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The Black Dahlia

Although The Black Dahlia admirably coalesces James Ellroy"s searingly brilliant noir novel into a sharp, streamlined screenplay, director Brian De Palma"s campy approach and questionable casting sever the style from the substance as brutally in two as its titular victim.


A fictional fever-dream mystery crafted loosely from the notorious, still-unsolved 1947 murder of wayward wannabe starlet Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), the tale teams two rising L.A. police detectives whose bone-crunching boxing bout give them political juice—Mr. Ice, cool young Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Mr. Fire, hotheaded veteran Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). Both men become embroiled in and obsessed with the sick, horrific crime, even as Dwight falls hard for Lee"s victimized, world-weary live-in love Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson)—with Lee"s unspoken approval: he"s too busy spiraling downward into a psychotic fixation with solving the murder, having previously lost his sister to foul play. But Dwight"s also led astray by the more carnal temptations of voracious Madeline Sprague (Hilary Swank), the daughter of a bizarre high-society family with her own shadowy connections to the Dahlia. Sordid subplots abound, simmering and swirling as in death the Black Dahlia threatens to suck everyone into an ever-widening abyss.


Not entirely an epic of miscasting, the film nevertheless falls short finding performers to essay Ellroy"s compelling cast: Hartnett demonstrates more depth here than in most previous efforts, but comes fathoms short of the necessary mix of drive and angst to suit the complex role. Although she is physically conveys a maturity beyond her years, Johansson shows none of the wounded wisdom of the novel"s Kay—her seductive, ethereal air would, with an ebony dye job, have served her far better as the Dahlia herself, a cipher who becomes, in the eyes of those obsessed with her, whatever they dream her to be. Conversely, Kirshner delivers in that elusive, spectral role, but the been-around-the-block-one-too-many times faded glint in her eyes would have made her a much more involving Kay. Eckhart has the spit and polish of a political-minded cop down pat, but lacks the self-destructive inner fire that fuels the façade. Swank is mostly delightful, by degrees—many of her choices are intriguing, occasionally outrageous and give her femme fatale needed dimensions, but others are overindulged.


There are certainly macabre, grand guignol moments in the story that make it more akin to Sunset Boulevard than its more obvious comparison, Ellroy"s own L.A. Confidential, but De Palma—never known for his subtlety—handles them with such an overt, determined campiness, any wry irony is wrung from them. The result is more of a parody—indeed, an unflattering caricature—than a modern commentary on classic noir style. Add in his ceaseless, camera-swooping swipes from Hitchcock and his ongoing fixation with meaningless gore—ham-fisted homages and hemorrhaging hemoglobin, to ape Ellroy"s alliterative gossip-rag riffs—that distract from the intensity of the source material, and all that remains is a bloody shame.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 stars.