De Palma, Late and Early

The Black Dahlia: adapted by Josh Friedman from the novel by James Ellroy; directed by Brian DePalma; starring Josh Hartnett (Bucky Bleichert), Scarlett Johansson (Kay), Aaron Eckhart (Lee Blachard), Hilary Swank (Madeleine Linscott), and Mia Kirshner (Elizabeth Short) (2006): Apparently, postmodern crime-fiction writer James Ellroy, who wrote the novel this movie was based upon, really liked the 3-hour cut director Brian De Palma showed him. Unfortunately, the studio subsequently trimmed the movie by a full hour. What’s left, Ellroy wouldn’t comment upon.

Based on a real-life unsolved Hollywood murder mystery of the 1940’s, The Black Dahlia looks great and contains solid performances by everyone involved, though Scarlett Johannson sounds way, way too modern for a period picture. De Palma gets in some of his signature camera movement, most notably in a long POV shot at a dinner party. But he’s not overtly showy — the more involved pans and tracking shots all serve the story, and there’s a great, lengthy bit involving the discovery of the murdered, partially dismembered body of Elizabeth Short, the so-called ‘Black Dahlia.’

What seems to have been cut are most of the scenes involving actual detection, along with at least a couple scenes fleshing out Detective Bleichert’s growing obsession with the case. His partner, played by Aaron Eckhart, does become obsessed — but Bleichert’s later obsession seems to occur off-screen. And the revelation of the killer or killers falls somewhat flat, given that scenes introducing and explaining the role of that character seem to have been cut from earlier in the movie.

So instead we’re left with a weirdly off-balance detective film more focused on the love triangle between Hartnett and Eckhart’s detectives and Johannson as Eckhart’s live-in love interest. The mystery comes and goes. In attempting to trim the multiple plot lines of a novel, the studio chose the wrong ones to trim. Lightly recommended.

Carrie: adapted by Lawrence D. Cohen from the novel by Stephen King; directed by Brian De Palma; starring Sissy Spacek (Carrie White), Piper Laurie (Margaret White), Amy Irving (Sue Snell), William Katt (Tommy Ross), John Travolta (Billy Nolan), Nancy Allen (Chris Hargensen), and Betty Buckley (Miss Collins) (1976): Wow, is there a lot of female nudity in Carrie. I’m pretty sure there won’t be in the remake because in many ways Hollywood (and America) is far more prudish now than in 1976, at least when it comes to mass-market film releases. Nudity needs to stay in hardcore, niche pornography, where God intended it to be!

One of the quintessential movies about high-school alienation and bullying, Carrie is really cut to the bone from the novel. We see scenes of Carrie’s traumatization by fellow high-school students and by her Jesus-Freak mother (played with eye-popping, scenery-chewing gusto by Piper Laurie). Then things seem to get better. Then all Hell breaks loose because some bullies never seem to know when to stop.

It all works, pretty much, and only the red filter for some of the concluding scenes comes across as dated in terms of actual film-making (as it does in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver from the same year). And there’s a real, chilling, accumulating horror to the scene directly before the fireworks start at the end, as the camera circles around a fairy-tale ending lurching inevitably towards horror. The editing in these concluding scenes is top-notch. De Palma could give good montage when he wanted to.

What of Carrie? Sissy Spacek is way too pretty for the novel’s version of Carrie, and with Chloe Moretz playing her in the (second) remake, this doesn’t seem like a trope that’s going to change any time soon. In Hollywood, pretty people get bullied too because no one’s putting one of the less-pretty ones at the centre of a movie. So is the dominant ideology reinforced and reinscribed. Here endeth the lesson. Recommended.

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