On January 15, 1947, the body of aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short, who came to be known as the Black Dahlia, was found in a South Central Los Angeles empty lot. Short was not simply murdered: she had been beaten; her mouth cut from ear to ear; and her body had been cut in half, the internal organs removed. The killer was never found and the case remains unsolved.
The Black Dahlia murder has wielded a grim fascination for people over the years. Crime novelist James Ellroy put his own spin on the story in his 1987 novel, and now the novel has been adapted into a Brian De Palma film.
The Black Dahlia is a strange film, less a murder mystery and more an exploration of how the murder affects those involved in its investigation. LAPD detectives Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are boxing rivals and good friends, their relationship miraculously uncomplicated despite their both being in various degrees of love with Lee’s girlfriend, former prostitute Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). Their triangle is upset when the Dahlia is murdered and Blanchard becomes obsessed with the case, and when Kay’s abusive former pimp is due to be released from prison. Complicating matters for Bucky is Madeline Linscott (Hilary Swank in full-tilt femme fatale mode), a Dahlia look-alike who may or may not know more than she’s telling about the murder.
I want to adore The Black Dahlia as I adore another Ellroy adaptation, L.A. Confidential, but I can’t. The Black Dahlia does have a lot going for it. The cinematography is lush and gorgeous, and the sets do a fine job of re-creating 1940s Los Angeles – all the more amazing considering that the movie was shot in Bulgaria. Elizabeth Short and what was done to her are not exploited for cheap thrills. The body is discovered in long shot, and it is more through description than through visuals that we learn what was done to her. De Palma keeps a leash on fancy director tricks, but knows exactly how much flash to use and when: The lengthy tracking shot when the Dahlia’s body is discovered is amazing, and the scene when Bucky meets Madeline’s horrible family is ghoulish black comedy. The acting is hit or miss, but the hits save the film: Eckhart gives a tightly-wound, intense performance, but unfortunately he’s not given enough screen time. Hilary Swank steals the show as a spoiled society girl (at times she sounds like Katharine Hepburn) with a taste for rough trade. And Mia Kirshner plays the Dahlia in screen test footage – Kirshner and Swank are the heart of the movie, its yin and yang of damaged women.
Unfortunately the “miss” parts of the acting are given more screen time than the movie can bear. Hartnett simply seems too young for the role; he lacks the edge necessary for a character who’s nicknamed “Mr. Ice” – too often he comes across as “Mr. Cardboard”. He’s also given the task of providing the movie’s noir-narration, and his strained, hesitant voice isn’t suited for it. Johansson looks fabulous in 1940s hair and clothes – you have no trouble imagining her in black-and-white. But her performance is all surface – we learn almost nothing about Kay, nor is it ever clear why Lee and Bucky are both so in love with her (to be fair, this was also a problem in the novel).
Also hampering the movie is Josh Friedman’s screenplay. Adapting Ellroy’s books is a thankless task, as each book contains enough plot for three books. Friedman’s screenplay isn’t streamlined enough, and he doesn’t give enough distinction to the many minor characters – as a result, it’s often difficult to know what’s going on, particularly in the last third of the movie.
Still, the movie has tremendous style and a surprising amount of heart. There are more than enough good scenes and fun surprises to outweigh the film’s flaws. Fans of earlier De Palma films should keep their eyes peeled for Phantom of the Paradise star Bill Finley in a small but key role. And there’s the added treat of k. d. lang as a singer in a lesbian nightclub.