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The Black Dahlia
I went into the screening of Brian De Palma's new period flick The Black Dahlia having almost no preconceived notions. I barely know the details of the infamous murder which inspires the story, and I've never read James Ellroy's novel, upon which the screenplay is based.
The movie, then, was a nice education, although of what exactly, I'm not sure. As most of you know, the infamous 1940s murder of an aspiring actress named Elizabeth Short, whom the papers dubbed The Black Dahlia, really happened. The grotesque nature of her murder (among other atrocities, her face was cut into a hideous grin) shocked the public, and the culprit was never officially found. Many years later, in 1987, crime novelist James Ellroy (who's also responsible for L.A. Confidential) wrote a fictional story based on the real event. The movie is first and foremost based on the novel, so reality and fantasy and conjecture blend together, yadda yadda.
Either way, both the events and the novel seem to be great source material for a movie. Josh Hartnett stars as Officer "Bucky"Â Bleichert, along with Aaron Eckhart as Sergeant Lee Blanchard. The two are both former boxing rivals known as "Fire and Ice"Â (the unruffled Bleichert being the Ice, and the excitable Blanchard being the Fire), but get partnered up as detectives on a lot of high-profile cases. During the downtime, the two spend almost all of their time with Blanchard's girlfriend, the pristine blonde Kay Lake (Scarlett Johannson). Then the Dahlia murder happens, and a lot of things go haywire.
So is it any good? There's a lot to admire, that's for sure. The movie is shot and told in a noir-ish, heavily-narrated syle that would be right at home sixty years ago. In this regard the film goes for broke, even mimicking the transition wipes, the slightly staged feel of some of the bigger set pieces, outrageously over-the-top villains, and most of all, the so-passionate-it's-bordering-on-funny love scenes. (I've noticed some critics have called those scenes unintentionally funny, but, even with my limited knowledge of vintage '40s crime dramas, I can't help but be convinced that that was the point.)
More than just the style, the film looks great; the art direction and period sets are flawless, and I was amazed later when I found out the majority of the film was shot in Bulgaria "” you couldn't possibly tell. De Palma, as usual, has a sure sense of the camera, and one long tracking shot in particular, in which the body of Betty Short is first discovered, is fantastic. In addition, the score, by Mark Isham, is inspired and haunting.
The film gets a bit more hit-and-miss upon a closer examination of the characters and
the story. Out of the main cast, the clear standout is Aaron Eckhart, who infuses his Blanchard with an anxious edginess that elevates the whole picture out of what could have ended up way too stolid. I was previously never quite sold on Eckhart (perhaps because the first thing I saw him in was The Core
), but after this and Thank You For Smoking
, the man has my respect. The other player registering as a fully realized human being is, oddly enough, the dead one: in only a few scenes, all of them reels of failed acting auditions, Mia Kirschner
plays Elizabeth Short as a beautiful would-be actress who keeps a game smile to hide her constant humiliation of never making it big. Its Kirschner, more than anyone else, who stays in your head after the lights come up.
The other principles aren't bad, either, they're just"Â¦bland. Johannson and Hartnett are both stuck with roles that should conceivably be juicy but never seem to make it. I'm still torn over whether this is the writing or the acting. Hartnett has a boyish face that initially makes him look too young, but his assured narration and deep voice sell him in the role. Still, for someone who has proven he's a charming and appealing presence in the right roles (Lucky Number Slevin, even 40 Days and 40 Nights), Hartnett doesn't have the alpha-male charisma that one should have when they're in the Humphrey Bogart role, which is where he finds himself here. (It would have been interesting, come to think of it, to see what Hartnett and Eckhart would do with the other's role.)
As for Johansson, she unfortunately just didn't impress me. It's not hard to find clues of a solid actress hidden underneath many of her roles, but so far, as was a similar case with Match Point and In Good Company, she's a boring presence in a solid movie.
The screenplay, by Josh Friedman, also has some issues. In fact, it has too many issues: it's wildly overstuffed, to the unfortunate point where it has a hard time placing the focus on the Black Dahlia murder itself. I realize the book was probably the same way, but that's a novel, and the movie needs to be streamlined better. We're trying to keep track of a confusing plot that involves an old acquaintance of Kay and Blanchard's about to get out of jail, another criminal the detectives are tracking before the Dahlia murder, and the strange love triangle of the main characters. (Kay and Blanchard never sleep together, which, coupled with the fact that Blanchard doesn't seem to mind Bleichert around all waking hours, means Blanchard is probably gay. Right? But then why does he become obsessed, almost to the point
of insanity, with Betty Short? If the screenplay ever figured out what it should focus on, it would have been better equipped to look into these intriguing themes.)
What makes matters more confusing, but also gives the film (and the Bleichert character) a good shot of adrenaline just when it needs it, is the introduction of Dahlia look-alike Madeleine Linscott, a classic femme fatale played by Hilary Swank. Any movie that can make Swank look positively sexy could probably achieve just about anything, but The Black Dahlia never quite reaches its aspirations. It's a problematic but nonetheless fascinating and well-made film.
Movie Grade: B+
The Black Dahlia is set in 1940s Los Angeles. Two cops, Bucky Bleichert and his partner Lee Blanchard, investigate the death of Elizabeth Short, a young woman found brutally murdered. Bucky soon realizes that his girlfriend had ties to the deceased, and soon after that, he begins uncovering corruption and conspiracy within the police department.