The Black Dahlia December 30, 2006Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , trackback
Uninspiringly dull, The Black Dahlia is sure to disappoint most everyone. Director Brian De Palma’s cult of fans will miss the suspenseful excitement found in his best films, such as Blow Out and Carlito’s Way. Readers of James Ellroy’s novel, which the film is adapted from, may scratch their heads as to how the engrossing, well-plotted book could be turned into such a mess. Intrigued followers of the real-life Elizabeth Short murder case, the inspiration for the novel and film, will likely feel let down by the lack of attention paid to the case and the subsequent revelation of the raven-haired victim’s fictional killer. The film noir enthusiasts, anxious for an homage to sink their teeth into, will see through the voiceovers and 1940s duds to realize that The Black Dahlia is a mere pretender, unworthy of their attention.
These criticisms are particularly disappointing on a personal level, as this was a film I’d been looking forward to since David Fincher was originally attached to direct (allegedly in black and white) with Mark Wahlberg and Josh Hartnett starring. Wahlberg also dropped out and was replaced by Aaron Eckhart while Hartnett, unfortunately, still had nothing better to do when the cameras finally began rolling with De Palma at the helm. The two actors play police officers Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Eckhart), both of whom also used to box from time to time. Much of the film’s first half is promising, as we see the two boxing cops face off in the ring for a fund raiser in support of a police-friendly ballot proposition. The successful passing of the initiative leads to promotions for each, and the two men become partners serving warrants.
This partnership translates to their personal lives as Bleichart becomes a frequent guest at the home of Blanchard and his live-in female companion Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). While the detectives are on a stakeout, a young woman’s heavily mutilated body is found in a field nearby. The victim is Elizabeth Short, a wannabe starlet from Boston, who’s dubbed the Black Dahlia by the press. Along with the murder case, there are other stories interwoven from Ellroy’s book involving a man Blanchard had arrested in a bank heist who’s now about to be released from prison and Bleichert’s investigation of a wealthy Dahlia lookalike (Hilary Swank). Eventually, everything meshes into a connected, mildly coherent storyline but not until the underwhelming end of the movie.
For this film to really work, the performances need to be top-notch and they just aren’t. Hartnett is simply not a good actor. He’s not equipped with the emotional range required to effectively play Bleichert. Eckhart is merely okay and, through no fault of his own, isn’t given the opportunity to show much of what makes Blanchard tick. He’s clearly a secondary character in the film, whose motivations are never really explored. While I’ve always found Scarlett Johansson an alluring screen presence, she should avoid taking roles like this one as she probably doesn’t do it justice. Her performance comes across as acting more than feeling. Both Hartnett and her seem too young or inexperienced to fully inhabit their roles.
On the bright side, it was good to see Hilary Swank in a more feminine part for a change, albeit as a bisexual. She comes out mostly unscathed, as does Mia Kirshner, who gives the most interesting and best performance in the film, playing the ill-fated Elizabeth Short in black and white (and Academy ratio) screen test clips from before the murder. The Betty Short we see in this footage is a bright-eyed, if somewhat delusional, innocent slowly shattered by her failed dreams of becoming a movie star. However, simply seeing Hartnett, given his limited range, as he watches the clips falls far short of showing what it is about this woman that’s compelled so many people for nearly fifty years. Then there’s Fiona Shaw, who manages to nearly ruin the movie with her mere two scenes by launching into hysterics that seem to belong in another film entirely.
My main source of disappointment lies in the great potential lurking in Ellroy’s novel. It’s one thing to make a humdrum movie out of nothing, but it’s entirely different when the starting point is such an impressive book. For example, the triangle between the two cops and Kay Lake should have been an intense, psychological web of lies and revelations. Instead, we have a few loose ends quickly tied up long after anyone cares. The Dahlia murder, despite not being the focus of most of the movie before, dominates the unsatisfying ending. De Palma pays as little attention as possible to the crime throughout, until the very end when the director suddenly jumps out with a dispassionate crib sheet containing the details of the killing. This leaves the viewer, who will not understand most anything at the end unless close attention is paid, wondering why the Bleichert-Lake-Blanchard arc was teased so much if the finale is just going to descend into a bland whodunit with a killer we barely know or care about.
Overall, I just wanted De Palma to make up his mind with which story he was telling - the Dahlia murder or the detectives working it. Trying to merge the two was an unfortunate choice that ends up muddying the whole thing. Even though it would have strayed from the source material, I would have preferred the murder to have remained unsolved in the movie to allow for more of an exploration into the mindsets of the detectives and their shared paramour. Blanchard disappeared way too early, before his personality was fully established and his story had been better explored by Ellroy. I’m the last person who’d fault a film simply for straying from its source material, but such an obvious step down artistically can be maddening when a much better option exists in the original version.
Lest a recommendation seem curious, I should point out that I did find a lot to like in The Black Dahlia. Working as both a blessing and a curse, L.A. Confidential, one of the finest films of the last ten years, probably boosted interest in another adaptation of an Ellroy book while also burdening it with an incredibly high standard of comparison. I think The Black Dahlia wilts under such comparisons, but it’s still an above-average effort regardless of its failures. If you can make out the story, it’s fairly compelling (though still far inferior to Ellroy’s novel) and the look and feel of the movie, despite being a little undistinguished, is a welcome attempt at re-creating 1940s Los Angeles via Bulgaria, where it was actually filmed. While something seems off visually (too drab, maybe), I don’t want to fault the filmmakers too much for the look, given the limitations of the shoot, when it’s not nearly as problematic as the miscasting of Hartnett and some of the decisions in the storytelling.
Ultimately, The Black Dahlia is a highly frustrating film that is unlikely to please those most interested in what it has to offer, let alone the average moviegoer. The Universal DVD at least has a nice variation of the theatrical poster on its cover (though not as striking as the French one-sheet that I’ve included here) and featurettes that provide more information on the actual murder case, as well as some making-of footage and a corporate sponsored fluff piece about the “De Palma touch,” amid the usual self-congratulatory backslapping. Despite its shortcomings, I’d still recommend the film to those with an interest in the subject matter. It’s a watchable failure that should be seen before being dismissed. Overall, however, it adds up to a forgettable effort that should have been better.