Film noir is a movie genre that was born in the ’40s.
As Roger Ebert described in his review of one of the greatest film noirs, “The Maltese Falcon,” it is a distinctly American style of filmmaking that features “mean streets, knife-edged heroes, dark shadows and tough dames.”
The genre thrived throughout the ’40s and ’50s and made stars out of actors like Humphrey Bogart.
But over the years, film noir lost much of its popularity, and has only sporadically reappeared in American movies. (The masterful “L.A. Confidential” was probably the last modern film noir, though this year’s “Brick” was heavily influenced by the genre.)
Now though, in the space of two weeks, Hollywood has put out two movies that are, at their core, film noirs: “Hollywoodland” and “The Black Dahlia.”
Also, interestingly enough, both films are based on true events.
“Hollywoodland” examines the death of actor George Reeves (played by Ben Affleck), who is most famous for his role as Superman on TV between 1952 and 1957. His death was ruled a suicide, but there have always been suspicions that foul play was involved.
“The Black Dahlia” focuses on the brutal 1947 murder of aspiring-actress Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner in the film), who was found in a field outside Hollywood, disemboweled, missing her internal organs and with the corners of her mouth cut ear-to-ear.
Despite these movies’ apparent similarities, “Hollywoodland” and “The Black Dahlia” are very different films.
“Hollywoodland” is a somber detective story that strives for realism, while “The Black Dahlia” is highly stylized, brutally violent and contains a wildly convoluted storyline.
Both films have their merits, but “Hollywoodland” is the better, though less daring, of the two.
The strengths of “Hollywoodland” are its characters and its presentation of the story.
Adrian Brody is fascinating as Lewis Simo, a private eye who investigates George Reeves’s death.
As with all the great noir heroes, Simo is morally ambiguous. We sense that there is some innate decency about him, though he is only slightly better than the villains in the story.
Affleck, who plays Reeves in flashbacks throughout the film, is superb and his performance will likely merit accolades when award season rolls around.
He plays Reeves as a charismatic young man who yearns to become a serious actor and instead becomes typecast and an idol to millions of children through his role as Superman.
What prevents “Hollywoodland” from being perfect is hard to determine. I don’t think I’m ruining too much when I say that the film reaches no conclusions about Reeves’ death.
As Simo says toward the end of the film, “I see the pieces, I see how they should fit, I see how I want them to fit, but I can’t.” and then he trails off because there is nothing more to say.
This lack of resolution fits with the film’s aspirations of sticking to reality, but since Simo’s personal story also is not very resolved, we are left with a sense of incompleteness and frustration. (Though perhaps this is a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers.)
“The Black Dahlia,” which is directed by Brian De Palma (“The Untouchables,” “Scarface”), is more explicitly a film noir than “Hollywoodland.”
Everything from the jazzy score to the razor sharp dialogue to the sudden violent interludes make the film feel more like a period noir from the ’50s.
What might surprise some viewers is that “Dahlia” is not really about the murder of Elizabeth Short; it is more about how the murder exacerbates the preexisting tensions between the characters involved in the murder investigation.
However, this preference for behavior over story is, again according to Ebert, one of the characteristics prominent throughout film noir.
Josh Hartnett does well as the tortured cop Bucky Bleichert whose morality decays as the story wears on and he’s exposed to more and more sordid characters with buried secrets.
With a veteran like De Palma at the helm, “The Black Dahlia” is never anything less than compelling.
Whatever he put up on screen always held my attention, even when the plot devolved into incoherency.
There’s a shootout on the staircase that is especially riveting because it unfolds in a spellbinding slow motion velocity that moves like ballet toward its inevitable tragic conclusion.
There is a problem, however: The film loses focus at the end by providing us with an explanation for Short’s death.
By ending “Dahlia” with a solution to Short’s murder, De Palma errs from the film’s original course.
Regardless of whatever flaws these two films may have, both are worth seeing if only because they revive, for the moment, the tradition of film noir.
I would hope that aside from collectively providing four hours of entertainment, “Hollywoodland” and “The Black Dahlia” inspire filmmakers to revisit film noir in future movies, and encourage moviegoers to return to the past and experience the classics of the genre.
Staff writer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Classic Film Noirs
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Double Indemnity (1944)
The Big Sleep (1946)
L.A. Confidential (1997)