A film review by Craig J. Koban
THE BLACK DAHLIA
2006, R, 126 mins.
Josh Hartnett: Bucky Bleichert / Scarlett Johansson: Kay Lake / Aaron Eckhart: Lee Blanchard / Hilary Swank: Madaleine Linscott / Mia Kirschner: Elizabeth Stone / Mike Starr: Russ Millard / Fiona Shaw: Ramona Linscott / John Kavanagh: Emmett Linscott /
Directed by Brian DePalma / Written by Josh Friedman / Based on the novel by James Ellroy
Directed by Brian DePalma / Written by Josh Friedman / Based on the novel by James Ellroy
THE BLACK DAHLIA is an ironic film. It appropriates the real life story of an aspiring film actress and uses her tragic demise as the springboard for its own twisted and sorted tale. In some small ways, Elizabeth Short is getting her dreams realized. She always wanted to be in pictures, and since she is a prominent figure in THE BLACK DAHLIA, it could be said that she has finally achieved notoriety on the silver screen.
Some may be unfamiliar with the horrendous murder of Short, but it has become something of an infamous Hollywood legend to this very day. She was last seen alive on January 9, 1947 at a local L.A. hotel. A few days later her remains were found. Her death must have been excruciating. She was discovered in a vacant lot of the 3800 block of South Norton Avenue in the City of Angels. She was cut in half at the waist and – in what later autopsy reports would label as “surgeon like” – was mutilated and disemboweled.
Considering the time frame of the events, Short’s dastardly murder stunned the LAPD, not to mention the city’s citizens as a whole. What would emerge is the single largest murder investigation in L.A. history, one that would involve hundreds of officers and many other law enforcement agencies. Because of the sheer complexity of the case, seemingly everyone that the victim knew were considered suspects. Despite all of their collective efforts, no single person was brought to justice in the murder of Short. In essence, the case still remains – to this day – one of Hollywood’s longest running murder mysteries.
It’s of no surprise that James Ellroy would later go on to use the elements of this case to pen his own take on the time period in his 1987 book, THE BLACK DAHLIA. More lay, contemporary film audiences may be vaguely familiar with his other literary work, like LA CONFIDENTIAL, which also was another neo-noir set in the Hollywood of the Golden Age, but its sensibilities were far less than sterling. Ellroy’s books painted a portrait of corruption and urban decay. LA CONFIDENTIAL was made into one of 1997’s best films of the same name, but it was not Ellroy’s first foray into focusing on the tinseltown of yesteryear. It is one in a quartet of fictional novels set in the town. THE BLACK DAHLIA was the first, which would later be followed by THE BIG NOWHERE, LA CONFIDENTIAL, and WHITE JAZZ.
Certainly, if any director could have a field day with this type of underlining material, then it would certainly be Brian DePalma. He has focused his heavily stylistic auteur eye for the flamboyant, sensationalistic, and avant garde in films as far ranging from BLOW OUT, SCARFACE, RAISING CAIN, and more recently FEMME FETAL. If anything, the eclectic filmmaker – it could be said – is one that has a certain unyielding fascination with the crime noir genre as a whole. Given his predilection for making gritty, violent, and wickedly esoteric works that use crime and its seedy underbelly as subject matter, my hopes were incredibly high for his treatment of Ellroy’s source material.
Perhaps the most startling thing to first notice about the film is DePalma’s impeccable eye for period details and cinematography. Having done other crime/period thrillers before (like THE UNTOUCHABLES), DePalma knows how to paint his panoramic canvas with broad and ingenious strokes. The overall tone and mood of Ellroy is visible in every frame of the film. The decadence of the period is terrifically handled and DePalma bathes the vistas of Hollywood of the mid-40’s with dark and murky photography that inspires the right amount of dread and pathos. All of the other details are just right, from the fashions, to the cars, to even the dialogue, which seems yanked right out of any typical Sam Spade detective yarn. DePalma, in essence, has made a great looking Brian DePalma film, one with wondrous visual inventiveness and a keen and astute eye for the period it's presenting to us. Make no mistake about, THE BLACK DAHLIA is never dull or tedious from on an artistic standpoint; it’s a real visual nirvana that should garner some serious Oscar consideration for its noteworthy technical merits.
Unfortunately, it is where the kudos abruptly stops for the film. The overall narrative of the film is an unmitigated mess. The film has a hideous, almost sadistic, fascination with the Black Dahlia case itself, but it curiously remains a vague and almost superfluous entity throughout the film. Clearly, Elroy’s original book was a work of pure fiction that used the Dahlia murder case as a closeline for his larger story, but something surely must have been missing in the translation to the big screen. The script itself is such a convoluted, murky, confusing, rambling, and meandering work that it bares little resemblance to something that would even approximate a workable first draft. Sure, there is nothing wrong with complexity and density in a good crime yarn (LA CONFIDENTIAL knew that), but THE BLACK DAHLIA is just too overstuffed for its own good. There are too many subplots, too many characters, too many false starts, too many big plot reveals, too many unsatisfying payoffs….I could go on. In short, the film is just too cavalier in its scope for its own good. It’s like a cocktail that has too many ingredients to be drank and savored as a truly resonating work. It’s sad to see a promising work implode so easily.
The film stars Josh Hartnett as LAPD detective Bucky Bleichert (the actor probably utilized elements of his effectively deadpanned delivery in last year’s masterful SIN CITY to help him here). He, along with fellow PI Lee Blanchard (the always good Aaron Eckhart), is a huge celeb within his department. They both have a great amount of collective skill with bringing criminals to justice. The fact that the two become allies and partners is ironic, considering that they pounded on each other in the past during a somewhat viscous amateur boxing match. Both were fairly evenly matched. Lee even managed to knock out two of Bucky’s front teeth. It is a friendship that only a crime noir could come up with.
While tracking a terrible child rapist, the two detectives stumble onto the later media coined “Black Dahlia” murder, where the terribly dismembered body of an aspiring actress, Elizabeth Short (the effective Mia Kirschner), is discovered. The discovery of the body is handled in one of those insanely (and, yes, ingeniously) mounted camera set pieces where DePalma shows why he can get away with being more than a bit showy. His visual eye in this sequence is almost voyeuristic, but it sure is a sight to behold, as his camera swoops in, pans, and follows the action from a bird's eye view.
Needless to say, the two officers get entangled in the murder case. Lee quickly (for reasons the screenplay does not have the time of day to explain) becomes obsessed with the case, and manages to get both himself and Bucky on the taskforce to investigate the murder. Their investigation leads to some dark avenues, and more femme fetales than you can shake a stick at. Not only does Bucky get involved with the cold, but beautiful, Madeline Linscott (Hilary Swank, trying a bit too hard here), he also begins to grow very attached to Lee’s girlfriend, Kay (Scarlett Johansson, trying way, way too hard).
Will he end up with the slinky and seductive Madeline, or with the buxom and sultry Kay? Or, will Bucky be able to see through all of the angles and piece together a framework of possible suspects in the murder case? Do the women have anything to do with Short’s murder? Or, was it perhaps some of her lesbian lovers? Or, maybe it was Madeline's incredibly kooky and slightly ghoulish family that had a hand in the Black Dahlia murder? Let’s just say that – by the time the title card flashed “The End”, I felt like I could have benefited from one of those quick Cliff Notes character trees to see who was who and how they all fit together.
That’s the real problem with this film – it lacks coherence and forward momentum, not to mention plausible and developed motivations for its characters. Lee, for example, becomes so damned obsessed with the Short case that – at one point in the film – it looks like he has just quit heroin cold turkey and is having serous withdraw symptoms. Honestly, why is he driven so nuts about solving this case? I dunno. The screenplay seems to write him as if her were from a different film altogether. Also, the overall grandeur of the film proves to be so fatalistic in terms of our overall understanding of the plot. So much is thrown at the screen to create a rich tapestry of a dense crime noir, but nothing satisfactorily sticks. There is just too much that distracts from the underling story, which is the murder of Short herself. Instead, we get too much exposition, too many side characters, too much innuendo, and too much uncertainty. During key moments the audience was most certainly as confused as the detectives in the film about how all of the pieces fit. When we are finally given a detailed explanation of key events (and the reveal of the real Dahlia murderer), it’s just too underwhelming by this point.
The performances are good, if not a bit too inconsistent. I like Hartnett’s squinty-eyed, monotoned, and laconic delivery he gives to his dialogue (he feels right at home in the noir milieu), as does Eckhart, who does what he can with a largely enigmatic and muddled character. The female leads are less well off. Hilary Swank, one of our finest young actresses, seems sort of lost playing Madeline. She’s too stiff and mannered and her overall performance seems too self-aware. Scarlett Johansson, another decent talent, certainly has the looks for a 40’s style femme fetal, but lacks overall conviction. Other performances, like one key one by Fiona Shaw playing Madeline’s crazy and warped mother, are played so broadly that they approach hilarious camp value. Only Mia Kirschner gives the only grounded female performance in the film, as she gives a subtle complexity and soft-spoken sadness to her part as the doomed actress that will do anything for a break.
After a series of colossal misfires over the last few years, like the dreadful SNAKE EYES and the silly MISSION TO MARS, I am sure that many fans of Brain DePalma were hoping that his big screen adaptation of James Ellroy’s THE BLACK DAHLIA would be a fitting return to form. DePalma’s film, no doubt, is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and his maverick aesthetic eye is apparent throughout it. There is no doubt that the filmmaker was in a state of pure bliss recreating the Hollywood of the past and a dark murder mystery that permeated it. Yet, for all of its incredible visual flair, THE BLACK DAHLIA is a completely negligible murder mystery in the sense that it disappoints with its exhaustive and ponderous narrative, where too much is left up to our perplexed imaginations. The film is so ultimately incomprehensible and univolving that it becomes easy to clue out. THE BLACK DAHLIA is an ambitious, but cluttered fiasco that is a lifeless, inert, and hollow entry in the genre of crime noir. Worst of all, it definitely does not do justice to Ellroy’s work, nor to DePalma’s talent and potential.