So here I thought I was all caught up on the Netflix reports, but it turns out I was wrong. Last night I picked up the sticky note that Son #2 left on my computer (for the purpose of throwing it away), and realized that I’d forgotten to write about “The Black Dahlia,” directed by Brian DePalma and starring Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart and Scarlett Johannson.
The movie is based on the James Ellroy novel, and before I go any further I need to note that Ellroy’s “The Black Dahlia” and “L.A Confidential” are two of my all-time favorite novels. “L.A. Confidential” is a perfect 10, and “Black Dahlia” is close – somewhere between 9 and 9.5. They’re both part of Ellroy’s “L.A. Quartet” (the other two being “The Big Nowhere” and “White Jazz”), and they share the same sensibilities – the stories they tell are dark, gritty and violent, and they focus on the least attractive parts of the human condition. What they also have in common is a story that spans several decades. There are secrets at play in each book – dark, twisted secrets – and part of the joy in reading each novel is seeing how those secrets unveil themselves, like a flower that has just been bathed in sunlight. I remember actually getting goose bumps when I was reading the last section of “L.A. Confidential,” because Ellroy’s writing and plotting was so brilliant.
Because of the scope and intricacy of each book’s plot, neither one was ideal for adaptation to the big screen. And as an aside, Ellroy is notoriously fussy about his books being turned into movies; I remember asking him at a late 1980s book signing what he thought of “Cop,” the film starring James Woods that had been adapted from Ellroy’s “Blood on the Moon.” “It sucked!” he bellowed, adding “they only filmed half of my book!” The challenge with “Dahlia” and “Confidential” is that it to fully capture the books’ scope, each film would have to have been at least four hours long. But Curtis Hanson (the director of “Confidential”) and Brian DePalma each gave it a shot, and for that we should be grateful.
“L.A. Confidential,” even though it omitted a major portion of the book, was an unqualified success – a great movie that will stand the test of time, and only get better with age (the result, it should be added, was fully endorsed by Ellroy). Unfortunately “The Black Dahlia,” which is forced to compress its story in a similar fashion, completely misses the mark in terms of capturing the spirit of Ellroy’s book. It’s not a bad movie per se, and it’s definitely a pretty movie to look at. But where “Confidential” captured the grittiness and the violence of Ellroy’s work, “Dahlia” comes across as a mere facsimile. Part of the problem is that the movie is too pretty to look at. Even the scenes of violence, such as those where the two main characters are beating each other’s brains out in the middle of a boxing ring, don’t feel entirely authentic.
Another problem is with the performances. It’s hard to remember now that when “L.A. Confidential” came out, no one had heard of Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce. Both are magnificent in the movie, and almost as good are Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger, James Cromwell, and David Strathairn. By comparison, “Black Dahlia” stands no chance. Both Aaron Eckhart and Scarlett Johannson have been wonderful in other roles, but here they’re merely adequate. Josh Hartnett does his best, but he doesn’t quite have the gravitas to pull off a role like this.
In short? Well made, but ultimately disappointing. And it certainly won’t make anyone forget the book.