There are so many missteps in Brian De Palma’s THE BLACK DAHLIA that one hardly knows where to start. Perhaps the best place is with the adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel of the same name. The book is a rich and vibrant work that provides too much fodder for a two-hour film to capture. Instead of committing to the admittedly painful experience of winnowing subplots, the powers that be decided to squish everything uncertainly into the allotted running time. Therefore, it is the audience that has the painful experience, which is to say, attempting to muddle its collective way through a jumble of leads, clues, and red herrings that pop out of left field in ways that play as ludicrous, not slick. Add a few bad performances in key roles, plus a lynchpin that isn’t, and the result is a film that looks great thanks to De Palma’s visual sensibility, but that kinks itself up into a Gordian Knot.
It starts well, full of delectable hard-boiled slang a la Ellroy, and the sweeping camera, stylish compositions, and menacingly tight close-ups that reveal a universe of corruption beneath a glamorous veneer. If anything could have saved this, it’s that moody atmosphere of danger, but even De Palma stumbles. The man who directed one of the best staircase sequences ever as an homage to Eisenstein in THE UNTOUCHABLES, can’t quite get the same spark in this film’s staircase set piece. Where there should be suspense in the gunplay and sudden garroting, there is instead a menacing shadow meant to be a mystery within the mystery, but whose outline is obvious to anyone still paying attention. It’s a novice’s stumble. Too bad.
The true story of the murder of wannabe actress Elizabeth Short, dubbed eponymous The Black Dahlia, in 1947 is the backdrop for the fictional tale of two LAPD detectives working through their own issues as much as the mystery of who bisected the girl and dumped her body in a vacant lot. The lurid case was seized upon by the media, becoming headline news in sleepy post-war America. For the corrupt LAPD, it was a chance to spiff up its image with the public by quickly bringing the murderer to justice.
The detectives in question, Lee (Aaron Eckhart) and Bucky (Josh Hartnett), just happen to be on a stakeout a block from where the Dahlia’s body is discovered. They’re both former boxers who made a splash when the department pitted them against each other in a public relations match where they were billed as Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice respectively. Lee, hungry for headlines, maneuvers them both onto the special squad set up to solve the case. Bucky is less than pleased, but owing his career and his life to Lee, acquiesces. There’s also the guilt factor. That would be Lee’s luscious live-in girlfriend, Kay (Scarlett Johansson). She’s putting the moves on Bucky, who is tempted by her ample charms and cool beauty, but not enough to betray his partner.
Hartnett plays the role as though wearing a Kabuki mask, and not one of the more emotive ones. Perhaps he was taking the nickname “Mr. Ice” too much to heart, or perhaps it’s a case of not having the wherewithal to actually play inner conflict beneath a cool exterior, either way it really doesn’t matter. He’s a gaping emotional hole in a story that should be rife with passions lurking just beneath the surface, threatening to breach at any moment. Much better is Eckhart as a perfectly tortured soul on the brink of an explosion using a cocky swagger to compensate for his inner demons and cross purposes, many of which are revealed, but with none of the finesse of Eckhart’s performance. There’s real heat between him and Johansspn, who effortlessly channels both Stanwyck and Turner at their most femme fatale noir. Not even she can warm up Harnett, though. Nor can Hilary Swank, as Maddie, the rich girl with a taste for slumming when it comes to sexual adventures, one of which involves Bucky in a bid to keep her name out of the papers in connection with the Dahlia murder. It’s not that she doesn’t look lovely, but the accent that she essays is not so much ritzy as Jessica Rabbit played at a variable speed. The biggest failing, though, is one over which Ms Swank has little control and must be laid at the feet of whomever did the casting. The reason Bucky pursues Maddie while looking for lead in the case is that she looks exactly like Elizabeth Short. Alas, Short, seen only in film clips from her dubious film career, is played with fragile brilliance by Mia Kirshner, who bears only the most tangential of resemblances to Ms. Swank. The whole reason for involving Maddie in the story, and the subsequent epiphanies that result therefrom, evaporate like so much nitrate gone bad.
THE BLACK DAHLIA stands as an example of filmmakers genuinely appreciating their source material, but lacking the basic understanding of what it takes to turn it into a film.