September 14th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

While you're waiting for Sin City 2?

Between now and when the next movie I'm sure I'm looking forward to seeing comes out (All the King's Men on the 22nd), there's a movie coming out that I'm deeply ambivalent about. This could really suck. This could really rock, tide all of us who loved the Sin City movie over until Angeline Jolie comes off of maternity leave and they actually shoot the sequel.* Or it could fall anywhere along that continuum. So I'm sort of remaining aloof, and watching with interest for reviews before I make up my mind.

The movie in question is The Black Dahlia, opening on the 15th. When Sin City hit the screens, you might remember that I gave a long list of capsule reviews of books I like that were clearly the inspiration for Miller's Sin City, or that drew from the same well of inspiration. Near the bottom of that list was my recommendation of the first two-thirds of James Elroy's Los Angeles trilogy, The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential. What I said then was that you might want to look these up, after reading the other couple of dozen books I recommended, "if you can't get enough of this kind of stuff." That's a pretty tepid recommendation for a book I actually liked, I know. Unlike virtually every thing else on that list, though, I probably never will bother to re-read The Black Dahlia. I said at the time that the movie version of the middle book, L.A. Confidential, was better than the book, and it was. For one thing, it had some truly amazingly good acting, and having all six leads turn in Oscar-quality workmanship does a great job of breathing life into a book. But the other thing that made it even better was that it trimmed an awful lot of fat out of the book. Elroy loves period details, and he loves complicated plots. For example, the conflict between the LA city mafia and the suburban county mafia is fundamental to the plot of all three books, and a good read, but I really don't blame Curtis Hanson for leaving it out. He also had his screenwriting team trim out a lot of the red herrings. Most challengingly, they also took a minor character in the book, inflated him into a lead character, and wrote a whole new framing story to tie together the three main subplots that were kept ... and did a great job of it. But frankly, I'm not sure how watchable L.A. Confidential the movie would have been if they hadn't done all of those things right.

Curtis Hanson didn't make The Black Dahlia. Instead, the movie rights went to Brian De Palma. This will come as great news to some of you, as people who love gritty, hard-boiled, men's-adventure, tough-guy crime movies tend to love his work. I view the news with mild alarm, myself. For one thing, why break up a winning team, when the first one made money hand over fist and won almost every award it was qualified for? But the truth is, the other reason is that the few Brian De Palma films I've seen mostly didn't do anything for me. They felt squeezed dry and dumbed down. Which, unfortunately, is also my opinion of a lot of attempts to bring hard-boiled detective fiction to film, and which is why I'm really waiting to hear what the buzz is on this one before I even gamble on matinée priced tickets.

What's it about? It's about one of the most baffling and notorious and legendary unsolved homicides in American history. In January 1947, an unsuccessful actress-wannabe named Elizabeth "Beth" Short was found dumped in the dirt on an abandoned lot in Los Angeles. There haven't been many finds more gruesome; the victim had been tortured, murdered, drained of blood, and then literally cut in two. Unfortunately, even by the standards of 1947 police work the crime scene was a mess -- journalists got there before the scene could be properly secured, and churned the mud pretty badly to get photographs that, let's face it, no newspaper then or now was going to run. For no overwhelmingly good reason than that she had black hair, was found at night, and they didn't initially know her name, one of the newspapers initially nicknamed the corpse "Black Dahlia," and it stuck. Because there was a huge hue and cry over this grisly killing, the cops were under intense pressure to solve this one. That they didn't, that they didn't even manage to frame anybody for it, has made it a popular subject of conspiracy theories involving LA old money families, Hollywood, the mafia, one or more churches, and of course the city and/or county cops. James Elroy's book is an entirely fictionalized account of one unhealthily obsessed cop's attempt to get justice for the Black Dahlia, and the lengths he goes to get to that justice in the most famously corrupt city in American history, 1940s Los Angeles.

* Footnote: Oh, you hadn't heard? According to the usual rumor sites and new rags, Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For and Sin City 3: Hell and Back have both been been green-lighted, with forecasted releases in 2007 and 2008. We'll see if Rodriguez can keep the quality high for two more. That he's alleged to be waiting on Angelina Jolie's availability so she can play the female lead doesn't encourage me, not if the part requires her to have any facial expression other than a bored sneer.
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