Stylized without being stylish, intricate without being intriguing, heavy without being dramatic. That pretty much sums up director Brian De Palma and screenwriter Josh Friedman's adaptation of James Ellroy's crime novel The Black Dahlia – though other adjectives such as “overlong,” “incomprehensible,” “phony,” and “inane” would also apply. (See The Black Dahlia story / synopsis.)
Loosely inspired by the gruesome, real-life 1940s murder of film starlet Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia is a twisted morality tale about characters driven by ambition, greed, lust, madness, revenge, and bad dinner conversations. It is also proof that what is often referred to as “neo-film noir” is neither new nor noir, but merely the age-old debasing of a much-revered film genre. After all, Hollywood filmmakers and their myriad imitators around the world have been committing that sort of crime for decades.
From the film's first sequence – a Los Angeles street fight involving cops, zoot suiters, and sailors – to the final credits more than two long hours later, De Palma and Friedman seem to have set their minds on mimicking “film noir” without actually recreating it.
'The Black Dahlia' pays homage to classic film noirs and to Brian De Palma movies
Like most of the best-known American film noirs, The Black Dahlia is appropriately set in 1940s Los Angeles (though some of it was shot in Bulgaria). Men and women dress according to fashions of the period; they fall in lust and have unbridled sex; and they murder, lie, and cheat on one another. The superficial conventions of the genre are all there, along with scenes supposed to remind audiences of noir classics such as John Huston's The Maltese Falcon and Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd., as well as previous Brian De Palma movies, among them Obsession, itself an “homage” to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.
Missing, however, is the crucial film noir atmosphere – the chiaroscuro compositions, the suspenseful climax, the sense of foreboding. The play of light-and-shadow is all but absent from The Black Dahlia, which offers plenty of killings like any TV cop show but little suspense and no feeling of doom. It's as if the filmmakers were amateur painters intent on recreating a master's work of art, while putting all their efforts into arranging the prettiest frame for their work.
'The Black Dahlia' movie woes: Plot contrivances, poor dialogue, weak performances
Since I haven't read James Ellroy's novel, I can't say how many of the plot contrivances and bad lines (the few that can be understood, since much of the dialogue is as muddled as the plot) should be blamed on Ellroy, and how many should be blamed on Josh Friedman, Brian De Palma, and the assorted powers-that-be behind the making of The Black Dahlia. But surely the ostentatious camera setups, the off-key music (by Mark Isham, who did a much better job scoring Crash), the sterile cinematography (by Vilmos Zsigmond, who also shot Robert Altman's dreary 1973 neo-noir The Last Goodbye), and the desultory acting are the filmmakers' fault and no one else's.
As so often happens in Brian De Palma's films, the performances in The Black Dahlia are below par. One major exception is a cameo by an overly powdered Fiona Shaw, who steals the few scenes in which she appears by playing her foaming-at-the-mouth matriarch less like Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond and more like a cross between Maggie Smith in Travels with My Aunt and Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. (Admittedly, Shaw's over-the-top performance is definitely not for everybody.) Also, Mia Kirshner looks stunning in black and white, and does a credible job as the doomed Dahlia in the film-within-a-film sequences.
Now, if Brian De Palma had set out to destroy Josh Hartnett's career as a Hollywood leading man, he couldn't have done a better job. As The Black Dahlia's boxing-cop hero, the handsome and likable Hartnett is both badly lit and badly handled. Not surprisingly, the Pearl Harbor actor displays none of the intensity required for the role – certainly nothing compared to what Robert Ryan, or even Steve Brodie or Alan Ladd, brought to their conflicted characters in decades past. (Image: Hilary Swank and Josh Hartnett in The Black Dahlia.)
In fact, The Black Dahlia would have been considerably more effective had Hilary Swank, the film's woefully miscast femme fatale, switched roles with Hartnett. In both Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby, for which she learned boxing moves, Hilary Swank proved she can convincingly play masculine roles. Josh Hartnett, for his part, would never have been confused with one of The Black Dahlia's props had he sported a shoulderless gown and a Veronica Lake-inspired peek-a-boo hairdo, while sultrily delivering lines such as “You'd rather fuck me than kill me.”
'The Black Dahlia': Sexually handicapped film noir
Such gender-bending daring-do would have fully suited The Black Dahlia, for Brian De Palma's movie feels less like a film noir homage than a film noir send-up. Besides the aforementioned plot contrivances, poor dialogue, bad acting, flat lighting, and inadequate music, De Palma comes up with several absurd sex scenes, including a lesbian encounter featuring Mia Kirshner. Kirshner does the best she can under the circumstances, but even that capable actress can't save a “blue movie” made by someone who apparently can't even spell the word s-e-x.
It may come as a shock to those who believe the apex of 1940s sensuality to have been Andy Hardy's Blonde Trouble, but as so many film noirs – and blue movies – of that era have shown, sex was actually quite arousing in those days. In The Black Dahlia, however, sex runs the gamut from the hilariously awful (the aforementioned lesbian bits) to the appallingly prudish, as when a naked Josh Hartnett gets dressed as the camera clumsily swerves this way and that in order to avoid showing the actor's penis.
'The Black Dahlia' is the latest neo-noir failure
With the exception of Roman Polanski's Chinatown and – on a different level – Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects and David Lynch's Mulholland Dr., I can't think of any other American motion picture in the last forty-odd years that has captured the feel of the film noirs of the '40s and '50s. Many have tried, but despite their efforts they have succeeded in creating mere carbon copies of the originals. (And that includes Curtis Hanson's generally well-regarded film version of another James Ellroy novel, L.A. Confidential.)
Ultimately, what The Black Dahlia and its cinematic cousins do best is to serve as a reminder to current filmmakers that setting a muddled crime story in the 1940s, adding a voice-over narration, and displaying “The End” in the final credits do not a film noir make.
Note: A version of this The Black Dahlia movie review was initially posted in September 2006.
The Black Dahlia (2006). Dir.: Brian De Palma. Scr.: Josh Friedman; from James Ellroy's novel. Cast: Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Scarlett Johansson, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw, Patrick Fischler, Rose McGowan.
Brian De Palma's 2006 movie The Black Dahlia is based on James Ellroy's novel, itself inspired by the Jan. 15, 1947, Hollywood murder of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short. The nickname “The Black Dahlia” was apparently a combination of Short's hair color and clothing, and George Marshall's 1946 Alan Ladd / Veronica Lake film noir The Blue Dahlia.
'The Black Dahlia' movie synopsis
1940s Los Angeles: Two police officers, both former boxers, get ready to knock each other's brains out so the Los Angeles Police Department can get a little positive publicity.
Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), known as Mr. Ice for his supposedly cool demeanor, has made a deal with gamblers to throw the fight so he can earn enough cash to send his demented, pigeon-shooting father to a good mental institution. Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), known as Mr. Fire, is ready to use Bucky as his own private punching bag.
Following lots of slow-motion punches, Bucky has his teeth ejected out of his mouth. He ends up lying flat on the ring. Consequently, Bucky gets nice dentures – thus fully earning his nickname – while the elderly Mr. Bleichert gets a nice sanatorium.
If losing his teeth while fighting Blanchard wasn't bad enough, Bucky must face the fact that he ardently desires his partner's girl, the full-lipped blonde Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). The trio eat dinner together, drink together, and sometimes they even catch a silent movie together.
Though they live in the 1940s, instead of going to see Betty Grable or Abbott and Costello, Bucky, Lee, and Kay opt for a 1928 silent film, Paul Leni's Gothic love story The Man Who Laughs. Perhaps because Conrad Veidt's creepy grin (his mouth has been sliced open for good) gives Kay the shivers – and thus the chance for her to hold the hands of both her companions.
Love triangle, guilt, murder
Making matters a tad more complicated, Bucky must also deal with his immense guilt, especially after Blanchard saves his life during a stakeout. Bucky had conked out in the car, and seemingly would have been killed had Blanchard not taken quick action.
In the vicinity where the shooting had taken place, a dark-haired woman screams for help. No one seems to notice or care.
Shortly thereafter, the severed, bloodless corpse of Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), a struggling Hollywood starlet, is discovered by police. Mr. Ice and Mr. Fire are supposed to melt into one to find Short's killer.
Dubbed “The Black Dahlia,” Short becomes an obsession for both Bucky and Blanchard. The latter, however, has other things on his mind as well: a mean criminal he had helped put behind bars, Bobby DeWitt (Richard Brake), is about to be released. The meanie had been abusive to Kay, who years earlier had found freedom and love with Blanchard's assistance. With so much going on – there are also family-related personal demons at work – Mr. Fire starts taking drugs, and is about to go off the deep end.
Lesbian 'blue movies'
Bucky, for his part, becomes involved with a bisexual socialite, Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), who once had had a fling with Elizabeth Short because she wanted to know what it was like to have sex with someone who looked just like herself – even though only a mole might think that Madeleine and Elizabeth looked even remotely alike.
Little by little, Bucky becomes increasingly entwined with Madeleine and the lively Linscott family – mom (Fiona Shaw) is a nutcase worse than the elderly Mr. Bleichert; dad (John Kavanagh) is a ruthless real-estate tycoon; sis (Rachel Miner) is a nympho.
Bucky also discovers that Elizabeth Short had made lesbian blue movies, but is unable to find any revealing clues until disaster strikes and Blanchard is murdered.
'The Black Dahlia' mystery miraculously solved
Besides grabbing the chance to make out with Blanchard's “widow,” Bucky begins to unravel the Black Dahlia mystery. Mind-boggling – and utterly senseless – clues lead him to Madeleine, to Mr. Linscott, to Mrs. Linscott, to a deranged killer, to corruption within the L.A.P.D., to bad modern art, even to Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs.
But Bucky proves himself both a mind-reader and a genius by piecing everything together.
Justice – of the Clint Eastwood kind – will be made, but Dirty Bucky will have to keep his mouth shut about the matter.
Scarlett Johansson The Black Dahlia photo: Universal Pictures.
Josh Hartnett and Hilary Swank The Black Dahlia photo: Universal Pictures
Scarlett Johansson and Josh Hartnett in Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia photo: Universal Pictures.