Director Brian De Palma has made some great films (Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables, Dressed to Kill), and he’s also made some that are just unspeakably awful (The Bonfire of the Vanities, Femme Fatale, Raising Cain). When he’s off base, it’s usually because he’s too busy paying tribute to his idols to focus on telling a strong story. Over and over, De Palma has faced the criticism that his films are empty imitations of Hitchcock, among others. All the style is there, but the substance is absent. For about an hour, The Black Dahlia represents De Palma at his best as he creates a vibrant atmosphere within a period setting that he clearly has passion for. The second hour, and particularly the last 30 minutes, finds the director abruptly losing control and surrendering to every bad impulse he has. As a result, The Black Dahlia is a lost opportunity for greatness.
Based on James Ellroy’s fictionalized account of a real-life 1940’s murder, the movie stars Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart as Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, two LAPD cops who quickly become close friends. When they’re not working, they hang out with Lee’s girlfriend Kay (Scarlett Johannson). There is a fascinating love triangle here, as Kay is attracted to both men; because they all spend time together, she essentially has two boyfriends.
The mystery begins with the brutal murder of Elizabeth “Betty” Short, a 22-year old aspiring actress whose mutilated corpse is discovered in a field. Bucky and Lee begin investigating, only to discover that Betty may have worked as a prostitute to make ends meet. The trail leads to Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), whose father is one of the richest men in L.A. Madeleine knew Betty and had a somewhat scandalous connection to her. More importantly, she and Betty are look-alikes. (Well, they’re allegedly look-alikes. One of the film’s minor problems is that Swank looks nothing like Mia Kirshner, who plays Betty.) Bucky begins having torrid sex with Madeline, partly because he’s obsessed with the murder victim and partially to satisfy his unfulfilled desire for Kay.
All this stuff generally works. By this point in The Black Dahlia, De Palma has beautifully recreated 1940’s L.A. and he crafts the look and the performances to replicate the feel of a classic film noir. More importantly, the seeds of a really interesting story are in place. We wonder who would be sick enough to disembowel Betty and why anyone would want to do it in the first place. We also get sucked in by the love triangle between Lee, Bucky, and Kay. If Bucky made a move on Kay, he would be betraying his best friend. But she clearly has a thing for both men and likes carrying on two intimate (but non-sexual) relationships simultaneously.
The first sign that things are going astray comes during a scene in which Bucky has dinner at the home of Madeleine’s family. To say the clan is eccentric would be understating it. The sequence is funny, but woefully out of place with the somber tone of everything that has preceded it. De Palma also starts in with his gimmicky, show-off camera moves. In this case, part of the scene is shot from Bucky’s point of view, meaning that the actors all look straight into the camera to speak.
It only gets worse as the investigation into Betty’s murder grows exponentially more confusing. Bucky starts following all kinds of leads, but it’s never clear how they are connected. There’s something about a porn movie, and prostitution, and a drug ring, and a paroled prisoner from Lee’s past. None of it is explained in a way that makes any sense to the central mystery. I quickly became lost in a haze of seemingly unrelated details. There is nothing more frustrating in a movie. The whole point of a film is to tell a story that the audience will understand and enjoy. When you have a murder mystery where nothing adds up, it only leads to audience rejection. In fact, there were six people in the theater when I saw the movie, and half of them walked out before it was over. Guess I wasn’t alone in my confusion.
The Black Dahlia hits rock bottom in its resolution. Several of the key characters gather together in a room, where the murderer is revealed via a long, rambling, utterly incoherent speech. This monotony is punctuated only by Bucky shooting the enormous chandelier from the ceiling with a single bullet. (He also shoots the head off a marble statue. What kind of bullets are in that gun?) The acting in the scene is atrocious (particularly from the murderer) and, even worse, the motive makes no sense at all. It wouldn’t be any harder to follow if it were in Pig Latin. Here we are at the penultimate moment – the scene where everything should be explained. Rather than giving us the resolution we, by now, crave, De Palma starts pulling out all the “technique” again. The movie starts to feel like a kind of “Film Noir’s Greatest Hits” as it follows the clichés and formulas of the vintage genre. It’s exactly what we don’t want at the precise moment we don’t want it.
James Ellroy’s other signature novel, “L.A. Confidential,” was successfully directed by Curtis Hanson, who understood how to deliver the noir style in service of the story, rather than just for the purpose of aping old movies. Once again, De Palma shoots himself in the foot. The Black Dahlia certainly has a great look, and the performances from Scarlett Johannson and Aaron Eckhart are terrific. But the film gets worse the longer it goes on, as the director slowly loses confidence in his story and starts trying to compensate for it by engaging in overwrought melodramatics.
( out of four)
The Black Dahlia is rated R for strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content and language. The running time is 2 hours and 1 minutes.
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