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The Black Dahlia Movie: Noir Homage Misses the Mark

The Black Dahlia movie Josh HartnettThe Black Dahlia movie with Josh Hartnett. In Brian De Palma’s neo-noir, mind-boggling murder investigation clues lead to a bisexual socialite, her father, her mother, a madman, the Los Angeles Police Department, and Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs.
  • The Black Dahlia (2006) movie review: Brian De Palma’s stilted, badly miscast, and slow-moving homage to Old Hollywood’s films noirs might as well have been called “The Big Snooze.”
  • The Black Dahlia was nominated for one Academy Award: Best Cinematography (Vilmos Zsigmond).

The Black Dahlia movie review: Brian De Palma’s labyrinthine film noir homage is an all-around misfire

Stylized without being stylish, intricate without being intriguing, gloomy without being dramatic. That pretty much sums up director Brian De Palma and screenwriter Josh Friedman’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1987 crime novel The Black Dahlia – though other adjectives such as “overlong,” “baffling,” “phony,” and “inane” would also apply.

Loosely inspired by the gruesome real-life murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short in January 1947, The Black Dahlia is a twisted morality tale centered on characters driven by ambition, lust, madness, revenge, and bad dinner conversations. It’s also further evidence that what is often referred to as “neo-noir” is neither new nor noir, but merely the age-old debasement of a much-revered movie genre.

After all, Hollywood filmmakers and their myriad imitators around the globe have been committing that type of cinematic crime for decades.

Imitation noir

From The Black Dahlia’s first sequence – a street fight involving cops, zoot suiters, and sailors – to the final credits more than two interminable hours later, De Palma and Friedman seem to have set their minds on mimicking “film noir” without actually recreating it.

Like most of the best-known American noirs (and thematically adjacent releases) – This Gun for Hire, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, The Big Sleep, etc. – The Black Dahlia is set in Los Angeles (though part of the movie was actually shot in Bulgaria). Men and women dress according to the fashions of the mid-20th century. They fall in lust and have sex. They lie, cheat, and commit murder.

The conventions of the genre – darkly lit sequences (John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven is a brightly Technicolored exception); the tortuous plot; the potentially deadly seductress – are all there, along with scenes supposed to remind audiences of noir classics like John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., as well as previous Brian De Palma efforts (e.g., Obsession, itself an “homage” to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo).

The problem with The Black Dahlia is that just about everything in it looks, sounds, and feels phony: The characters, the actors playing them, the dialogue and situations, the mechanical suspense, the plot twists and turns, and even the chiaroscuro compositions of De Palma collaborator Vilmos Zsigmond (Obsession, Blow Out, The Bonfire of the Vanities).

The Black Dahlia movie Mia KirshnerThe Black Dahlia with Mia Kirshner. Twenty-two-year-old murder victim Elizabeth Short became known as “The Black Dahlia” apparently because of her hair color, clothing, and George Marshall’s 1946 Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake film noir The Blue Dahlia.

Labyrinthine plot

The Black Dahlia kicks off as Los Angeles Police Department officer Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), known as Mr. Ice due to his cool demeanor, throws an LAPD-promoting boxing match – he had made a deal with a group of gamblers – so he can earn enough cash to send his mentally ill father to a good mental institution.

Bucky’s opponent, fellow LAPD cop Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), known as Mr. Fire, has no qualms about using him as a blood-soaked punching bag. And yet Bucky and Lee are buddies.

Accompanied by the latter’s girlfriend, full-lipped blonde and former gun moll Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), they dine together, drink together, and watch together Paul Leni’s 1928 silent The Man Who Laughs, which stars Conrad Veidt as a man with a permanent, creepy grin. That in turn gives Kay the chance to hold the hands of both of her companions.

Who is what?

Kay is a cute little siren and Bucky is madly in love/lust with her. His guilt knows no bounds, especially after Lee saves his life during a stakeout.

Shortly thereafter, police discover the mutilated corpse of Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), a struggling Hollywood wannabe. Mr. Ice and Mr. Fire – who, under professional and personal pressure, has developed a drug addiction – are supposed to melt into one and find Short’s killer.

But who’s actually on the side of the law and who isn’t? And how to distinguish one’s friends from one’s enemies?

The Black Dahlia Hilary SwankThe Black Dahlia with Hilary Swank as the bisexual socialite who once had a fling with the movie’s Elizabeth Short. Fiona Shaw and John Kavanagh – the latter looking just like director Brian De Palma – play Madeleine’s parents and murder suspects.

Narrative contrivances & problematic performances

Having not read James Ellroy’s novel, this reviewer can’t tell how many of The Black Dahlia’s 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 Friedman, De Palma, and the assorted powers-that-be behind the making of the film.

But surely the sluggish pacing, the off-key music (by Mark Isham, who did a much better job scoring Paul HaggisCrash), and the ostentatious camera setups (besides his work for De Palma, Zsigmond had also shot Robert Altman’s dreary 1973 neo-noir The Last Goodbye) are the filmmakers’ fault and no one else’s. And so is the desultory acting by a group of performers patently out of their element.

A couple of exceptions are Mia Kirshner, stunning in her (otherwise phony-looking) black-and-white, movie-within-a-movie sequences, and Fiona Shaw, who, in brazenly over-the-top fashion, steals the few scenes in which she appears by playing her wealthy, off-kilter matriarch like a cross between Maggie Smith in Travels with My Aunt and Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest.

Josh Hartnett & Hilary Swank should have exchanged roles

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 tainted hero, the personable actor is both badly lit and badly handled. Unsurprisingly, he displays none of the intensity required for the role – certainly nothing compared to what Dana Andrews and Robert Ryan, or even the more stoic Alan Ladd, brought to their troubled noir characters in decades past.

In fact, The Black Dahlia would have been considerably more effective had Hilary Swank, the film’s woefully miscast bisexual femme fatale, switched roles with Hartnett.

Here’s why: In both Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby, for which she learned boxing moves, Swank demonstrated that she can convincingly play masculine roles. Josh Hartnett, for his part, would never be mistaken for one of The Black Dahlia’s props were he to sport a strapless gown and a Veronica Lake-inspired peek-a-boo hairdo, while sultrily delivering lines like “You’d rather fuck me than kill me.”

The Black Dahlia Josh Hartnett Scarlett Johansson sex sceneThe Black Dahlia movie with Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson. Hartnett plays a Los Angeles Police Department cop in lust with his partner’s girlfriend (Johansson), who also happens to be a former gangster moll.

Sexually handicapped noir

Such gender-bending derring-do would have fully suited The Black Dahlia, for De Palma’s movie feels at times less like a film noir homage than a film noir send-up.

In addition to its bad acting, inane dialogue, plot contrivances, flat lighting, and inadequate music, The Black Dahlia features several absurd sex scenes, including a lesbian encounter with Mia Kirshner. The actress does the best she can under the circumstances, but even she can’t save her pathetic “blue movie.”

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 can be attested by films noirs – and blue movies – of that era, sex was supposed to be an arousing experience.

In The Black Dahlia, however, sex runs the gamut from the risibly awful (the lesbian bits) to the appallingly prudish, as when a naked Josh Hartnett gets dressed in front of the camera, which clumsily swerves this way and that in order to avoid showing the actor’s penis.

Latest neo-noir failure

Apart from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Lawrence Kasdan’s modern-day Body Heat, and – on a different level – Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, and David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., how many other American motion pictures of the last 40-odd years have managed to capture the feel of the films noirs of the 1940s and 1950s?

Many have tried, but despite their efforts – and that includes Curtis Hanson’s Oscar-nominated version of another James Ellroy novel, L.A. Confidential – they have succeeded in creating only fake copies of the originals.

Ultimately, The Black Dahlia and its cinematic cousins are reminders that setting a jumbled crime story in 1940s Los Angeles, adding a voice-over narration, and displaying “The End” in the final credits do not a film noir make.

The Black Dahlia (2006)

Director: Brian De Palma.

Screenplay: Josh Friedman.
From James Ellroy’s 1987 novel.

Cast: Josh Hartnett. Aaron Eckhart. Hilary Swank. Scarlett Johansson. Mia Kirshner. Mike Starr. Fiona Shaw. Patrick Fischler. John Kavanagh.
Cameos: k.d. Lang. Kevin Dunn.


The Black Dahlia Movie (2006) Review” endnotes

Mia Kirshner, Hilary Swank, Josh Hartnett, and Scarlett Johansson The Black Dahlia movie images: Universal Pictures.

The Black Dahlia Movie: Noir Homage Misses the Mark” last updated in September 2021.

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1 comment

Marcus Tucker -

I think Neo-Noir is a really stupid term just like the whole Neo-Soul thing in music, neither genre ever completely vanished, but rather people were looking to the mainstream rather than independent cinema for good examples. There is this one film called GOODBYE LOVER directed by Roland Joffe that is very nuanced in its approach to the genre, especially the detective in the film played brilliantly by Ellen DeGeneres (she is wicked, funny and delightfully corrupt). But it’s a film that I think not everyone would like because the ending isn’t at all moralistic. The most evil and conniving people in the film get away with murder (literally).

Back to THE BLACK DAHLIA (which I haven’t seen yet) I never understood what all the hoopla about Josh Hartnett was about. He’s basically Humphrey Bogart with a awful haircut and not real depth. Hilary Swank is really the most different actress of her generation, the most atypical of them all. But I think she struggles with the quest for mainstream box-office appeal and roles that are good for her career.

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