Directed by Brian De Palma, written by Josh Friedman, 122 minutes, rated R.
By Christopher Smith
Brian De Palma's "The Black Dahlia," now out on Blu-ray disc, is based on the legendary Hollywood murder in which 22-year-old Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) came to Tinseltown from Massachusetts in search of fame and fortune but instead found death and dismemberment.
On Jan. 15, 1947, her life literally was cut short.
Hers wasn't your everyday murder--far from it. In a vacant Los Angeles lot, Short's body was found naked, bloodless and severed in half, her mouth savagely cut from ear to ear in an effort to create a sort of grinning death mask. What Short experienced is the kind of grisly brutality that shocks even today, with questions still lingering around her death--why was she murdered? Who did it?
The film does come armed with a theory. It also features the excellence of Dante Ferretti's production design and Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography, which suggests that they had a handle on the genre in ways that De Palma, his cast and his screenwriter, Josh Friedman, didn't.
Based on James Ellroy's 1987 book, "The Black Dahlia" misinterprets the underpinnings of noir, amplifies elements that should have remained nuances and turns the production into an overbearing joke.
While there are some pleasures to be had in the camp the movie courts--nobody who sees it will soon forget Fiona Shaw's hilarious performance as the wealthy Ramona Linscott, for instance, which is startling in just how wrong it goes--it's unlikely that unintentional laughter is what De Palma was seeking.
That said, it's nevertheless what he gets.
The film stars Josh Hartnett as former boxer-cum-detective Bucky Bleichert, who joins his partner, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), in attempting to solve Short's case. Together, they must work through a few issues--their mutual attraction for Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson, sorely miscast) being one--while delving into a sordid mystery certain people don't want solved.
Such people include the slinky bisexual, Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), a wanton femme fatale who dresses to resemble Short and who pins her secrets close to her breasts; her shady father, Emmet (John Kavanagh), who owns a revealing collection of art; and the aforementioned Ramona, whose alien-like presence would be better suited in a movie about Roswell than Hollywood.
There are others, all of whom work to clog the unnecessarily dense script. Tin dialogue clangs throughout, with the confused plotting joining the phony performances in failing to come through. Unlike "L.A. Confidential," which was successfully adapted from an Ellroy book, "The Black Dahlia" folds in the face of it. It's disappointing. With fall and its promise of better movies on the horizon, this movie, like "Hollywoodland," could have been among the most exciting of the new season. That neither is true for either movie isn't exactly encouraging.