Like all Ulu Grosbard’s films (a grand total of seven over four decades), this re-imagining of L.A.’s infamous ‘Black Dahlia’ murder is just somber enough to be taken as serious. The film, co-written by L.A.’s prestige underachievers John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion* has a double gimmick built into it. First: this telling positions the gruesome murder of a wannabe actress turned hooker into a scandal that rests inside the venal power structure of the Catholic Church/L.A. Diocese. (Lots of visual plums for location shooting; lots of opportunity for showy character acting under flowing robes.) Second: the leads reverse casting expectations with the hot-head detective role going to thoughtful/contained Robert Duvall; and his kid brother, the intensely interior Monseigneur, a man whose religious mission is all but usurped in his rise as power ‘fixer’ for the Church, taken by the usually explosive Robert De Niro. Denied his intimidating stare, his main acting tool for decades (now usually seen in parody), something goes dead for De Niro. (See THE LAST TYCOON/’76 or THE MISSION/’86 for further examples from the period.) Duvall is, of course, a more varied & generous artist; plus, he can take care of himself, even with contrived physical outbursts and Grosbard deadening every cue with contemplative pauses.* The younger actors also fall by the wayside, but old fogeys like Burgess Meredith & Cyril Cusack hold to their own rhythms and survive. You also get a chance to see those twin leprechauns Charles Durning & Kenneth McMillan in the same film. Helps to keep ‘em straight in your head.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The film, hyped as part of THE GODFATHER tradition (De Niro, Duvall, Catholicism) is really more Neo-Noir CHINATOWN/’74. Same for Brian De Palma’s unfortunate take on the case when he filmed James Ellroy’s misfire novel THE BLACK DAHLIA/’06. Ellroy had done ever so much better (with director Curtis Hanson) in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL/’91.
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *At one inexplicable moment, Grosbard has De Niro remove his shoes after golf before taking time to watch De Niro remove a different pair at the rectory before bed in the very next scene!
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Dunne & Didion may well be L.A. literary saints/deities for their work on the page, but their film C.V. is something appalling.