accuracy which probably goes unnoticed by anyone under 40, but it is annoying.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

One of the characters in a futuristic "Alien" sequel says "Let's rock and roll!" It's like someone in 2022 saying "23 skidoo."

11:12 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

This is something that really bugs me in the current run of Star Trek series: that every musical reference (favorite song, lyric quoted) and cultural reference is from the last thirty years or so, like pop culture went extinct in the late 21st and 22nd centuries.

4:59 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Wow, never noticed till now how much Josh Hartnett looked like Sterling "I've frisked a million punks" Hayden.

12:22 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers the REAL Black Dahlia case (Part One):

You might be surprised at how the Black Dahlia murder case continues to attract attention after so many years. All the witnesses are dead, the police files have been rummaged through and pilfered until anything that was worthwhile in them is long lost, but the absence of evidence only makes it more the province of the imagination, then which nothing is more potent. The images of a beautiful young woman, slaughtered in a fetishistic manner and publicly displayed, makes it stand out among the more commonplace examples of passion and death.

You could imagine her in some Monogram special, sizing up Lawrence Tierney. She might have been an innocent high school girl just a few years before, but life on the streets of Los Angeles toughened her up nicely.

An image like this probably accounts for at least some of the continuing interest in her murder. The “little death” of sex joined with something larger and darker.

Every few years, there will be a book published that supposedly solves the case and reveals the murderer. Nearly everyone who was ever associated with Short has been made a suspect. Probably the strangest one was, “Black Dahlia Avenger: The True Story,” written by Steve Hodel, a former LAPD detective, who takes an almost perverse pride in fingering his own father, George Hodel, a physician with artistic pretensions, as the killer. Hodel found a small photographic album belonging to his father that contained two portraits of an unknown, dark-haired young woman. He thought that they bore a surprising resemblance to Elizabeth Short. I’ve looked at them and would have to disagree. They could be anyone, but that anyone was not her.

His imagination piqued, however, he looked into his father’s life and that there was all but hidden, rather unsavory side to it. George Hodel had a dilettante’s interest in art, which brought him into contact with “models,” which is to say, young woman willing to take their clothes off for and maybe go a little further for a price. Elizabeth Short may have been among them. Hodel was also involved in esoteric groups like the Ordo Templi Orientis, which sought spiritual enlightenment through sexual techniques, which again suggests that he was a man with unusual tastes. But a murderer? The case his son makes against him really amounts to showing that it wasn’t impossible.

George Hodel was actually on the LAPD’s list of suspects in the Black Dahlia murder case, but whether they had any real intention of pinning the crime on him or were simply using him as a diversion is probably best explained in Piu Eatwell’s 20017 book, “Black Dahlia, Red Rose.” Eatwell shows that Short was associated off and on with a well-connected night club owner, Mark Hansen. Hansen’s night club was successful but would have been worthwhile even if it hadn’t been, for its profitable sidelines in narcotics and prostitution. Like many in the LA underworld involved in such enterprises, Hansen paid off friends in the LAPD to stay in operation.

6:52 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Dan Mercer:

Eatwell surmises that Short got a little pushy with Hansen, who told one of his underlings, a sicko called Leslie Dillon, to get rid of her. Dillon took him literally and decided to combine business with pleasure. He took Short to the Aster Motel, a place where other Hansen clients would go on assignations. The morning her body was discovered in a vacant lot, the staff of the motel found that one of the rooms looked as though it had been made into an abattoir. The bed, the floor, the bathroom, and the bathtub were covered in blood and fecal matter. The walls were splattered with it. They didn’t report it to the police, but word got around that the woman looked like Short and the man like Leslie Dillon.

This made a real problem for the LAPD. Since Mark Hansen was a client, they couldn’t have an investigation leading back to him without having their entire vice and graft operation uncovered. The case was sensational and there was intense public interest about it. In the meantime, the LAPD stalled, drawing up a list of possible suspects that was not implausible on the face of it, except to those who knew who really did it and why. George Hodel was on that list, also a number of others, many of whom would also become the subject of books revealing their guilt. No one was charged, of course. Eventually, a grand jury was called as part of a movement to clean up the police department. By then, however, the only trails left to explore went nowhere.

Steve Hodel has his own blog. Recently, he published some remarkable color footage taken on Hollywood Boulevard on August 15, 1945, VJ Day:

It is crystal clear and presents a fascinating glimpse of the U.S. on that day, as people celebrated the end of World War II. Hodel offers it, though, because he claims that it contains the only known film of Elizabeth Short. The young brunette he’s referring does look like her, yet people who have traced her movements at that time say that she was somewhere else when the film was taken. Still, the film is worth seeing for its own intrinsic interest.

6:52 PM  

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