The Black Dahlia is based on the novel of the same name by James Ellroy, which was itself inspired by the real-life unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947. Ellroy’s novel diverges considerably from the actual events, but helped propel him from genre writer to literary star, forming the basis of his LA Quartet series of novels, which also includes LA Confidential which was made into a movie in 1997.
David Fincher was originally set to direct the movie version of Ellroy’s novel, but Brian De Palma took over and, on paper at least, looked to be the ideal guy for the job thanks to movies like Scarface (1983), Wise Guys (1986) and The Untouchables (1987).
As with the book, the movie contains a dizzying number of plot strands. Josh Hartnett plays LA Cop Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert who together with his partner Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) investigate the brutal murder of aspiring movie starlet Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) who is found cut in two with her mouth slashed from ear to ear. She becomes known as “The Black Dahlia” in the press, and the pressure is on to find the killer. Sucking down benzadrine pills like candy, Blanchard becomes obsessed by the investigation and starts going off the rails, leaving Bleichert to follow up the leads.
His investigation brings him to society femme fatale Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) who appears to be linked to the victim in some way. Bleichert strikes up an unlikely relationship with the glamorous Linscott (although he also ends up fooling around with Blanchard’s girlfriend Kay Lake played by Scarlett Johansson).
De Palma manfully wrestles with the plot, but the strands are like a writhing octopus constantly slipping out of his grip. Although several characters and story threads from Ellroy’s book have been removed from the screenplay, a two hour movie is not enough time to do even the remaining ones justice, and further pruning could have resulted in a more digestible film.
And while the script lurches around like a drunk sailor, it’s abundantly clear that many of the actors have been poorly cast. Hartnett is wooden and unconvincing in the lead and Johansson pouts and simpers but fails to demonstrate the kind of acting chops her slim role requires. Toothy Swank adopts an ill-advised Scottish accent that comes and goes, sometimes travelling the length and breadth of the United Kingdom in search of a home. As a side note, Madeleine Linscott is supposed to look like the murder victim, but you’d have a tough time confusing the two in the dark, so that aspect of the movie is slightly perplexing.
Aaron Eckhart starts off well, but his character’s amphetamine addiction causes him to go into spasms of overacting. But even that is nothing compared to Fiona Shaw as Ramona, Madeleine Linscott’s permanently drunk mother who seems to have teleported in from another movie entirely, possibly a comedy, although it’s difficult to say.
While we’re beating the movie with a stick, it’s worth mentioning the rubbery dummy that passes for the dismembered body of the Black Dahlia. As the coroner (played by Ian McNeice) is handling the corpse the hands look like they have no bones in them and are made of foam. For such an important practical effect, you’d think De Palma would not entrust its manufacture to the interns at the special effects house.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Veteran cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (who shot Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter and The Two Jakes) creates an incredible film noir feel to the photography. The stunning visuals are complemented by Mark Isham’s lush score, and together they stop the movie from being an complete disaster.
But there is no denying that The Black Dahlia is a muddled failure. Perhaps an extended director’s cut may yet save the movie. James Ellroy praised a three hour rough cut of the film, but allegedly described the shorter, finished version as incomprehensible. Events are too compressed with plot twists spilling into the audience’s lap too quickly to absorb, leaving the final reel puzzling, contrived and unbelievable. LA Confidential is still the quintessential adaptation of Ellroy, and one of the best modern noir films around; it’s a pity that The Black Dahlia is left wanting in so many areas and is not the movie we all hoped it would be.
The Black Dahlia (2006)
Dir. Brian De Palma
Stars: Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner
Genre: Mystery, Drama