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The Black Dahlia

Almost, But Not Quite

Elizabeth Short, one among many aspiring actresses in Hollywood, disappeared on January 9, 1947. Her dismembered body was found in a vacant lot a week later. The press duly emphasized the seedier aspects of Short’s brief life and the brutal circumstances surrounding her death, dubbing Short "The Black Dahlia" for her penchant for wearing black and the name of a 1946 film, The Blue Dahlia. Not surprisingly, crime novelist (and Los Angeles native) James Ellroy became obsessed with the "Black Dahlia" case.

The Black Dahlia also became the first novel in Ellroy's critically acclaimed "L.A. Quartet," followed by The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz. Covering the post-World War II era through the 50s, Ellroy's densely descriptive, bleakly nihilistic novels set flawed characters -- usually detectives -- against corrupt businessmen and politicians, police brutality, and urban crime. More than a decade later, in stepped filmmaker Brian De Palma, whose own work has gravitated toward the crime genre (e.g., Carlito's Way, Scarface, The Untouchables).

Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Sgt. Leland "Lee" Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), plainclothes detectives, become partners in the Warrants Department. Soon Bleichert finds himself spending his off-duty time with Blanchard and Blanchard’s longtime girlfriend, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). Bleichert, Blanchard, and Kay become friends even as a mutual attraction develops between Bleichert and Kay. Several months later, Bleichert and Blanchard are sent to a seemingly routine stakeout. Blanchard saves Bleichert’s life when bullets begin to fly. Only feet away, a woman discovers Elizabeth Short’s (Mia Kirshner) mutilated body in the vacant lot.

With the press in a frenzy and the public agitated, a politically ambitious D.A., Ellis Loew (Patrick Fischler), assigns the detectives to chase down leads. Blanchard immediately becomes obsessed with finding Short’s killer, spending hours building up a file of photos and other information. Short’s screen tests provide insight into her character and background, but not much else. Blanchard’s growing obsession threatens his fragile mental state and his already shaky relationship with Kay. Bleichert’s tangential investigation eventually leads him to Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), a slumming socialite. Blanchard and Madeleine soon develop a romantic relationship, which becomes increasingly complicated as he learns more after meeting Madeleine’s family.

Performance wise, Josh Hartnett has to struggle (and struggle he does) with faux-noir dialogue that probably read better on a page than it does when spoken by an actor in voice over narration mode. The voice over adds little to the film, but Hartnett seems to have difficulty in making it sound convincing (even when it’s just dialogue). Hilary Swank and Scarlett Johansson also struggle with their roles, partly due to the breathy, sultry voices they use for their characters, but mostly because they seem self-consciously aware that they’re acting in a period film.

There’s some good here, though. Aaron Eckhart brings a low-key intensity to his performance that serves as a perfect counterpoint to Hartnett’s laconic line deliveries. It’s a pity he practically disappears from the second half of the film. Mia Kirshner gives a subtle, nuanced performance in her role as the doomed Short. Relegated to a series of screen tests (with De Palma providing the offscreen voice), Kirshner brings a poignant vulnerability to her performance. She makes it obvious why Blanchard and Bleichert become obsessed with her.

Ellroy's fans will find De Palma’s interpretation reasonably faithful, but only to a point. Although narrative and temporal compression is a given when adapting a novel for the big screen, other, more basic changes to the storyline and character arcs aren’t. De Palma and his screenwriter, Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds), streamline Blanchard’s storyline, tying it more closely to the murder case. It makes for several, significant changes, not least of which is clearly coding Madeleine Linscott as a classic femme fatale and making Bleichert far more ruthless and cold-blooded than he is in Ellroy’s novel. By the end of the film, Bleichert throws the law aside for ambiguously motivated revenge.

De Palma’s set pieces have made some of his critically underappreciated films (e.g., Mission to Mars, Snake Eyes) worth watching. Unfortunately, The Black Dahlia is short on the elaborately choreographed set pieces that we’ve come to expect (they’re also a genre requirement). Still, De Palma makes sure The Black Dahlia includes plenty of eye candy (e.g., impeccable period detail and production design). Then, of course, there’s the period clothes and makeup to take up our attention. With her blonde hair and red lipstick, Johansson certainly looks the part. Likewise with Swank, Kirshner, and the two male leads, Hartnett and Eckhart (due mostly to their ever-present fedoras).

And what’s a De Palma film without the stylistic borrowings that define him as a filmmaker (just short of auteur). De Palma didn’t have to dig deep into noir’s cinematic heritage for his reference points, including quoting from Otto Preminger’s Laura (fetishistic, possibly necrophiliac obsession with a dead woman), Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (a fatal hesitation on a winding staircase), and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (an up-and-over crane shot that settles on the vacant lot where Short’s body is found). De Palma even quotes from one of his own films, e.g., the train station sequence from The Untouchables.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars