© 2006 Ray Wong
Based on James Ellroy's novel, which in turn was based on a real 1947 murder case in Los Angeles, The Black Dahlia has all the intrigue, suspense, and glamor of a period Hollywood mystery. And De Palma is a name to be reckoned. Unfortunately, what transpires is simply a disappointment.
Bucky Bleichert (Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Eckhart) are two LAPD officers with different personalities and temperaments. Bucky is introspective, sensitive and loyal, and the department nicknames him Mr. Ice. As Mr. Fire, Lee is outgoing, charismatic, and a go-getter. Bucky and Lee become great friends and partners after fighting each other at an amateur boxing match. Their close friendship leads Bucky to Lee's girlfriend, beautiful Kay (Johansson).
Their relationship takes a strange turn after Bucky and Lee are involved in the Black Dahlia case. The body of an aspiring actress, Elizabeth Short (Kirshner), was found sawed in half, her face slashed from ear to ear. Soon both Lee and Bucky become obsessed with the gruesome murder. The clues lead to a mysterious, rich heiress, Madeleine Linscott (Swank). The relationships between these characters begin to get entangled in a web of deception and betrayal.
Hartlett (Lucky Number Slevin) seems to always play the "cool guy" in his films. There's nothing wrong with his performance per se, but it's pretty much the same thing he did before. He underplays his character to effect, though, as compared to the overplayed zealousness of Eckhart's (Thank You for Smoking) performance. Together they show a stark contrast that helps drive the dramatic conflicts.
Johansson (Scoop), with her Lana Tuner hair and Greta Garbo's garb, exudes certain old-Hollywood glamor and sexuality but still maintains her innocence and naiveté. Swank (Million Dollar Baby) plays the sultry, mysterious heiress with flair, sensuality, and a touch of menace. Kirshner (TV's L-Word) is the standout, playing the real-life victim Elizabeth Short mostly in flashbacks and film footage. Her mesmerizing performance, especially "on film," is key to the story. Shaw (Harry Potter) steals a few scenes as Madeleine's neurotic mother.
Based on Ellroy's novel, the script by Friedman (War of the Worlds) is big and twisty and moody. Like Ellroy's L.A. Confidential, the story has enough intrigue and suspense to spare, examining grand themes such as deception, corruption, sex, and loyalty. The film noir structure also works well with the genre. Unfortunately, Friedman's script is a convoluted mess. There are too many plot threads, and too many characters whose lives are supposed to intertwine with one another's. The story lacks focus. The result is a story that is hard to follow, and characters that are caricatures. Even as the loose ends get tied up and we see how all the threads come together at the end, it feels artificial and forced.
With such a convoluted plot, Friedman doesn't have enough time to develop the characters. What happens is that we see these characters not as real people, but as pawns in a chess game. We don't really understand their motivation, and when the reasons behind their actions are revealed, it feels wrong. For example, the relationship between Lee, Bucky and Kay is never explained completely, leaving us wondering what really is going on there and why. We never quite understand why both Lee and Bucky are obsessed with Elizabeth Short. The relationship between Bucky and Madeleine doesn't make sense either, even though we're told why he feels that way toward her.
Director De Palma (Femme Fatale) does a good job giving the film a glossy, romanticized film noir look. The details, lighting, costume, and sets are gorgeous. It is a beautiful film, even though De Palma cannot lift the film above the poor writing. It really is a case where style trumps substance. Audiences come to a movie like this to be entertained, but they don't need to come out scratching their heads asking: What just happened? Had Friedman focused on the intriguing slasher case and De Palma sticked with a straightforward storytelling, The Black Dahlia would have been something worth seeing.
Stars: Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Fiona Shaw, John Kavanagh
Director: Brian De Palma
Writer: John Friedman (based on James Ellroy's novel)
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, grisly images, sexual content and language
Running Time: 121 minutes
Script – 5
Performance – 7
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 6.2 out of 10