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The Black Dahlia

2006-12-31 11:13

Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are Los Angeles detectives investigating the gruesome murder of aspiring actress, Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), who was nicknamed The Black Dahlia by the press reporting on her murder. As both men become obsessed with solving the murder, they find themselves in a love triangle with Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). Hartnett finds out his girlfriend has connections with the victim, leading him down a path filled with treachery and corruption.


The Black Dahlia sounds like a fantastic movie: Brian De Palma, master director of suspense, adapting a hardboiled novel by James Ellroy, one of the best crime writers in the world, using a cast of A-listers like Scarlett Johansson and her real life boyfriend Josh Hartnett. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, apparently.

The film is practically incomprehensible, moving from plot point to plot point seemingly at random. Why do both detectives start obsessing about the murder, for example? Why the long, irrelevant boxing scene? The audience is left in the dark too often. Subplots are left trailing and the complex narrative (a characteristic of Ellroy’s novels) becomes a convoluted mess.

Then, at the end, the film practically falls over itself in an attempt to explain everything and tie up all the loose ends, but it’s a case of too little too late. After 2 hours of non-stop confusion, few in the audience are likely to care.

Then there’s the acting, which is too often risible, with Hartnett and Johansson being the worst offenders. Hartnett’s performance is so wooden he could be mistaken for a backdrop, and if this lacklustre effort was the only example of Johansson’s talents, one could be forgiven for thinking that she’s not even good enough to be in pornography.

Perhaps they simply lack experience and maturity. Remember, Humphrey Bogart was in his 40s when he played his part in making film noir great. Hartnett and Johansson are just too young for the genre – and too damn pretty.

Hilary Swank makes a passable effort in her role as the femme fatale Madeleine Linscott, but she’s sadly miscast, and Aaron Eckhart delivers the best performance of the lot by just managing to keep his head above water.

The film is at least an aesthetic success. It’s highly stylised and deliberate, with typical De Palma hallmarks like long choreographed shots and scenes shot from the point of view of one of the characters. De Palma uses the trappings of film noir to create an atmosphere of dreamlike detachment, with cruel, emotionally damaged characters that distance themselves from their own feelings to avoid pain and suffering. It’s a harsh urban environment, filled with betrayal and violence, and De Palma excels at creating this kind of atmosphere.

De Palma is a great director who has been sadly let down by a patchy script and sloppy editing which only adds to the confusion. Rumour has it that The Black Dahlia was initially planned to be a three hour movie, but an hour of footage was cut from the final release. This could explain why it feels like it needs more time to tell its whole story comprehensively. Maybe that extra hour would do the trick. There are so many subplots, it could even be a mini series.

It’s disappointing, but, even with the sub par acting, this could have been a much better film. Let’s hope a future “Director’s Cut” rescues it from being nothing more than a beautiful, useless mess.

- Chris McEvoy
Brian De Palma's adaptation of James Ellroy's novel begins as a beautiful piece of film noir, but the script steadily degenerates into a convoluted mess.


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