De Palma bounces back

The director's latest film, 'The Black Dahlia', is a huge improvement on his recent showings. He talks to James Mottram
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The last time Brian De Palma had a film at a festival, he didn't even bother to turn up. The occasion was Cannes in 2002; the movie his last effort, Femme Fatale, a wretched thriller correctly described by one critic as "a uniquely De Palma kind of effluence". Given that this followed the disastrous sci-fi effort Mission to Mars (2000), the knives were out for the director who made his name alongside the likes of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola with such classics as Scarface (1983) and The Untouchables (1987).

But at this year's Venice Film Festival, De Palma was all present and correct - perhaps because his new work, an adaptation of James Ellroy's best-selling murder-mystery The Black Dahlia, is his best in years. But that's not saying much. Even the most hardened of De Palma fans must secretly admit he hasn't made a great film since 1993's gangster tale Carlito's Way. The high-style efforts Mission: Impossible (1996) and Snake Eyes (1998) were impressive only in isolated moments.

Curiously, De Palma's recent dip in form coincided with his departure from Hollywood. In 2000, some three years after he divorced from his third wife, Darnell, he relocated to France and lived in Paris for two years, where he wrote Femme Fatale. "I just had to get out of America," he shrugs. "I just wanted to know what it was like on the other side of the Atlantic. I just went over there to live in a hotel and see what happened." What happened was a whole host of savage reviews and a paltry US box-office haul of just $6m (then £4m).

The 65-year-old De Palma looks a shadow of his former self. He looks battered by Hollywood. "I've been in and out of the system for quite a while," he admits. "They're not making very interesting movies in the big Hollywood studios. The interesting movies are usually being made by independents, or they're financed by European investors."

Fully funded out of Europe to the tune of $45m (£24m), The Black Dahlia may be one of the most expensive "independent" pictures made. "It's the kind of movie they don't like to make," grunts De Palma, referring to the US studios. "It's tough to make a period movie." So it's no surprise that, despite featuring Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson, the film has taken more than three years to complete.

De Palma initially came on to the film after Fight Club's David Fincher left the project, taking on a script by Josh Friedman, who penned Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds. But it was anything but a dream come true. "More like a nightmare come true," De Palma counters.

Nevertheless, the end result is an elegant affair by a director who appears to have rediscovered his touch - as well as the phone number of the legendary Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, with whom he last worked on 1990's Bonfire of the Vanities. While Zsigmond once described De Palma as "a kind of messy guy" when it comes to film-making, their fourth collaboration is anything but. A classic study of murder, corruption and intrigue at the black heart of Hollywood, recalling both Chinatown and Curtis Hanson's earlier Ellroy adaptation, LA Confidential, along the way, you might say it's De Palma's retort to a system that has long since cast him out. He denies this, of course, claiming he simply followed a blueprint. "I always went with the instincts of Ellroy. If he put it in the book, I was going to put it in the movie."

Compressed by Friedman from Ellroy's dense work, the film is a fictionalised retelling of the murder of the B-list actress Elizabeth Short - who received her eponymous nickname because of her raven-coloured hair and the fact that the Alan Ladd movie The Blue Dahlia was released in 1946, the year before her death. A gruesome slaying that saw the luckless 22-year-old cut in half, in the novel and film finding the killer becomes the responsibility of two cops, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Bucky Bleichert (Hartnett), former boxers dubbed, respectively, Fire and Ice. In between them comes Johansson's femme fatale, Kay Lake, and a bisexual socialite, Madeleine Linscott, played by Hilary Swank.

Given that the real-life murder remains unsolved, and has inspired countless conspiracy theories, it's perfect material for a director such as De Palma. A man you might say is obsessed by obsession, he has dealt with the theme of countless times - notably in Blow Out (1981), in which John Travolta's sound-man thinks he catches a murder on tape and, of course, Obsession, the 1976 Paul Schrader-scripted film inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. De Palma, who was just a child when the Black Dahlia murder happened, says he "first heard about it in college" but claims he was never as intrigued about the slaughter as Ellroy, whose own mother was murdered in 1958, leading to the two unrelated killings becoming linked in his mind.

Yet De Palma has done his homework, reeling off a list of books about the subject including Steve Hodel's Black Dahlia Avenger and John Gilmore's Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder. "There was even one with gangsters involved," he says. "It's mythology now."

Does De Palma prefer working in Europe? He sighs. "It's all about 'Who's in it?' You get Tom Cruise, that's good.... but if I get Tom Cruise I don't need them!" Whether De Palma could command A-list talent is doubtful. But it scarcely matters. A director like De Palma is always the main star of his movies.

'The Black Dahlia' opens on 15 September