The Black Dahlia
, 17 Sep 2006
I was really excited about this one. James Ellroy's book is dense and brilliant, yes it looked all but impossible to carve a movie out of it but it had been done with LA Confidential, why not this one too?. Reasons for optimism piled up: Brian DePalma, back on the kind of film that made his name, a cast full of talent (and Josh Hartnett), posters and stills that suggested the macabre mood of the book had been done justice to.
Where did it all go wrong?
Elizabeth Short was an aspiring actress who, on January 15th 1947, was found dead in Crenshaw Los Angeles. She had been cut in half, her organs ripped out, her body drained of blood and her mouth slit open ear to ear. The killer was never caught or identified. Ellroy's book and DePalma's film don't attempt to tell the real story, instead they use this crime as a jumping off point for a complex noir.
Ellroy's Dhalia is a thick book, stuff would always need removing, but DePalma and screenwriter Josh Friedman have started in the wrong places. Almost all detail of the investigation is gone from the film. The Dahlia is a mere cameo, even as a presence, and seems incidental to events. This is a catastrophic miscalculation for several reasons. First of all the romantic and other entanglements of the two cops working the Dahlia case (Hartnett and Eckhart) an ex gangster's mol (Johannson) and a society girl (Swank) who knew Elizabeth Short aren't as interesting and, frankly, we've seen it before. The other problem that dropping most of the actual detective work from the film gives DePalma is that it makes the final act utterly ludicrous. The whodunnit is solved in a way that barely connects with anything else in the movie and is then explained by people we've barely met with motives that beggar belief.
On the plus side you'll never find a Brian DePalma film looking rubbish and this is no exception. The evocation of period is excellent and the whole film looks stunning (though DePalma's still stealing, look for shots from Double Indemnity and Vertigo) and this is where the chief pleasures of the film are found as there's precious little else to admire.
Hartnett is a blank presence as Bucky Bleichert ambling through every scene with the same expression and the same tone. Johannson is fine, she looks the part certainly, but she's little of consequence to do and, honestly, I'd rather watch Barbara Stawyck than watch Johannson trying to channel her. Hillary Swank is dreadful. She chooses a strange clipped accent that comes and goes more or less as it pleases and decides that's about enough as far as acting goes. However the worst performance comes from a ludicrously OTT Fiona Shaw as Swank's mother, you'll want to strangle her the second she speaks.
There are two performances though which keep the film from being more or less a dead loss on a performance level. Eckhart is teriffic in his limited screentime as Lee Blanchard, his coiled spring nergy bringing the film a fire it otherwise lacks. Even better is a film stealing Mia Kirshner as Betty Short. glimpsed in movies and audition reels (with Brian DePalma, offscreen, playing the director). She's wonderful as the innocent adrift, desperate to make it.
The Black Dhalia is a mess and that's a real shame as there's a truly great film in Ellroy's novel. Hopefully the upcoming film that puports to adress the real facts of the case will better serve Betty Short.
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