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THE BLACK DAHLIA (**)
Movie Review by: Jim "Good Old JR" Rutkowski
Directed by: Brian De Palma
Written by: Josh Friedman, Adapted from James Ellroy’s novel: "The Black Dahlia"
Starring:
Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank
Running time: 121 minutes, Released: 09/15/06.
Rated R for strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content and language.
Although it’s titled after the “trade name” of Elizabeth Short, the unfortunate young woman whose brutal 1947 murder in Los Angeles remains one of the city’s most notorious unsolved crimes, Brian De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia,” like the James Ellroy novel on which it’s based, isn’t really her story, but a “Laura”-like tale of two cops who, in different ways, become obsessed with her after her death. Of course, in Otto Preminger’s 1944 noir, Gene Tierney’s character comes back to life. Here the Dahlia (played by Mia Kirshner) can return only in the recollections of those who knew her, brief “audition” film clips, and the attempts of others to imitate her look.

Still, that’s enough for partners Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), beat cops and ex-pugilists who become pals in plainclothes warrants duty after they engage in a charity bout that wins a special election for a police bond issue. They not only share official duties, but form a trio with Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), a blonde bombshell who lives with Lee but shows a romantic interest in Bucky. In the immediate vicinity on another case when Short’s dismembered body is discovered, they’re reassigned by their boss, ambitious D.A. Ellis Loew (Patrick Fischler) to the special homicide squad headed by old-style Russ Millard (Mike Starr). Soon Blanchard, for reasons that arise from his unhappy family history, becomes self-destructively intent on finding the killer. And Bleichert gets involved with Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), a seductive society gal who parades about imitating Short’s dark look and, it eventually turns out, knew the dead girl all too well. His furtive relationship with her, which Kay--when she finally learns of it--views as an unhealthy obsession with the Dahlia as bad as Lee’s, also leads Bucky into contact with her distinctly oddball family--millionaire builder Emmett (John Kavanagh), his more than slightly off-kilter wife Ramona (Fiona Shaw), and their younger daughter, aspiring artist Martha (Rachel Miner).

Josh Friedman’s script has to simplify and compress Ellroy’s weighty tome to some extent, not only dropping expendable characters and an entire Mexican angle but providing opportunities for De Palma to indulge his penchant for virtuoso choreographing of suspense scenes. (The most notable example is an elaborate garroting on a high balcony--not found in the book--that’s a sort of combination of the murders in “Blow Out” with the famous railway station scene in “The Untouchables.”) But by and large it’s faithful to Ellroy’s generally pulp-ish tone and swerves into dark comedy--camp might be a more appropriate term--at the same points (most clearly in Bucky’s dinner scene with those weird Linscotts). For his part De Palma tries for a cinematic equivalent to Ellroy’s emulation of the old printed thrillers, fashioning the picture as a modern film noir even if it is in color--or perhaps homage to film noir would be more accurate--while still leaving room for his own characteristic set-pieces, like that literally over-the-top balcony scene.

But despite all the effort “The Black Dahlia” doesn’t work, for several reasons. One is the casting and the clash of acting styles. Hartnett, the main protagonist, is unfortunately pretty much a washout, a drab stand-in for the great gumshoes of forties noir, and his somnolent performance and sluggish narration weigh things down. Eckhart is more animated, but he can’t compensate for his character’s lack of psychological depth (a problem in the book, too) or sell Lee’s abrupt collapse. Decked out in a platinum blonde wig and constantly sporting a cigarette holder, Johansson seems to be posing rather than acting, while Swank is all arch affectation. (A further problem is that though we’re told repeatedly that Madeleine looks remarkably like the Dahlia, Swank’s resemblance to Kirshner, who plays Short quite well in the film clips we’re shown, is extremely slight.) With the older Linscotts one enters a different world. Kavanagh’s flinty Scottish Emmett is caricature enough, but with Shaw’s Ramona we enter fully into Grand Guignol territory, so far beyond flamboyance that it’s impossible not to laugh. The problem isn’t that the turn isn’t amusing on its own terms, but that it disrupts the tone of the film as a whole.

But the performances ultimately aren’t what sinks the movie, nor is De Palma’s direction, which, in tandem with Vilmos Zsigmond’s ostentatious cinematography, calls attention to itself too insistently and always seems to opt for the florid solution (the swooping crane shot at the initial discovery of Short’s body is breathtaking but very calculated) when simpler exposition might be the better choice, but is still more apt than in most of his recent movies. No, the real problem is in the last reel revelations, both about Lee and Kay’s past and in terms of the convoluted solution to the Dahlia case. In this respects Friedman is entirely at one with Ellroy’s original--which tried to give the story a sort of “Chinatown” heft by folding skullduggery at the highest levels into the mix--but what can support a suspension of disbelief when doled out over the course of several printed chapters becomes garbled and absurd when viewed over a much shorter span. (A further problem has to do with the use of the 1927 silent film of Victor Hugo's "The Man Who Laughs," with Conrad Veidt, as part of a main plot turn. It would take an enormous suspension of disbelief to accept that so obscure a picture would not only be playing in a theatre in 1947, as is the case here, but to a crowded audience, to boot. The footage is interesting to a buff, though--which is what doubtlessly attracted De Palma to it.)
Like all De Palma’s pictures, this one is elegantly crafted, with solid contributions from production designer Dante Ferretti and the art directing team of Christopher Tandon, Dan Ross and Pier-Luigi Basile; the sets (Rick Simpson and Eli Griff) and costumes (Jenny Beavan) are sumptuous, too. (It’s difficult to believe that a lot of the shoot took place in Bulgaria!) And Mark Isham’s score adds the proper support throughout without becoming overbearing.

But though one can wallow in the visual classiness and, to a considerable extent, De Palma’s overripe directorial exhibitionism, ultimately that proves insufficient compensation for the lack of dramatic satisfaction. It may be as much Ellroy’s fault as De Palma’s, but in the final analysis “The Black Dahlia” proves a stylish but oddly flat exercise in noir conventions, a homage that doesn’t so much honor its models as alternately embalm and ridicule them.

Incidentally, anyone wanting a more fact-based film on the 1947 case is directed to a 1975 TV movie called “Who Is The Black Dahlia?” Though it stars Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Lucie Arnaz--hardly guarantees of quality--it’s nicely atmospheric and sticks much closer to the record than either Ellroy or De Palma do. And though it doesn’t try to solve the crime, at least it doesn’t offer so goofy an explanation for it as the one presented here.

THE BLACK DAHLIA © 2006 Universal Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2006 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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