J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia
Directed by Brian De Palma
Score by Mark Isham
Universal Home Entertainment


Jazz has had a hard time finding its way into film soundtracks, but film noir has sometimes opened the door a crack. Brian De Palma’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel, The Black Dahlia, effectively employs a jazz-influenced score composed by Mark Isham in a film that embraces the film noir tradition.

Isham himself has recorded jazz sessions as a leader, and co-led excellent sessions with Art Lande for ECM. He is probably in more demand for his film work in a diversity of styles, including legitimate jazz soundtracks for The Cooler and Afterburn. While not explicitly a jazz score, Isham’s Dahlia soundtrack, featuring his muted trumpet, is clearly jazz influenced and inspired.

Isham’s music, combined with De Palma’s direction and the Oscar nominated cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, Dahlia lovingly recreates the look and feel of film noir. The dark tones heard over De Palma’s long tracking shot, which begins with the discovery of the Black Dahlia’s body, establish the mood of foreboding menace. Scoring scenes between Josh Harnett and Scarlett Johansson, Isham’s music conveys mournfulness and longing. For femme fatale Hilary Swank’s come hither scenes, Isham’s trumpet themes express romance and danger in equal measure.

It is as film noir that Dahlia succeeds as an entertaining picture, portraying a shadowy, smoke-filled world of police corruption and Hollywood depravity. Sometimes the plot does not make perfect sense, but there is long tradition of frankly incoherent storylines in the genre, extending back to classics like The Big Sleep. The weak link is Harnett, who just does not have the on-screen presence to carry off the role of Detective Bucky Bleichert, coming across more wooden than earnest. Aaron Echhart however turns in a great performance as Bleichert’s partner, the mercurial Detective Lee Blanchard, a flamboyant and nuanced character, who is corrupt but not completely unsympathetic.

The Black Dahlia looks and sounds great. It might not be the best of the genre, but a lot of the elements are brought together nicely.

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