The Black Dahlia

Morose yet flamboyant, overstuffed with stylistic flourishes that dazzle even as they baffle, Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia is sure to appear on many critics’ year-end lists — ten best and ten worst. De Palma is an obsessional craftsman; at his best, he uses his peerless technique to put you inside his characters’ paranoia and anguish. This time, though, he’s working with someone else’s obsession, and he never really gets inside it himself — he just presents it with a gloss. De Palma and scripter Josh Friedman miss the tone and flavor of James Ellroy’s hard-charging novel — its bebop prose, its toxic mix of lust and shame, its genesis in the still-unsolved murder of Ellroy’s own mother. Ellroy’s book was felt, painfully, from the inside; De Palma’s movie is filmed from the outside.

The premise is the same: Los Angeles cops Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), former boxing opponents, get drawn into the case of the Black Dahlia — Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), a wannabe actress who fumbled through the nightlife and screen tests of bottom-feeder Hollywood before ending up mutilated and cut in half, looking like someone’s demented science project. In the book, narrated by Dwight, the cops’ love lives are warped by the case; it turns Lee into a monomaniacal obsessive, swallowing benzedrines and littering his dining-room table with Elizabeth’s autopsy photos. The movie follows that track, too, but nothing is as starkly compelling as the glimpses of sad-eyed Elizabeth, gamely smiling through tears in some director’s office.

The movie starts off top-heavy, devoting more screen time than expected to Dwight and Lee’s boxing match, staged in order to get the public to vote for a budget increase for the police department. Ellroy wanted us to see the intersection between law and politics, cops maiming each other for the city’s elite. But the way De Palma shoots it, it’s just his homage to old boxing pictures. The entire movie, in fact, is his homage to old movies. Cosmetically, he’s a good match for this material; in classics like Blow Out and Casualties of War, De Palma focused on young, untested men haunted by women they couldn’t save. But here he just seems motivated by getting to wallow in a lush period setting (the late forties) for the first time since The Untouchables almost twenty years ago.

Playing in his sandbox of the past, De Palma forgets about his talented cast, who struggle to forge some reality inside the movie’s stylized scheme. The women, trying to mimic the heavy-lidded seductiveness of past screen legends, come off worst; Scarlett Johansen, as Lee’s platonic companion, and Hilary Swank, as a bisexual rich girl Dwight gets involved with, are terribly miscast. (Especially since we keep hearing how much Swank’s character looks like Elizabeth, though she clearly doesn’t.) De Palma fills the margins with old favorite actors — it’s fun to see Gregg Henry and William Finley again, though the former is reduced to glowering at the camera and then disappearing — and interesting performers like Rose McGowan and Fiona Shaw (going waaay over the top as a batty matron) keep turning up. But none of it coheres. We don’t share the main characters’ inner conflicts because the director, usually such a strongly visual artist, resorts to telling us about them (if you blink, you miss the reason why Lee is so fixated on the Dahlia case).

The Black Dahlia won’t do much to dissuade the common rap against De Palma as a cold technician who takes projects just for the elaborate set pieces they provide him — here it’s yet another staircase sequence (The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way) topped by yet another fall into a fountain (Scarface). De Palma keeps himself amused — sporadically — but elsewhere stages things lazily, ladling an overly rambunctious Mark Isham score over everything. The movie is De Palma’s essay on film noir technique, and some of his hardcore followers may enjoy it on that level, but most of The Black Dahlia is neither entertaining nor compelling. James Ellroy made this material work — by crude, brutal force — because he believed in it. Brian De Palma only believes in its surface, and that’s where the movie stays and dies.

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