Filled with super-slick visuals and impeccable compositions, this big-budget thriller looks better with each passing year. While the 90's action movies of Cameron, Spielberg, Donner, Harlin, the Wachowskis and the Scotts have started to lose their shine, De Palma's exercise in mainstream mayhem ages like fine wine (or maybe just good grape juice).
It's all about style, of course. Gloriously wide compositions, extreme close ups, canted angles, split-diopters, whip-pans, point of view shots and four slick set pieces...watching this film is like attending a masterclass in camera movement.
De Palma's not just good with surfaces, he's obsessed with them. Villains are dressed in 1950's PI/spy coats, the heist scenes outdo Dassin's "Riffi" and Melville's "Bob The Gambler", the film is shot in luxurious black and whites and all the while De Palma's camera glides from one perfect composition to the next. To get this kind of fluid camera work, this seamlessness, you'd have to turn to Pixar and their virtual cameras.
Of course, the irony is that for a director so obsessed with achieving perfect images, De Palma is constantly reminding us how fallible images are. All his tics and themes are here, albeit in a condensed fashion: truth needing to be reassembled, the unreliability of the image, the camera that lies, voyeurs (the first shot is a close up of a digital screen), conspiracies, false identities, doppelgangers, the need to reconstruct the film's opening murder etc.
The only thing missing are some operatic sex scenes, which were actually filmed but deleted when producer Tom Cruise, not wanting to chase away the teen audience, had all romantic scenes with super-lush French actress Emmanuelle Béart removed.
Author James Ellroy (sometimes he feels like the only other person on the planet who actually loves De Palma's "Black Dahlia") perfectly describes De Palma's style when commenting on the director's adaptation of his novel: "De Palma's films circumscribe worlds of obsession. They are rigorously and suffocatingly formed. No outer world exists during their time frame. Colors flare oddly. Movement arrests you. You forfeit control and see only what he wants you to see. He manipulates you in the sole name of passion. He understands relinquishment. The film-goer needs to succumb. His films are authoritative. He controls response firmly. His hold tightens as his stories veer into chaos. He stands and falls, coheres and decoheres, succeeds and errs behind passion. He was the ideal artist to film The Black Dahlia."
Later he says: "Bucky Bleichert is a fictional cop and a doppelganger/writer-filmmaker. He's the man writing out the great adventure of his life and the voyeur viewing sex with a camera. Bleichert is me. Bleichert is De Palma. He's standing outside momentous events. He's lost in scrutiny. He wants to control. He wants to capitulate. His inner life is near chaotic. He needs to impose external order to countermand his mental state. It's Homicide Investigation as Art. He needs to take malignancy and render it something his own."
And then: "The Black Dahlia spins off the axis of De Palma and Hartnett. It's a three-mode constellation: thriller/noir/historical romance. The design is near-German Expressionist. It's L.A./it's not L.A./it's L.A. seen by Dahlia fiends in extremis. The film commands you to savour every scene and revel in your visual entrapment. This textual richness symbolises the Dahlia's hold on us. We can never look away. She won't let us."
8/10 – While "Casualties of War's" camera shifted stance with each vertical plane (underground, plateau, hill, bridge), here De Palma's camera changes stance when we jump from Prague to London to the Channel Crossing that links them. Complaints about silly plots and actors are valid but inconsequential. This is about De Palma's camera, Tom Cruise a prop that need only turn up and look appropriately intense.
Worth three viewings.
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