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The Black Dahlia   D

Universal Pictures / Millennium Films

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Brian De Palma
Writer: Josh Friedman (based on a novel by James Ellroy)
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw.

Review by Rob Vaux

I can't say The Black Dahlia didn't entertain me. I can't say that. The question is what kind of entertainment is it, and is it the sort that one should warn people about before they buy a ticket? As overheated camp, it has no peer this year. As tough film noir of the type promised on the ads? Well, not so much. Then again, what else could one expect from Brian De Palma, a filmmaker whose thundering excursions into genre overkill have gained the inexplicable approval of cinema scholars everywhere? And certainly, James Ellroy's novel -- based loosely on the notorious 1947 murder of actress Elizabeth Short -- engages in the same bombastic melodrama at which De Palma excels. But Ellroy has a few cards in his corner that this adaptation lacks. There's his mastery of the language for one. The poetry of his words approaches Chandler in cadence and intensity, weaving hard-boiled poetry unfettered by compromise. Ellroy also understands human evil as few others; indeed, his professed obsession with the Dahlia stems from the death of his own mother under similar circumstances. As over-the-top as his work sometimes gets, that dark understanding permeates every word, diffusing potential snickers with glimpses of an all-too-believable hell on earth.

A few moments in De Palma's adaptation hit upon the same shuddering truth. Many of them belong to Mia Kirshner in the title role, seen here only in photos and snippets of film observed by other characters. Her eyes speak to the despair of so many Hollywood dreamers: a pretty girl with huge ambitions and no talent to back them up. The pathos of her failed auditions and the sleazy descent into pornography and corruption line every corner of her face -- reflecting the very real girl whose unspeakable murder drives this tale. The film has some slick technical chops as well, including gorgeous period-era production design from the brilliant Dante Ferretti and periodically stunning camerawork, such as the tracking shot in which Short's mutilated corpse is discovered in an abandoned lot.

But for the most part, The Black Dahlia steers sharply away from the genuine, the real, or even the cinematically plausible in favor of glorious full-bore self-parody. Ellroy's complex story provides plenty of grist for such intentions, grabbing every noir trope it can find and throwing them into the ring with ruthless abandon. So much is crammed into the plot, in fact, that the Dahlia herself becomes almost secondary. The focus instead is on a pair of police officers -- Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) -- who are peripherally attached to the case and become entangled in its obsessive webs. The two are partners, former boxers whose engineered bout earns a bumper crop in publicity for the department. They share the affections of a woman, Kay (Scarlett Johansson), in a strange triangle where Bleichert's platonic friendship serves as a balm for the standard cocktail of troubling secrets. Short's murder -- a horrifying affair involving torture, organ removal, and a gruesome smile carved into the young woman's mouth -- strikes a chord in Blanchard's psyche, distracting him from the graft, brutality, and occasional genuine justice that passes for police work in his world. Bleichert, calmer and more cautious, finds himself dragged along for the ride.

Screenwriter Josh Friedman makes a yeoman effort to capture every thread of Ellroy's dizzying tapestry, and actually keeps things coherent despite an extended climax that relies on revelatory one-upmanship to hide its clunky exposition. But material like this demands a delicate touch: stylistic choices that emphasize the elegance beneath the lurid details. Curtis Hanson produced a masterpiece from Ellroy's similarly themed L.A. Confidential, but where it used hints and suggestions, The Black Dahlia sledgehammers us into oblivion. Like a magpie, De Palma's eye is drawn to the gaudiest elements, glommed onto the screen with unconscionably heavy strokes. Nothing is left behind. Every melodramatic moment is underscored with typical auteurial bombast: political corruption, mob machinations, corrupt boxers, lesbian bars, even the Zoot Suit Riots make an appearance. (One suspects that the novel's Tijuana donkey sex is absent only because they knew the censors would pitch a fit.) The topper is that old noir standby, the wealthy and corrupt family -- whose femme fatale daughter (Hilary Swank) makes Bleichert her new toy. Swank's normal brilliance is nowhere to be seen, drowned out by a drag-queen desperation to prove her sexiness ("Look! I'm a woman! I have boobs and everything!") after the admittedly unfair butch tag of her twin Oscar roles. Her character's crazed kinfolk typify De Palma's feverish approach, from the family dog shot and stuffed by an ogre-like patriarch (John Kavanagh) to Fiona Shaw's no-wire-hangers mother, who has to be seen to be believed.

Small wonder, then, that the film ultimately embraces its kitsch qualities, for no other approach could function in such an environment. Everything comes screaming at us in saturated quote marks, from De Palma's swooping camera movements to the typical "corruption beneath the surface" motif that noir ostensibly requires. K.d. lang shows up at one point, belting out show tunes in a top hat and tails. It goes that far. All of which would be fine and good, I suppose, were it not for a promising beginning that suggested a much different destination. The Black Dahlia might not have scaled the heights of L.A. Confidential, but with a more mature tone, it might have come within shouting distance. As it is, it slides from pulp classic to guilty pleasure to cautionary example to full-bore train wreck, leaving nothing for the audience to do but stare up at it in shock. I might have been more willing to accept the film for what it is had it not shown signs of so much more... and had there not been an actual body at its center. The Dahlia and her legacy have come to stand for all that is wrong with our media-driven society: newspapers scouring over vulgar details for a rubbernecking public while the victim herself falls by the wayside. Ellroy escaped exploitation by offering savage social commentary in his novel, but the film version sabotages its own campy irrelevance by diving straight into exploitative sleaze. It's hard to laugh at The Black Dahlia when the blood it wallows in flowed from real veins.

Review published 09.14.2006.

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