Black Dahlia, The
United States, 2006
U.S. Release Date:
R (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw
Brian De Palma
Josh Friedman, based on the novel by James Ellroy
If all that mattered in movie-making was that the end result was pretty to look at, I would be giving Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia a rave review. There's no denying the film's visual virtues: the cinematography, the set design, the costumes, the hairstyles and the makeup. The screenplay, however, is another matter. For about 90 minutes, it moves at a brisk pace, flowing along a familiar noir stream that survives a few minor rapids but, as the end approaches, it goes into a freefall over a waterfall and lands with a crash. The resolution is so convoluted that it requires not just one but two expository scenes and, even after those, we're still not sure how everything fits together. While it's true that many noir thrillers emphasize style over substance, few are as fundamentally unsatisfying and confusing as The Black Dahlia.
The Black Dahlia is based on the fictional novel by James Ellroy, not the real-life unsolved mystery. Ellroy used that cold case as a launching pad for his novel, and the movie does the same thing. In actuality, the murder of Elizabeth Short (the actual "Black Dahlia" case) is only a subplot in the film. This is the story of two fictional detectives assigned to the crime. It's the need to tie everything into a neat package at the end that exposes the most egregious flaws.
L.A.P.D. detectives Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are the department's stars because of their unparalleled record in bringing fugitives to justice. At the time of the infamous "Black Dahlia" murder, where the dismembered body of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) is discovered in an open field, Bucky and Lee are working another case, tracking a child rapist. However, Lee becomes obsessed with the Short killing and aggressively pursues a seven-day transfer for himself and Bucky to the taskforce. Bucky agrees only reluctantly, however, believing it's more important to get their original quarry off the streets. Investigating Short's past leads Bucky to femme fatale Madeline Linscott (Hilary Swank), with whom he begins a relationship. Meanwhile, sparks are flying between Bucky and Lee's girlfriend, Kay (Scarlett Johansson), but neither acts on them out of respect for Lee.
The acting in The Black Dahlia is not a strong point. Everyone from Scarlett Johansson to Hilary Swank to Josh Hartnett looks great in late 1940s garb, but the performances are uneven. There are times when Hartnett and Johansson appear stiff, and Swank goes over-the-top on at least one occasion. She is outdone in the overacting category only by Fiona Shaw (playing her mother), who delivers enough ham to feed a multitude. The most consistent performer is Aaron Eckhart. Mia Kirshner is also effective but because of the nature of her role, she appears only in film clips of Short's Hollywood auditions (the first time we "meet" the character, she's a corpse).
Brian De Palma has spent the better part of his career working in the noir arena (he was once considered a Hitchcock imitator), so it isn't surprising that he was attracted to the project. Indeed, the noir trappings are executed effectively, although the movie isn't as atmospheric as one might anticipate. There are some nice individual sequences, including a thrilling foot chase that involves stairs and a vertiginous fall (shades of Hitchcock). However, it is surprising that De Palma didn't demand that the plot be streamlined to the point where two talky, anticlimactic scenes are not required to complete the story. The sloppiness of the ending doesn't only damage The Black Dahlia, it sinks the project. Movie-goers have a right to expect more from a denouement than what De Palma delivers. This is far from one of the director's better efforts and should be avoided by all those who are not sworn De Palma boosters.