I’m a big fan of horror movies, I’ve always had a fascination with serial murder, and I count The Untouchables by Brian De Palma as one of my all-time favourite films. So taken at face value, The Black Dahlia should be the perfect storm of a film for me, shouldn’t it? Well, only in theory. Unfortunately, De Palma’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s initial entry into his L.A. Quartet failed to captivate in quite the same way as the film version of L.A. Confidential, another of Ellroy’s books about the seamy underbelly of post-war Hollywood. While L.A. Confidential writer Brian Helgeland was able to truly adapt Ellroy’s sprawling narrative, Dahlia writer Josh Friedman tries to juggle too many balls and ends up spilling them all.
First of all, it’s kind of erroneous to say that this movie is about the infamous Black Dahlia murder that captivated Los Angeles in the winter of 1947. The Dahlia was aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, and on the morning of January 15th, after not having been seen by anyone for a week, her body was found in a vacant lot on Norton Avenue in the Leimert Park neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Her body was found cut in half at the waist, with many of her major organs removed and a frightening grin cut across her face from ear to ear. Despite what you see in the film, the case remains unsolved and actively open to this day; in fact, it was recently profiled on America’s Most Wanted in conjunction with the movie’s release.
n the film though, the question of who killed Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) takes a back seat to the friendship and rivalry between “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). They’re two former boxers turned cops nicknamed “Fire” and “Ice” who end up working in the same division of the L.A.P.D. and are in just the right place when the Dahlia murder explodes into L.A. legend. The investigation into Elizabeth Short’s murder has a negative effect on both men as Blanchard descends into a private Hell of torment while trying to decipher the clues; Bleichert enters into an ill-advised affair with a socialite (Hilary Swank) who is also a suspect and bears an uncanny resemblance to the victim.
The tale of two L.A. cops and the woman caught between them (in Dahlia’s case, it’s Scarlett Johansson’s Kay) was the core of L.A. Confidential, as well. It’s been a while since I’ve seen that film, but I seem to remember the noir-ish detective stuff jiving better with the love triangle . Of course, in Dahlia it’s more like a quadrangle, or “square” if you will, but it often feels as if there are two separate movies going on here. For the longest time, the titular murder seems little more than a device to drive Blanchard into madness, but it’s never explained why. We’re also given no context as to why the Short murder is so haunting. True, you can read a number of books that delve into the subject in great detail, but in the context of the movie’s universe, it’s never explained why the death of an unknown actress had an impact beyond the sensationalism, not just for the detectives, but for the L.A. community.
Another problem is that Hartnett and Eckhart seem woefully miscast. Eckhart does some serious overacting here, as if he’s purposefully trying to channel Russell Crowe’s brute magnetism in L.A. Confidential. Meanwhile, Hartnett goes the other way and underacts the heck out of his part; his philosophy seemed to be “never betray an actual emotion when a good eye squint will do.”
De Palma proves himself as capable of stylish execution as he’s ever been; there’s an entire sequence involving an attack in a stairwell that instantly recalled the famous train station gun fight in Untouchables. But even De Palma can’t reconcile the duality that tears at the heart of the film. He even exacerbates these problems of tone during a dinner scene with Swank’s socialite’s family and Bleichert, which seems intentionally played for laughs—an odd choice given how this family figures into the larger canvas of the mystery. Moreover, Fiona Shaw, John Kavanagh, and Rachel Miner are really left hanging, and to make matters worse, a lot of De Palma’s camera tricks, like POV shots, seem tired and forced.
The Black Dahlia was a disappointment. I think the trailer meant to imply that it was the Untouchables meets Seven; heck, even David Fincher was attached to direct at one point, and considering that the movie was in the works for 20 years, you’d think they had the time to get it right. I remember that there was a lot of discussion prior to the release of the movie version of L.A. Confidential that there was no way a film could effectively capture the spirit of an Ellroy novel. Well, I guess that it’s never too late to make a bollix of the source material.