by Roderick Conway Morris

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Two tributes to Raymond Chandler

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 1 September 2006


The premieres of 'The Black Dahlia' and 'Hollywoodland' were shown in competition on the first and second nights of the Venice Film Festival, putting them in virtual gladiatorial combat. Both are indebted to the great crime fiction writer Raymond Chandler, but with very different results.

Both are inspired by notorious Tinseltown deaths: the former of Betty Short, called 'The Black Dahlia' in a life-imitating-art tribute to Chandler's novel and screenplay for the 1946 film 'The Blue Dahlia,' and the latter of George Reeves, television's first Superman. Ever since news of these deaths broke, speculation as to what happened has abounded. Short was murdered and mutilated in 1947, and Reeves committed suicide (or did he?) in 1959.

Brian De Palma's 'The Black Dahlia' is based on the eponymous novel by James Ellroy. With 'Hollywoodland' Allen Coulter, the producer and sometime director of such television hits as 'The Sopranos' and 'Sex and the City,' is making his full-length feature debut, with an original screenplay by Paul Bernbaum.

'The Black Dahlia' revolves around two cops, Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), former boxers who find themselves working together on a Los Angeles homicide squad and caught in a love triangle with a blonde with a rickety past (Scarlett Johansson). The discovery of Betty's body triggers a series of events that are soon running out of control, aided by the intervention of the sex-hungry femme fatale Madeleine Linscott (smokily interpreted by Hilary Swank).

As narrator and moral lodestone, Bleichert, is clearly (as Ellroy himself has said) founded on the Philip Marlow of Chandler's novels. Ellroy also draws on the master's repertory of femmes fatales, hoodlums, drug addicts, blackmailers, corrupt cops, and rich but dotty old men and women with troubled children. The plot is indebted to Chandleresque narrative devices, but sometimes moves at a manic pace.

The period detail - the clothes, the cars, the interiors - in the film are lavish almost to the point of being overwhelming. A roller-coaster ride of a film, full of twists and turns, and ambitious in its cinematography - but withrather revolting special effects violence - this example of technicolor noir ultimately lacks the necessary chiaroscuro when it comes to the depiction of character and motivation.

'Hollywoodland' appears less slick, but is a great deal more open-ended and subtle. It captures a past era, without making a fetish of it, giving the actors more space to, well, act. George Reeves, stylishly played by Ben Affleck, is a charming, likable, handsome actor whose career has run into the sand. He encounters Toni Mannix (an electric performance by Diane Lane), the older, spirited and still beautiful - but at the same time indulged and neglected - wife of a movie mogul, with whom he starts an affair. Reluctantly, Reeves accepts the role of Superman, which after a shaky start on the emerging medium of television becomes a huge success. But while children adore the show, his identification with the role destroys his chances of being taken seriously in mainstream cinema. Yet he is a great deal more successful than most actors, and it is inexplicable to all who know him when he is found shot to death in his bedroom.

The Los Angeles police declare it an open-and-shut case of suicide, but Reeve's mother refuses to accept the verdict. The studios and networks, obsessed with crushing the least whiff of scandal, want to bury the case. In the end, the only person prepared to take it on is Louis Simo, a down-at-heel, divorced shamus (played with nervy panache by Adrien Brody).

This gaunt investigator turns out to be more complex than first appears. His suspicions of a cover-up are fueled by the obstructions he meets at every turn. As Louis digs deeper the suspense builds, and the viewer is shown his surprising sense of purpose and integrity - characteristics that also threaten tolead him to a sticky end.

From the briefly glimpsed cocktail bars and restaurants of the actual and aspiring movie elite to Hollywood's seedy apartments and nondescript suburbs, the era is evoked with convincing understatement. There's danger in the air, but clichés are deftly avoided. The femmes fatales don't necessarily dress the part or pack a 'Lady's Beretta' with their powder puffs, but they are capable of delivering plenty of grief.'Hollywoodland' is a genuine reinvention of Chandler's hero going down those mean streets, and a thought-provoking return to some of the writer's classic themes.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024