The Black Dahlia
A slovenly hodgepodge of deliriously over-churned, gluttonous style as a commentary on the golden-hued artifice of the Hollywood noir in the modern age, The Black Dahlia is a stylistic Pavarotti with a baroque sensibility that is by turns deconstructive and viciously parodic. Like LA Confidential histrionically emboldened to Byzantine extremes of melodramatic gaudiness, The Black Dahlia never feigns an attempt to hide its pungent, borderline psychotic artifice. The fallout of such a decision? A film ricocheting wildly and with woolly abandon between rhapsody and pornography, from deconstructive elegance to ham-fisted, ungainly incompetence. In De Palma’s vision, frankly, the two may be one in the same.
Much like De Palma’s earlier reflexive, disorientingly troublesome Hitchcock riffs that tacitly suggested how abusive and low-brow Hitch really is (terms applied in the most glowingly positive hues, obviously), The Black Dahlia is a grotesquely bellicose noir with a pompous style that cannily, cunningly wonders aloud if the film noir is anything more than a great big pageant-show of a genre. This film is pistol-whipped by its drunken style, accentuating odd, pointless camera cants and inebriated, toxic cuts in a rogues’ gallery of irksome, jaundiced, often predatory style that is more a conundrum than anything else. It’s a pretty fascinating conundrum, but your mileage to wade through the film’s gaudiness, more like a Euro-trash noir theme party than anything else, may vary.
The obvious solution is to suggest that the style muffles the narrative, which is true but incomplete, and just maybe beside the point. The waxy, phony performances and the gauzy soap-opera lighting feel both like a near-surrealist extension of the noir and an interrogation of it, rescinding the offer of just about every carbon-dated noir cliché you can imagine (something the film accomplishes, paradoxically, by pushing every cliché to cartoonish heights until they become near-impossible to accept at face value). The nadir, or apex if you want, is Josh Hartnett’s ruthlessly incompetent performance, recalling the wooden, near-comatose blur of Keanu Reeves’ loopy phonetic readings in Coppola’s deranged, fairly brilliant Grand Guignol Dracula; it feels like a critique of the film noir genre more than a failure within it, rekindling the fire of Stanley Kubrick’s old interrogations of anti-acting.
Of course, The Black Dahlia doesn’t come easy. There may not be a way to punch yourself out of the tangled web of bags here without auteur theory as your trusty bat, and it doesn’t do well to assume an argument about a film simply because its director has gone to the deconstructionist well before. It’s with this knowledge that The Black Dahlia’s success as an almost anti-art object is tentative and more difficult to muster unmitigated support for, relative to say the intravenous Hitchcock injection Sisters or the gallantly kaleidoscopic Phantom of the Paradise, an exercise in crushing the disco era with its own bon vivant excess.
In comparison, The Black Dahlia weaponizes the often obvious nihilism of the film noir against itself, turning it into a performance art piece with every point of ingress carefully and meticulously walling itself off from an audience that wants to enjoy it. It feels hostile, subsuming itself into a pool of artifice that is as often fascinating as intolerable and obnoxious, but the ambition is certainly there. Besides, it’s not all an auteur’s one-man-party anyway. Vilmos Zsigmond and Dante Ferretti, only among the greatest cinematographers and production designers ever to violate the medium, are on hand, and they both ornament a foreclosed physical set that tacitly germinates an aura of extreme, self-conscious artifice. It’s cruel, excoriating, and nearly unforgiving in its dismissal of the audience’s infatuation with a genre that the film more or less envisions as an inescapable mental façade, a hoosegow for people – both characters and audience members – just waiting around to die.
3:10 to Yuma
While there’s certainly a strain of argument that remaking a half-century old film is more valuable than remaking a film of more recent vintage, James Mangold’s sturdy and studious 3:10 To Yuma isn’t especially invested in justifying the case beyond well-sculpted regurgitation. Mangold is inescapably good at what he does, even though what he chooses to do is more maintenance than art. That’s probably for the best; there are precious few craftspersons in the film world today, with most adult-minded films equating adult with “content-driven meaning or moral” rather than formal rigor. But there’s always room for good old respectable, unpretentious B-tier craft, and 3:10 to Yuma is, roughly speaking, the platonic ideal of a B.
Mostly recreating the two-character interplay of the original, the soul of the film is ex-Union soldier and rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a man haunted by his inability to prove his virility and his lack of take-charge demeanor toward his son. Inflicted with this concern, Evans discovers an out in escorting Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), a criminal set for a prison trip courtesy of the 3:10 to Yuma train. Wade, for his part, secretly envisions a more laconic life freed from his roguish charisma, a life not unlike the reticent Evans’ existence. Or, at least, the film intimates that the dueling personalities mask secretive desires for each man to belong in each other’s shoes, a train of thought the film is quick to censor with the arrival of the slam-bang finale, the point where a rather liberal application of hot-headed gun-fired lead takes charge over logic or human reason.
3:10 isn’t really a nefariously inquisitive motion picture, or a deep one at all; the sense of thematic longing for another life is almost exclusively entombed in Bale’s reflective, pensive eyes and his suffocated gait, as though the weight of failed fatherhood and society’s all-encompassing need to masculinize is constantly threatening his well-being. But, elsewhere, especially in the ending, the film chooses to accept, unthreatened, this strain of masculinity and ultimately affirm the violence-first credo of manhood that the Western genre has since Ford used as both center and critique of center, as imperious crux and salt to spread on the open wound of pseudo-enlightened American individualism. The most self-questioning early Westerns – John Ford’s The Searchers typically taken as the acme of the form before its revisionist days – were both enlivened and haunted by their violence, palpably torn apart by their inability to reconcile the tensions in their governing ideologies. They were willing, however, to let the blind spots of their ideologies reveal themselves to the public in self-critical gestures, even when they didn’t quite overturn those very ideologies.
In comparison, 3:10 to Yuma is a mild film, less reflective than it pretends to be, but sufficiently rip-roaring as a more primordial thriller where the Old West is less a moral bushfire than a playground for brutality. The existential questions of male identity never escape from the shoot-first-question-later assumptions they ostensibly question. Nor do the film’s thematic gestures ever actually inform the visual form of the film, a la a true work of art. This film eschews both the rapturous majesty of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and the grim-spattered, phantom-wraith moral wrecking crew of No Country for Old Men, both from the same year as Yuma.
Instead, this film’s selfhood is defined by a tactile, blunt efficiency that is both the film’s blessing and its curse. Befitting the sort of undeniably solid but semi-commonplace craft Mangold slid into woks like Cop Land and The Wolverine, 3:10 to Yuma is a serviceable, get-in-and-get-out slice of all-American Western efficiency buttressed by the nuts-and-bolts tightened-screws of a carpenter filmmaker. Unencumbered by the rhapsodic personal formal touches that can kindle a film into a great work or curdle it into an ungainly beast, Yuma is lacking any distinctions for the negative, like gangland style moral-handwringing, or the positive, like painterly provocation. Instead, in a surprisingly rarefied company, it’s content to be pretty much just plain fine.
The Bank Job
The Bank Job is more-or-less the easiest film in the world to review: modest, sturdy, reasonably raffish, with a voice of gravel and a body like concrete, it is the platonic ideal of its star, Jason Statham, epitomized in celluloid form. Which is ironic, since its ‘70s cinema spirit of violently competent genre entertainment for adults sans action movie niceties or auteurist eccentricities is a far-flung vision from most of Statham’s brutish, stomach-punching affairs that eschew the grizzled purity of watching Statham do what he does best – stand and stare – for flourishes of kill ‘em all derring-do that mostly just detract from the glowering intensity of the man himself. With so many modern heist/caper films embodying the glitzy, manic mode of Guy Ritchie’s cinematic oeuvre (ironically the director who gave Statham his first mainstream role), the thuggish, punchy, stocky The Bank Job is a refreshingly no-frills change of pace.
It’s all in the title, basically. No ingratiating audience appeals, no watch-me-fly flickers of appended energy, no over-edited narrative hiccups or shifts of pace; this film is lean, mean, efficiently dirty, and not especially concerned with accomplishing, or even attempting, anything outside of its in-and-out wheelhouse. A pugnacious brute force charisma and straightforward glare, seldom side-tracked into tangents or extraneous material, is the animating principle of this piston-like minor achievement of implacable but understated craft.
The actual story is functional, if nothing more: shady car salesman Terry (Statham) and a motley crew of reticent types burrow into the innards of a vault underneath a bank, ushered on by femme fatale Martine, played by Saffron Burrows, and some sharp, pummeling John Gilbert editing. Her secret hope is to retrieve invidious material on the vices of local politicians, and, if that wasn’t enough, Michael X (Peter de Jersey) is thrown in the ring for good measure. Or bad measure. A real-life local black power mover who some scholars have censured by intimating his real identity was as a drug pusher, his character is the film’s lone misstep, with the film preferring to take the critics’ word for it and imply his villainy while avoiding the political implications of his quest and the near-surrealist adventures of his raffish career among other counter-culture types.
That kerfuffle in Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’ screenplay aside, Roger Donaldson’s jazzy-but-not-showy direction is admirably free of kinks. It’s a little cinematic mechanics 101, to be sure, but the stern commitment to forward momentum avoids falling into the doldrums of timidity on the back of its sheer, if minimal, note-perfection as an object of almost blissful craft with just enough panache to feel more artisanal than Ford Assembly-lined. Hell, it even manages to survive the artistic numbing-fluid of being based on a true story.