In 1947, the horrifically mutilated, disemboweled and exsanguinous body of an aspiring actress named Elizabeth Short was found in a field in Los Angeles. So ghastly was the scene that, combined with Short’s penchant for wearing all black, the newspapers dubbed the case “˜The Black Dahlia’ murder after the old Raymond Chandler story. The crime was never solved, and over the years the case has taken on a life of its own. Several books and even a video game have been published based on the events surrounding the case. However, despite sensational murders being bountiful fodder for Hollywood in the past, it’s a bit surprising that it has taken so long for Hollywood’s most notorious murder to make it to the big screen. Have no fear, though. Your prayers have been answered in director Brian DePalma’s latest feature, “The Black Dahlia.”
The movie opens by introducing us to two of LA’s fastest rising cops — the young upstart Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett, “Lucky Number Slevin”) and seasoned political animal Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart, “Thank You for Smoking”). Both are hard hitting, no nonsense cops who like boxing as much as investigating. By way of a charity boxing match cooked up by the DA to pass a pay raise referendum, the two become partners and take up an inexplicable three-way relationship with Blanchard’s girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson, “The Island”). However, their seemingly meteoric rise through the ranks of the precinct is suddenly brought in check by a shoot out with a snitch and the discovery of the Dahlia’s body. What happens next is anyone’s guess.
Sure, I could explain what happens, but there wouldn’t be any point. “The Black Dahlia is one of the most jumbled and confused movies I’ve seen in a while. It seems as if DePalma didn’t know what type of film he wanted to make. The movie begins like a period pot boiler, drifts into an aborted character study of the two leads, veers off into a police procedural, and finally crash lands in a bad soap opera.
The first third of the film is well put together, with fast pacing and snappy dialogue, but once the murder investigation starts, things quickly tumble out of control. Too much of the movie just hangs there as well crafted snippets of film tied together with the flimsiest of narrative strings. From Lee’s inexplicable obsession with the Dahlia case (there is a half-assed attempt to tie a childhood tragedy into Lee’s behavior) to the sudden introduction of characters and plot points that have only the most spurious connection to previous events, the film hemorrhages credulity for nearly its entire running length.
The performances are a mixed bag. Hartnett and Eckhart fill their roles dutifully; Hartnett as the idealistic newbie playing foil to Eckhart’s seasoned veteran. Eckhart in particular displays a sort of gradually regressive intensity that is impressive despite its outlandishness. Hillary Swank (“Boys Don’t Cry”) does a good job as the vampy high society temptress, showing some femininity on screen for the first time.
Sadly, the rest of the roles are nothing to write home about. Johansson is totally wasted as the girlfriend with dark secrets and darker morals, while Mia Kirshner (“The Crow: City of Angels”) is completely forgettable as the almost unseen Dahlia, although she has the dubious distinction of portraying the focal character of a movie with the least screen time since the Maltese Falcon. The less said about Fiona Shaw’s cackling turn as old lady Linscott the better, and viewers with a sharp eye will catch country singer k.d. lang in an uncredited role as a lesbian cabaret crooner.
On the bright side, “The Black Dahlia” is a very good looking film. Think “The Untouchables” with better lighting. But even that isn’t enough to salvage it. We get the usual DePalma camera tricks (long unbroken panning shots, slow motion fight sequences), but the problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any sort of vitality behind them. The scenes look exactly like the analogous scenes in “The Untouchables,” “Scarface” and “Raising Cain.” We’ve reached the point where they look less like DePalma’s trademark directorial flourishes and more like tired retreads of a better director’s work, despite the behind the scenes toiling of legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and Production Designer Dante Ferretti.
But the strangest aspect of “The Black Dahlia” is that, despite its title, the movie has almost nothing to do with the murder. DePalma uses the murder as a backdrop for a tepid walk on the wild side of Hollywoodland, exploring the seedy-chic lesbian underground and the terrible truth of the Casting Couch. Unfortunately, DePalma’s treatment is neither as risqu’ as “Mulholland Drive” nor as gritty as “LA Confidential”, which leaves it exactly nowhere.
And that’s really the governing problem with the film: It’s just too safe. DePalma is a director who made his reputation as one of Hollywood’s most exploitative blood merchants, glitzing up 3rd rate thrillers with gratuitous levels of gruesome violence and sex (“Dressed to Kill” and “Body Double”). In “The Black Dahlia”, we get DePalma-lite: violence without the blood, pornography without the titillation, sadomasochism without the depravity, and high camp without the fun. In other words, a third rate thriller.
Brian De Palma (director) / Josh Friedman (screenplay), James Ellroy (novel)
CAST: Josh Hartnett …. Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert
Scarlett Johansson …. Kay Lake
Aaron Eckhart …. Sgt. Leland Blanchard
Hilary Swank …. Madeleine Linscott
Mia Kirshner …. Elizabeth Short