The Black Dahlia

2006, Movie, R, 121 mins


Brian De Palma's handsome adaptation of James Ellroy's feverish novel, which uses the notorious "Black Dahlia" murder case to explore a seething, CHINATOWN-like stew of Southern California ambition, hypocrisy and dream-shattering sleaze, is a ludicrous mishmash undermined by ghastly performances and a hopelessly convoluted screenplay. Los Angeles, 1946: Veteran LAPD detective Leland Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and younger officer Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) are recruited by an ambitious district attorney for a PR stunt designed to drum up public support for an unpopular bond issue. Both officers boxed before they joined the force, and agree to participate in an exhibition match that winds up forging a powerful bond between them. After the match they are both promoted, and as 1946 turns into 1947, Bleichert becomes the third leg of a platonic triangle with Blanchard and his live-in girlfriend, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), a stunning blonde whom Blanchard rescued years earlier from a brutal petty thug. Bleichert and Blanchard are drawn into the Dahlia case by accident: Their stakeout of a hot-sheets hotel turns into a bloody shootout at the moment the grotesquely mutilated body of a young woman, whom the press dubs the "Black Dahlia" for her jet-black hair and clothing, is found in a vacant lot just one block away. But both men quickly become obsessed with finding the killer who brutally tortured his victim before cutting her body in half at the waist and slashing the corners of her mouth from ear to ear. Blanchard is driven by the memory of his younger sister, who vanished when he was 15, while Bleichert is seduced by a screen test in which the dead girl, an aspiring 22-year-old actress named Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), is emotionally tormented by an unseen director (De Palma himself). They eventually discover that she was in the habit of prowling lesbian clubs in hopes of cadging drinks and meals, and while following up this tantalizing lead, Bleichert meets promiscuous heiress Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), who bears a striking resemblance to the dead girl. There's more — much, much more — and that's part of the problem: Ellroy's densely plotted novels defy easy adaptation (1997's L.A. CONFIDENTIAL jettisons fully half of the book), and his highly stylized dialogue doesn't always play well. But the performances are the real killers — Swank's Katharine Hepburn accent and mannerisms ring distractingly false, Hartnett seems far too young for his role, and, in the role of Madeleine Linscott's embittered, alcoholic mother, the usually reliable U.K. actress Fiona Shaw appears to be auditioning for a remake of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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