To say that Brian De Palma's film The Black Dahlia is all style and no substance is like saying water's all wet. The film is a virtual wet dream - whose thematic binary systems of fire and ice, body and no-body (or dismembered corpse), girl and girl, boy and good-girl, boy and bad-girl, cop and cop, voyeur and victim, are seamlessly sutured in to the filmic reverie with premeditated sadistic glee.
De Palma pries from the robbed grave of Hitchcock's body of work what he can - he is a master of the Oedipal drama and the trajectory that fingers the audience - our watching such visual excess is our culpability - we are the doers ourselves. The screeching crow on the cut-up corpse in the final scene of TBD is the spider in the skull at the end of Psycho - the unsaid shock image that is the last nail in the scopophiliac's coffin.
TBD is not a good movie. It may not even be a movie at all - in the traditional sense of having been written and structured to offer comfortable narrative pleasures, including dialogue and charaterization and reasonable climax to the mystery. But neither is it an art house creation - or for that matter a Tarantino grind-house concoction.
De Palma's gift is stranger than these offerings. He has managed to - on a seemingly large-budget - mount a stunningly lavish and rich mise-en-scene to recreate the mid-1940s, the key Film Noir scene (and moment of The Blue Dahlia too) - and then, like Dostoyevsky gambling at Baden-Baden, fritter all the wealth away on a mad spin of the wheel: in this instance, the sado-masochistic wheel of submission to the visual, and the desire to be watched.
TBD is a canny testing of the limits between cinema, the visible, and male sexual fantasy (the lipstick lesbianism is pseudo-pornographic and aimed mainly at the male gaze, though a curiously unmasked k.d. lang features - one wants to know where r.d laing is) - perhaps De Palma's slickest and most manipulative essay on such subjects so far. As such, it is better than Eyes Wide Shut and 18MM, which treated of similar themes; or, rather, it is worse. For TBD has no moral goal whatsoever - it is amoral, subliminal, polymorphously perverse cinema taken at the flood. Recall the last line, spoken by Scarlet Johannson (aka Kay Lake the blonde ex-working girl): "come inside". The Black Dahlia is a movie explicitly about penetration - about how far the eye can go, as well as other instruments.
The movie pivots on an investigation in to the brutal murder of a young woman (The Dahlia) who is cut in half and disembowelled, all her bodily fluids removed; she was an aspiring actress, and the handsome detectives working the case soon uncover reels that show her auditioning for unseen men. These reels reveal a beautiful young woman so eager to be in real pictures and become a star her submissive auditioning - kneeling, crawling and begging - sublimates her own self into a pure Hegelian struggle between the master and slave. The Dahlia is exposed by De Palma to our cruel gaze as if she is ours to own, to keep, to control - we are put in to the position of being the auditioner, who decides her fate. And, depending on one's tastes and ethics, this director's-chair-position will be repulsive, or a highly desirable, vantage to be in (or both).
Perhaps we should say, director's char - for the director has power over the bodies of the beautiful young men and women that bleed and pout and fornicate in this Hollywoodland of rotten timber and dimestore motives. De Palma locates the primal scene of unheimlich unease in the suburban, vacated and semi-charred remains of a house where stag films (and perhaps worse) were filmed with aspiring starlets and part-time lesbians, by off-duty film people from the Max Sennet sets (thus, comedy to tragedy).
Like a page from The Day of the Locust writ over with semen/blood, the sets once used for disposable silent films began to talk to the detective, whose phallic beam recognizes the same satin sheets, the same drapes, the same places where his victim was bound and used - thus, superimposing a celluloid tissue of unease over the glamorous sheen - the set of a movie is also where harm is done. This observation is not new - Mute Witness more grossly identified a film set as a crime scene as a porn nest - but De Palma here incorporates such images in to a larger canvas, one that includes most of Elroy's obsessions, and manages to work through ideas of corrupted insular families that refers also to The Big Sleep.
Mostly, the protagonist, played by a bland, perfectly handsome Josh Hartnett, is a shuttlecock, proxy to our gaze, who flits between the blond Lake, and the dark, sinewy "rich-bitch" played by Hilary Swank (her name never more glaringly apt). Sweeping aside all impediments to his lust, he eventually becomes pure masculine libido unrepressed by mores or law - able to have and kill the most desirable females in Los Angeles - one bodily-marked by both crime and a criminal (so that a cop and a pimp both have marred her) and the other the lithe souer-semblable of the Dahlia body itself.
Shadow and light, blonde and black, good and less good, branded and killed, and both easily possessed, these women replicate the desire that is unattainable - the madness-inducing desire to penetrate the already emptied vessel of the Dahlia herself - an image now only - and one that drives one cop to an insane verge, and the other to murder, and a corrupt if fecund bed.
One is reminded of the best line from any De Palma film (itself a revenant from the golden age of crime films) about polluted wombs. It is not so much that De Palma's cinema feeds off of a luscious, unacceptable misogyny (it does) as that it identifies (and alas revels in) the inherent bad-faith, the still-born corruption, that festers in the womb of all filmic creation: directors present dead images to desiring eyes, knowing full well where the real bodies are buried.
It is no surprise that the hardest-boiled egg of them all, Hemingway, once wrote Men Without Women - for the hard boiled genre, that Elroy has aimed to make his own, is predicated on just such a predicament: big men undone by women who are, indeed, fatal - in their absense as much as in their presence. But cinema presents the same tension - for the image is fatally absent at its very instant of presentation - so we can never more than behold that which we want to hold.
The audience is told look, don't touch. The touch of evil is that which tries to enter further in, the scopophile that trespasses on the lawn of the necrophile. It is no accident that in The Black Dahlia the murderer's spastic-disfigured-bespectacled (four-eyes, reminding us of the double vision of the film-watcher) accomplice (accomplice twice, please note) is described as a necrophiliac. De Palma has made a film that presents ultimate perversions as the basic cost of going to the movies.
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