The Black Dahlia
by Del Harvey
When good filmmakers make bad films. Or, the 55% solution.
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Brian de Palma, director/writer/producer/editor, has an impressive list of films to his credit. Femme Fatale (2002), Snake Eyes (1998), Mission: Impossible (1996), Carlito’s Way (1993), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), The Untouchables (1987), Body Double (1984), Scarface (1983), Blow Out (1981), Dressed To Kill (1980), Carrie (1976), and Sisters (1973). He’s left his mark on several filmmaking genres, and on a number of filmmakers.
But let’s also consider his other films. Those which weren’t boxoffice hits or critical successes. Mission to Mars (2000), Casualties of War (1989), Home Movies (1980), The Fury (1978), Obsession (1976), Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Get To Know Your Rabbit (1972), Hi, Mom! (1970), and many of his earlier films.
Filmmakers aren’t perfect. A film can go through so many changes even before it’s cast. Then consider the potential production problems, and it’s a minor miracle that a film is ever released. Unfortunately for most filmmakers, for every one good film they do, there are often one or two, or more, that carry a fairly nasty odor.
Add to that second list his latest film, The Black Dahlia. Dahlia was adapted from a popular crime novel by James Ellroy, the ex-con and Los Angeles thriller noir writer who adapted his novel from the real crime. Both Ellroy’s novel and the impressive cast gave promise to de Palma’s enterprise with high expectations. Alas, those expectations are crushed by the evidence seen on screen in de Palma’s weak-kneed transgression. Where the novel captures the dark, scandalous mystery of one of the most heinous crimes to hit L.A., de Palma’s film is simply heinous, uninspired, and ultimately lifeless, much as the corpse of Elizabeth Short, wannabe actress and working girl who turned tricks to eke out a living in the hard knocks world of Los Angeles.
Elizabeth “Betty” Short (Mia Kirschner), a 22-year-old aspiring actress from the East Coast, was known to wear a delicate flower in her dark, raven hair, became many things to many people. A dear friend to some, beloved sister figure to others, an estranged daughter to her family, a frequent girlfriend to a few, and an accused prostitute. On January 15, 1947, her body was discovered in a vacant lot near Leimert Park in downtown Los Angeles. She had been brutally cut in two, the blood drained from her body. It was clear that her body had been dumped in the park and that the crime had been committed elsewhere. This murder stirred up fears of a new “Jack the Ripper” like killer in Los Angeles, and people everywhere went just a little insane with the sensation of it all, for a little while.
In Ellroy’s fictional account, he provides us with two strong, if not critically flawed, would-be heroes whose job is to ferret out just who would commit such a horrible crime on the mean streets of L.A. Both of them ex-pugilists, police officers Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert’s (Josh Hartnett) first homicide case starts with a call from supervisor Detective Millard, just as they are leaving the scene of a deadly shootout. Blanchard and Bleichert, like everyone else in Los Angeles, become drawn into the sensational world of Betty Short.
At first, Blanchard’s growing preoccupation with the murder threatens his relationship with girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), Bleichert finds himself irresistibly drawn to the mysterious Madeleine Linscott (Hillary Swank), spoiled daughter of one of the city’s most prominent families who just happens to have an unsavory connection and uncanny resemblance to the dead girl. Blanchard succumbs to obsession during trying to solve the case, seeing a chance to redeem himself for letting down the other women in his life he failed to protect. Bleichert, a man with his own demons, begins to question himself as his feelings fluctuate wildly between the seemingly innocent Kay and the knowingly seductive Madeleine, whose unhinged mother, Ramona (Fiona Shaw), appears to hold more than a passing clue to the Black Dahlia mystery.
One would think that a story of such seething scandal, and a film cast with such a top-notch cast, would offer a director every opportunity to deliver a truly outstanding and memorable film. And, while the images on the screen are quite pretty and very noir-looking, the performances are stodgy, the direction very passive, and the ultimate production disappointing, at best.
Of the entire cast, Aaron Eckhart is the only standout. Hartnett attempts to continue to build upon the tough-but-sensitive leading man begun with roles in such films as Pearl Harbor, Black Hawk Down, and Lucky Number Slevin. Both Johansson and Swank turn in C-minus efforts, disheartening especially for such highly talented actresses. And Mia Kirschner is sadly miscast.
Meanwhile, the director, who is known for making films which have a steady building tension and atmospheric strength which often carries the weakest performances of little known actors, seems more concerned with the look of the thing rather than the feel. The result is a murder mystery that is neither mysterious or intriguing, but as dead and devoid of life as Betty Short’s poor, tortured body.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He teaches film in Chicago.
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