The Black Dahlia
Dir. Brian De Palma. 2006. R. 121mins. Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner.
Murder! Mutilation! Sex! Lesbians! De Palma’s lurid telling of the “Black Dahlia” murder mystery plays less like L.A. Confidential and more like a pulpy paperback cover brought to life. If only the film was as fun as the 1940s B-noirs that it wants to emulate.
In 1947, an aspiring 22-year-old actor named Elizabeth Short (Kirshner, lighting up the screen) was found in an abandoned lot in Los Angeles, her corpse severed in two. Rather than focus on the murder, De Palma’s version, based on James Ellroy’s novel, follows the clumsy intrigue between two police detectives on the case.
Bleichert (Hartnett, functional as the hardboiled narrator) and Blanchard (Eckhart, better) are partners, becoming the best of friends along with Blanchard’s girlfriend, Kay (Johansson, all plump lips and various states of undress, with little else to do). But Blanchard and Kay’s dark past—and the wickedness of the Dahlia case—soon catches up with the once contented threesome. Oscar winner Swank (terribly miscast) also shows up as a femme fatale with a wealthy family that’s an awkward ode to Chinatown as interpreted by Tim Burton.
With his use of camera flourishes, destabilizing point-of-view shots, plentiful mirrors, shadows and a staircase straight out of Hitchcock, De Palma is either a master stylist or a hack sensationalist who has never composed an original shot in his life. Feel free to judge which for yourselves.—Anthony Kaufman