WFTB Score: 6/20
The plot: Fellow cops and amateur boxers Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard become involved with the same woman and the same case, the grisly murder of an aspiring actress known as the ‘Black Dahlia.’ As Bucky follows leads that take him to sultry brunette socialite Madeleine Linscott, Lee’s obsession with the Dahlia case threatens to end in tragedy.
Oh deary me, no. As someone who enjoys a good bit of murk, I’m easily fascinated by tales of murky goings on in Hollywood as exemplified in Chinatown, Mulholland Drive or the superb James Ellroy adaptation L.A. Confidential. However, it’s not an easy thing to do, especially if you’re aiming to really capture the feel of the period, and here De Palma gives an object lesson in how to get it wrong.
It’s 1946 and colleagues Dwight ‘Bucky’ Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), known on the circuit as ‘Mr. Ice’, and Aaron Eckhart’s ‘Mr. Fire’, real name Lee Blanchard, agree to a boxing match to boost funds for the LAPD. Through this brutal meeting a friendship emerges and the pair become partners, not only within the Warrants Department but also out of work, with Dwight (having taken care of his befuddled German father) practically moving in with Lee and his voluptuous, flirtatious girlfriend Kay (Scarlett Johansson). The duo are assigned to bring in child murderer Junior Nash but events overtake them when they are involved in a shoot-out, which indirectly leads to their involvement with the mutilated body of a young actress named Elizabeth Short (played in flashback by Mia Kershner), known as the ‘Black Dahlia’ by the press in reference to the film The Blue Dahlia.
Dwight’s investigations lead him to lesbian hotspots and subsequently to sultry Dahlia lookalike Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) and her eccentric family, who may or may not have something to do with pornographic material featuring Elizabeth; Lee, meanwhile, becomes ever more frantic and strung out, obsessed with the Dahlia case and the imminent release from jail of Bobby DeWitt, Kay’s former pimp who brutally branded her – an obsession which will send Kay into Dwight’s already-full hands.
The gruesome murder of Elizabeth Short is a real event that scandalised Hollywood, and Ellroy’s use of this material as a basis for his trademark corruption and sleaze appears to be a perfect platform for a film, especially in the hands of a fast-moving and visceral filmmaker like De Palma. However, for all the sex, murder and money in The Black Dahlia, the plots simply don’t add up to an interesting whole: the tension between Bucky and Kay, the relationship between Bucky and Madeleine, Blanchard’s corruption, disintegration, and murder, the craziness of the Linscotts and Betty Short’s tragic career should all crackle off the screen; but they splutter, confusedly, with many of the strands ending without enlightenment or a satisfactory resolution.
Flashbacks and narration act as reminders, and you can work out what’s happening by watching key parts of the film a couple of times; but it won’t make you say ‘Oh, that’s clever,’ just ‘Oh’. Therefore the viewer loses interest and is instead distracted by the director’s tricks: the drained palette in a thousand shades of brown which occasionally copies the look of a period film noir but never the feel of one, the tiresome transitions between scenes, the incessant smoking.
If the overburdened plot half-explains why The Black Dahlia doesn’t work, the other half comes down to some questionable casting by the filmmakers. Josh Hartnett looks and acts like a 21st Century kid sent back in time to solve the crime, and Scarlett Johansson seems similarly transported – his good looks and her sexy pout cannot disguise (indeed, they emphasise) the fact that they do not know how to convey distress, repressed passion or anything like a 40s’ attitude. In comparison, Eckhart is pretty good, although he is hardly hard-boiled and his intensity merely throws the blandness of his colleagues into sharp relief.
And you have to pity Swank; she pulls off the femme fatale attitude with aplomb, but her square jaw and frame are completely out of place in the movie. Ordinarily I wouldn’t dare make an issue of an actresses’ appearance, but here Madeleine’s supposed resemblance to Elizabeth Short is a key plot point and constantly referred to, making a mockery of the casting. As for Fiona Shaw’s turn as Mrs Linscott, well, I won’t reveal too much for fear of giving the plot away; but if Johansson and Hartnett are guilty of underplaying, Shaw goes to the other extreme to the extent that you can almost see the scenery getting mashed up in her mouth.
The Black Dahlia could have been great, but its lead characters are uninvolving, its look is sterile and unconvincing, and the titular victim is not given enough screen time for the viewer to feel much investment in her, despite Kirshner’s tragic, big-eyed looks to camera. Had De Palma jettisoned some of the plotlines and given his actors more instruction, he could have had a tight and tense noir for beginners on his hands; as it is, the film is merely an unappetising fudge, in terms of both its colour and its composition.