One of the fall films about which I had high hopes was
THE BLACK DAHLIA. It had a sterling pedigree -- adapted from
a novel by James Ellroy, directed by Brian De Palma (who showed
an affinity for similar material in
featuring a cast that included Aaron Eckhart, Josh Hartnett,
Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank. There were femme fatales,
hidden secrets, eroticism, show business, police corruption and a
gruesome homicide that remains unsolved (at least officially). All
the ingredients were there for a truly wonderful film. Yet, while
THE BLACK DAHLIA, all I kept thinking was "What the
hell happened?"

      I suppose the main fault lies with Josh Friedman's adapted
screenplay which is perhaps too faithful to the original source
material. Whereas Brian Helgelund took liberties when
he transformed Ellroy's novel
L.A. CONFIDENTIAL to the screen,
Friedman tries to cram in every last detail, except for the ending
where he takes a wild flight of fancy. De Palma has to share some
of the credit for the films shortcomings as well. There are some
terrific sequences and camera shots, but as with many of his
films, the quality of the acting ranges from strong to over-the-top
(and not in a good way).

      The story centers on two policeman Dwight "Bucky" Bleichart
(Josh Hartnett) and Leland "Lee" Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). They
are both amateur boxers who agree to a match in order to push
through a bond initiative. Once they've battled each other, they
Bleichart is promoted and the pair become partners and rivals for
the affection of Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson looking like a baby
Lana Turner). As with many
film noir, where there's a blonde, there
usually is a dark-haired woman as well and this film actually has
two, aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), who happens
to be a corpse, and Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), a slumming
rich girl.

      There are so many plot strands that thread through the
film. Kay is a former hooker whose pimp is due for imminent release
and Lee has promised to protect her. Lee also becomes obsessed
with finding Elizabeth Short's killer that he resorts to taking drugs
and suffers a sort of breakdown (much of this occurs offscreen).
Bucky eventually emerges as the lead character as he struggles to
unravel several mysteries, including Elizabeth's death (he watches
a screen test she made with De Palma providing the voice of the
off-camera director), a corruption scandal in the police department,
and the involvement of his new paramour Madeleine.

      De Palma includes a scene where Bucky meets Madeleine's
family that feels as if it is from an entirely different movie,
especially due to Fiona Shaw's histrionic performance that makes
Piper Laurie's operatic work in
CARRIE seem downright subtle.
This also points up just how much of a mixed bag the cast is.
Hartnett seems too callow and youthful to successfully portray
Bucky. Johansson looks great in the period clothes but there isn't
really a character for her for to play so she flounders. Eckhart has
some interesting moments before his character gets shunted
off screen. There are nice bits from Rose McGowan as a witness
and Rachel Miner as Madeleine's artistic sister. Kirshner tries hard
as Elizabeth, but the actress is a good decade older than the
character and it shows. The only really good performance in the
film comes from Hilary Swank, although even she is ultimately
defeated by some trite dialogue. Until that time, though, she
appears to be having a fine time getting to flaunt her femininity
on screen after her Oscar winning roles (and could give Ms. Shaw
lessons on how not to overplay but still create a larger-than-life

      The film's denouement attempts to tie together all the
loose plot strands and it does so inelegantly. De Palma had
been heavy-handed in tipping off the audience to some clues
(not for nothing did Bucky, Lee and Kay go to see a revival of
the 1928 silent film
THE MAN WHO LAUGHS) but the absurdity
of it all totally undercuts much of went before leaving
as one of the year's biggest disappointments.

The Black Dahlia
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.

    Viewed at the AMC 84th Street 6