THE BLACK DAHLIAR
The Black Dahlia, an adaptation of James Ellroy's novel inspired by the unsolved savage murder in 1947 Los Angeles of a beautiful young woman, is a stunning reminder that a film is not necessarily the sum of very promising parts. In the case of this latest from director Brian De Palma, a stellar cast of marquee names, coupled with an all-star crew (Zsigmond, Ferretti, Beavan, Isham), can't make this entry work. Add to this embarrassment of riches squandered the source material from popular novelist Ellroy, whose L.A. Confidential transitioned so successfully into film and whose novel serves up one of Hollywood's most notorious mysteries against a backdrop of glamour and sleaze.
As rendered by screenwriter Josh Friedman, Dahlia's plot adds up to a lot of "something abouts": It's something about the friendship and rivalry between cool-headed L.A. detective Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and his fiery cop buddy/personal friend Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), who get assigned to the fabled "Black Dahlia" case in which a starlet wannabe named Betty Short (Mia Kirshner) is found dead and grotesquely mutilated. But the film is also something about the murky, nasty case that brought Lee together with his bad girl-turned-good Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson) and something about a betrayed guy named DeWitt who wants to get both of them.
The film is mostly about the attraction between Bucky and the two dames he bounces between--the possibly trashy Kay and the definitely trashy, stinking-rich and enigmatic femme fatale Madeleine Linscott (two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank), the youngest daughter in the thoroughly depraved and evil Linscott family (think Chinatown). The film is also something about a hot-wired lesbian subculture that somehow united Short, a
roommate or two, and Madeleine, but the gay angle is totally gratuitous as the filmmakers never make clear who is what or why it even matters.
Beyond its laziness and taste for the lurid, Dahlia also adds up to a bunch of elaborate set-pieces that show off money spent rather than story considered. For instance, an initial boxing match between the two cops goes on and on and nowhere except to reveal that the bout is something about a bond the public voted for (or was it against?). Later in the film, De Palma cuts back frequently to black-and-white audition footage of Betty being interviewed by an off-camera nudie-film director (De Palma's voice). Is this more titillation or will these sequences actually yield a clue to Betty's death? Also gratuitous, ridiculous and strictly for titillation are the film's abundance of graphic violence and hyper-passionate lovemaking scenes. (A heated encounter involving Bucky, Kay and a kitchen table elicits laughs.)
The actors are miscast. Hartnett seems too young and bland for his role; Eckhart appears to have followed misguided advice to play his inchoate role "big"; Johansson, drifting, stands outside her part, and Swank, whose character is supposed to resemble Short, is fatally un-femme. In the roles of Madeleine's rich and vile ma and pa, Fiona Shaw and John Kavanagh are dragged to Shakespearean extremes for their over-the-top interpretations.
Largely shot in Bulgaria, The Black Dahlia does reaffirm that exploitation cinema is alive, if not well, and quite the result of a low opinion of movie audiences. Hopefully, New Line will bring to market its just-announced Avenger project, also about the case, and do cinematic justice to the horrid injustice that was and remains the unsolved "Black Dahlia" murder.