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BLACK DAHLIA, THE (director/writer: Brian De Palma; screenwriters: Josh Friedman/based on the novel by James Ellroy; cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond; editor: Bill Pankow; music: Mark Isham; cast: Josh Hartnett (Bucky Bleichert), Scarlett Johansson (Kay Lake), Aaron Eckhart (Lee Blanchard), Hilary Swank (Madeleine Linscott), Mia Kirshner (Elizabeth Short/Black Dahlia), Mike Starr (Russ Millard), Fiona Shaw (Ramona Linscott), Rachel Miner (Martha), Richard Brake (Bobby DeWitt), John Kavanagh (Emmet Linscott), Troy Evans (Chief T. Green), Jemima Rooper (Lorna Mertz), Patrick Fischler (Ellis Loew), James Otis (Dolph Bleichert), William Finley (George Tilden), Angus MacInnes (Capt. John Tierney); Runtime: 121; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Art Linson/Avi Lerner/Moshe Diamant/Rudy Cohen; Universal Pictures; 2006)
“There’s fodder for a good film in the screaming headline material, but De Palma only gets a whiff of that …”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Black Dahlia is based on the Los Angeles brutal murder in January 15, 1947 of 22-year-old aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short, a case that remains one of the city’s most notorious unsolved crimes. Director Brian De Palma (“Femme Fatale”/ “Greetings”/ “Body Double”), the Hollywood veteran filmmaker noted for his style over substance films, and his co-writer Josh Friedman, lifted the tale from the weighty best-seller novel by James Ellroy (penned “L.A. Confidential”) and focused the film on the relationship of the two investigating police officers rather than on Short (selling Short short by making her into a prostitute when she wasn’t). The Black Dahlia, who had dyed black hair (the reason for her nickname given to her by the newspapers) came to Southern California from small-town Medford, Massachusetts looking to be an actress and locate her missing father, whom she found, to no avail, working in a diner as a short-order cook. Dahlia’s played by Mia Kirshner, who returns only in film clips (an audition and in a stag film) and in the recollections of those who knew her (like in Preminger’s 1944 film noir Laura with Gene Tierney). Dante Ferretti’s elegant sets, including an extended look at the lesbian bar scene (most of the shoot took place in Bulgaria) are aimed to bring the pulp fiction brand of Southern California’s swinging lifestyle, crime, gruesome murders, sleaze, racial unrest and police corruption to life, and along with the splendid period costumes by Jenny Beavan and appealing moody score by Mark Isham give the viewer a well-crafted and visually delightful film–but not a true one. The film dips way into the film noir environs of Chinatown and Sunset Boulevard to capture the LaLa landscape, but falls short in coming up with an inspired story about the pathetic figure who died so savagely because she was so trusting. It’s more or less a hyper-stylized atmospheric and at times campy rendering of Dahlia’s sad demise (something the vic didn’t deserve), when what was needed was to tell her story so we could feel it and possibly get closer to understanding who could commit such a brutal murder.

The film quickly establishes the complicated though shallow relationship between the two main protagonists, pugilists-cops Sgt. Leland “Lee” Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Officer Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), who as boxers were nicknamed “Fire” and “Ice.” They become partners on a special homicide team approved by the ambitious publicity-seeking DA (Patrick Fischler); their camaraderie is tinged with competitiveness; initially hotshot cop Lee seems to have the world by the balls, in and out of the ring, as he’s in the better career position and his live-in girlfriend is blonde bombshell Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). As the film moves along, there are changes in them that are unpredictable. The partners fight the endless city crime and the hot-tempered Lee can’t seem to hold his water and becomes more vulnerable and seemingly out of it as he’s plagued with dark secrets. During this period, the low-key Bucky shows he’s the better and more reliable cop, and though he has the hots for the vamp he refrains as a matter of honor. The shocker comes when the police find in a weed field Elizabeth Short’s surgically cut in half body– dismembered and disemboweled–with her blood drained. Lee and Bucky are assigned as lead investigators, and track down leads such as the girls Short made a lesbian porn film with. Tired of being the weak third leg in the triangle, Bucky pursues thrill-seeking rich gal Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), a friend of Short’s and possible suspect, whose daddy (John Kavanagh) is a building construction tycoon and wasted mom (Fiona Shaw) who is not all there. The bitchy Madeleine’s supposedly a dead ringer for the Dahlia (maybe to those in the film, but not to me) and prowls Tinseltown’s hot nightspots for both men and women lovers, and ends up taking Bucky to bed.

The film’s problems are many (overplotted, too many other complicated crime cases thrown into the mix to adequately follow all of them and no closure or finality to the murder except for a highly inventive suggestion as to who was the killer that comes off, at best, murky), but the most important weakness does not come from the director but in the acting department; though Hartnett, Johansson and Swank look as if their characters were inhabiting the 1940s, their acting was too flat, clumsy and lacked credibility to make us believe that they were 1940s characters with explosive issues raging inside them. The drab Hartnett and the posing only instead of acting Johansson may be lovers in real life, but on the screen they had no chemistry and their lovemaking was as stiff as if they were two corpses. While Swank is simply miscast as the femme fatale. It’s only Eckhart’s performance that gives the film the bloody energy it desired despite problems in believing he could so suddenly go bonkers; but it’s Kirshner’s tearful performance that’s the film’s most endearing and earnest one. There’s fodder for a good film in the screaming headline material, but De Palma only gets a whiff of that and can’t put his finger on where to go with all the volatile material before him.

Film buffs should be pleased that De Palma included cinematic homages such as a tracking shot of Welles’ 1958 Touch of Evil and showing a theater screening of Conrad Veidt in the 1927 Victor Hugo silent The Man Who Laughs–which serves as part of the plot line.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”