When did Brain De Palma stop being part of the conversation? Was it with a flop like FEMME FATALE/’02; or earlier, from the sour aftertaste of a hit like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE/’96? Certainly it was some time before this slick, but opaque murder mystery, a confusing sampler of bits from its betters (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL/’97; CHINATOWN/’74; even SUNSET BLVD/’50 & THE BIG SLEEP/’46). Oozing film noir manner, laid on with a trowel, it’s nearly an unwitting parody: craggy voiced narrator; cool jazz score; lying broads with bedroom eyes; desaturated palette; but the heart & soul of a pastiche ad for deodorant, with lenser Vilmos Zsigmond & production designer Dante Ferretti whoring out to earn their keep. After employing the L. A. Zoot Suit riots as a ‘fun’ opening, someone had the clever idea of using Paul Leni’s great silent THE MAN WHO LAUGHS/’28 as a visual key to the mystery. But no one knows when to stop stirring the pot till it becomes impossible to follow. At least the unaccountably awful perfs from good actors keep things interesting in a grim sort of way. De Palma can still run an action scene like no one’s business when he wants to, look at an early multi-POV shootout. But he’s just as likely to over-lard things with empty displays of technical virtuosity. It could scare you off sampling his earlier work.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/READ ALL ABOUT IT: DAHLIA is taken from a mess of a book by James Ellroy, who was much better served by Curtis Hanson on L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. While hardly his best work, probably his most adaptable title is HOLLYWOOD NOCTURNES, a story collection from ‘94, especially a section that riffs on the theme of post-war heroism using a little junky B-pic called DADDY-O/’58 as framework.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Pick any of the non-De Palma titles above. (If only someone would work up a better score for Leni’s marvelous silent. Calling Carl Davis!)