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To live and die in L.A.

Two films revisit famous Hollywood deaths


Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart play young LAPD detectives; Scarlett Johansson is a cop's wife in The Black Dahlia. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MERRICK MORTON/UNIVERSAL PICTURES

In the decade or so since movie companies became narrow-focused on releasing their serious, adult titles in the prime Oscar-campaign months of November and December, the issuing of such films in September has become less and less frequent. Yet it's still held in reserve by some studios as a counter-strategy meant to give an edge to movies that, because they lack immediate come-ons like big stars, are thought to benefit from the seasonal head start and relative lack of competition that September affords.

One of the notable cases where this strategy worked like the proverbial charm was Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential, a dark, moody period noir that impressed many critics (not including this one) sufficiently that its fortunes steadily snowballed through the autumn of 1997, producing a nice harvest of prizes and Oscar nominations at year's end.

I assume that the L.A. Confidential example explains not only why Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia and Allen Coulter's Hollywoodland are reaching us in September, but also why they exist at all. Put simply, Hollywood doesn't make expensive, plot-driven period crime dramas like these anymore unless they star Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp. Yet someone somewhere put up the money for these movies, and you can be sure that chief among the sales pitches for both films was "Think of L.A. Confidential!"

If only. The sad thing about these two films is that so much obvious talent, care and money were expended on results that are beautifully crafted but dramatically clotted and sometimes gratingly tedious. The weird thing about them is that they are so similar. Like freak show twins, they could be wearing signs emblazoned "Bastard Sons of L.A. Confidential!"

Both movies are "true crime" detective stories that play off the intersection of lurid depravity and Tinseltown glamour while making maximum use of the lush atmospherics of Los Angeles in the period after World War II. The Black Dahlia concerns the infamous (and still unsolved) 1947 murder/dismemberment of an aspiring starlet dubbed "the Black Dahlia." Hollywoodland centers on the alleged (crucial word!) 1959 suicide of George Reeves, star of the '50s TV show Superman.

While starting from actual deaths, the movies surround them with fictional elaboration, and a common problem is that each film features two male characters who don't connect with each other in dramatically satisfying ways. In Hollywoodland, the men are Reeves (Ben Affleck), who dies--à la Sunset Boulevard--as the movie begins, and private eye Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), who investigates the death as well as Reeves' troubled life, which we see in flashbacks.

Using two intercut stories is a familiar and not intrinsically off-putting device, of course. Yet there's still a yearning for the two protagonists to somehow intersect and shed light on each other's travails, and the fact that his very premise denies this to screenwriter Paul Bernbaum adds up to an almost subliminal but very real frustration for viewers. It's like watching two separate movies that promise to deliver a common payoff, but can't.

In The Black Dahlia, the leads are a pair of young LAPD detectives, Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). The two are erstwhile prizefighters, and the movie spends considerable time not only setting up their friendship but establishing a potential romantic triangle involving them and Blanchard's bottle-blonde wife (Scarlett Johansson). However, once the Black Dahlia's murder comes along--it takes well over a half-hour--the romantic element begins to fizzle, and Blanchard goes off on a solitary tangent that increasingly separates him from Bucky, both emotionally and dramatically. Again, it's as if the characters inhabit two separate movies.

Interestingly enough, the films' female roles occasion their most nuanced and compelling performances. In The Black Dahlia, alongside Johansson's sleek but unremarkable turn as a lightweight Lana Turner type, Hilary Swank provides both mystery and dramatic heft as a rich, bisexual beauty who bears an important physical resemblance to the dead Dahlia (Mia Kirshner), a character we see only in film clips from her brief stint as a would-be actress. In Hollywoodland, the standout performance comes from the redoubtable Diane Lane as a studio chief's unhappy wife, who makes George Reeves her kept man.

On the surface, these movies' essential problem is one common to films that derive from or imitate detective fiction: Their plots are so complicated they end up getting cumbersome, confusing and, finally, stultifying. In the famous story about Howard Hawks' production of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1945), the filmmakers ended up so flummoxed by the plot that they called up the novelist to ask "Who killed the chauffeur?" And Chandler admitted: "I don't know." Yet the punch line is that, with Bogie and Bacall in the leads and Hawks at the helm, the movie proved so expertly entertaining that neither audiences nor critics cared about the story's puzzlements.

That's unfortunately not the case with either of these films, which come up short not only in star turns but in directorial vision as well. Hollywoodland's Coulter is a veteran of The Sopranos, and his work here typifies that background; it's faultlessly tasteful and expert in its neo-noir stylistics, yet it lacks any element of surprise or originality.

Somewhat strangely, De Palma's efforts in The Black Dahlia exhibit a similar uninflected competence. The object of a rabid following that apparently grew out of the cult surrounding the late critic Pauline Kael, one of his early champions, De Palma typically dazzles his acolytes with florid action set pieces like those which stud Dressed to Kill, The Untouchables and Femme Fatale. Alas, De Palma devotees and their opposites, people who dislike the director's mannered showiness and wish he'd just serve the plot, are both likely to be disappointed by The Black Dahlia, which, aside from one characteristic set piece (it takes place on a Hitchcockian staircase), has a just-tell-the-story straightforwardness that's at once entirely appropriate and intrinsically unexciting.

Scarlett Johansson does a "sleek but unremarkable turn" as a lightweight Lana Turner type in The Black Dahlia. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MERRICK MORTON/UNIVERSAL PICTURES

Arguably, another level of vexation in these new films is signaled by the word that curiously connects them: "Hollywoodland." While Hollywoodland simply borrows the name as its title with no explanation, The Black Dahlia uses it as a crucial plot element, and reminds us that it signified a 1920s real-estate development involving Mack Sennett that supplied the Los Angeles skyline with its famous "Hollywood" sign, which for decades had a fourth syllable. (In De Palma's film the "land" is still there, though in reality it was removed in 1945.)

What the name signifies--especially to those who know its provenance--is not only the bright aura of Hollywood but its troubling dark side, too. By now, of course, this is an essential American myth, and it explains why the genre of crime fiction that concerns Los Angeles--rather than simply being set there--differs from that of any other city.

From early on, writers were fascinated by the jarring contrasts the City of Angels offered: the pristine physical beauty jostling against the seediness of the entertainment business and the area's civic corruption, the fervent (and seemingly innocent) dreams symbolized by early Hollywood colliding with the damaged lives of the many innocents (actors, representing audiences) whose belief in the dream ended in tawdriness or tragedy.

The myth, in short, paints Hollywood--and everything about America's celebrity culture that it represents--as a false religion, with the mortal decay of corpses standing for a deep and irredeemable spiritual corruption: a death without salvation. Writers were the natural propagators of this vision, so many of them having been lured to Hollywood with the promise of wealth only to end up in a toxic golden cage. That, no doubt, explains not only why writers are at the heart of so many of these fictions, and why novelists made detectives their literary alter egos in others, but also why the probing, accusatory moral visions of both writers and detectives were so readily transferred to (or assumed by) film directors, "private eyes" with a similar agenda.

Like so much else in the movies, this trend reached an apex of sorts in the 1970s. I will leave it to you whether the last great L.A. detective movie was Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973) or Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), but for me, L.A. Confidential was only a dim reflection of those earlier masterpieces.

The Black Dahlia, which was scripted by Josh Friedman, comes from a book by James Ellroy, the highly regarded crime writer who penned L.A. Confidential and who traces his obsession with gruesomely dispatched females back to the murder of his mother in another book, My Dark Places. Watching The Black Dahlia, I was reminded how similar De Palma's obsessions are. De Palma's key films all seem like mantic meditations on an irrecoverable loss, often symbolized by a murdered woman.

The conjunction of Ellroy and De Palma, then, would seem to offer the recipe for another great L.A. detective movie. As to why it doesn't, consider a single, symbolic fact: The movie was mostly filmed in Bulgaria. The distance between the "scene of the crime" in cinema and in reality couldn't be more telling. Immersed in celebrity culture and reality TV, Americans today, no doubt, have little use for the cautionary gist of such movies. Hollywood studios have scant interest in financing them. And moviemakers, perhaps unsurprisingly, seem to have lost the knack for infusing them with originality, conviction and urgency.

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