The Black Dahlia (2006)
Decades before the now infamous OJ Simpson murder trial another heinous case caught the imagination of the public, The Black Dahlia murder of 1947. For years following this would become the basis for numerous ‘true crime’ magazines, films and has escalated to almost the level of urban legend. The latest film on the subject, directed by Brian De Palma, was loosely based on the novel by James Ellroy. The basic story has everything necessary for a Hollywood crime thriller, it takes place in Tinsel Town, has loads of sex and violence and a good measure of intrigue. Unfortunately, this incarnation falls short of its potential. The film just can’t measure up to the legend. Part of the problem is the novel was not based on the facts of this most famous unsolved mystery but on conjecture and supposition. When you then add another degree of separation from reality you loose what would have made this film exciting, the reality of the tragedy. When there is so much to work with in the reality why does Hollywood have to make things up? With the popularity of such television shows as ‘Cold Case’ and ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ this would have been a natural for a more factual presentation but once again fiction wins out.
Detectives Dwight ‘Bucky’ Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are at the top of their game in the Los Angles Police Department. They have garnered a reputation for themselves as the go to guys of the department, solving the most difficult cases. While they are on the trail of a child molester the body of a young starlet, Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), is found dismembered, cut in half at the waste, in a field. It doesn’t take long before Short becomes obsessed with the case and talks his partner into requesting a seven day reassignment to the Short task force. The case is soon dubbed the ‘Black Dahlia’ after the victims habit of wearing dark clothing. Bucky and Lee rose to fame in the department after a charity boxing match and soon became friends and partners. As they begin to investigate the crime their personal lives become overwhelming adding both professional and personal stress. Caught in the middle of the two men is Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). She lives with Lee but the relationship appears to be more platonic than anything. During the investigation they come across another aspiring actress, Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank). The bisexual heiress has a taste for the seedier endeavors available in Hollywood although she still lives with her immigrant father, Emmett (John Kavanagh). He made a fortune in real estate giving his daughter the financial means to pursue her unsavory pastimes. Then there is her mother, Ramona (Fiona Shaw), a pill popping shadow of a human being and her sister Martha (Rachel Miner) who enjoys hanging out in lesbian bars at night. This is certainly not the Cleaver household. This bizarre family is the gateway for the detectives as they sink into the dark and perverse side of the city. Sexual triangles become polyhedrons as the two men move away from just the murder and are pulled into a sinister world of the privileged.
Brian De Palma may have aspired to become the next Alfred Hitchcock but this film demonstrates why the master will retain his crown. De Palma has a style of his own but it is no where near the way Hitchcock could build suspense. While many may feel that De Palma has had an uneven career this actually means one thing, the man is willing to take chances. In doing so he is sure to have hits and misses. Here he takes a story already confused with so many sub plots and characters and obfuscates it further with an over reliance on style over substance. The true events could have supported a lean, mean film noir in the classic tradition of the genre. Instead De Palma heaps one sexual deviation after another for little more than puerile voyeurism. Sometimes the suggestion of abnormal behavior can be more effective than shoving it in the face of the audience. If this had been treated more as a period piece consistent with the times, perhaps even in black and white, it could have been great. Like so many recent films this one had potential that died on the vine. The style is beautifully crafted, the look and feel of the forties are captured to perfection. This was a time of glamour when women appeared in slinky gowns and men wore well tailored suits. The contrast to this high society world of fashion is placed in direct contrast to the sexually uninhibited underbelly of the city. Even there, in the sexually charged night clubs and bars there was a certain element of class. De Palma gets so wrapped up on the style of the times that he loses focus of the story’s narrative.
The one ray of salvation here is the cast. Each of the young actors here fit well in the period costume and roles. Unfortunately, there is not much for them to get their acting teeth into. Josh Hartnett serves as the narrator as well as the leading man. His narration is too flat; he should have studied Fred MacMurray in ‘Double Indemnity’ for a few tips. He comes off more as a man confused than one possessed with needing to know the truth. As his partner Aaron Eckhart displays a little more life. I was impressed with his performance in the recent ‘Thank You for Smoking’ where he was given more comedy to showcase his abilities. In this film he is too sullen and diffused. Fortunately for the audience, especially the men out there, the young women of this film do a better job. It looks like they where transported by a time machine from the Hollywood of the forties. On the down side despite their considerable acting talent they are not given any real moments. Scarlett Johansson has the bone structure and healthy figure to carry the forties fashion and mannerisms. She does over play the affectations with her constantly present cigarette holder using the prop to offset the lack of story. Even though she will not get an Oscar for this role Hilary Swank looks great here. After so many masculine roles it is amazing how well she cleans up. She smolders on the screen in a true homage to the sultry vixens of that age. Mia Kirshner is mostly shown in flashbacks or as a corpse but she does a lot with her role. Particularly effective is the scene where her screen test is shown.
At least Universal Studios held up their part in this DVD release by providing the best possible transfer possible. The anamorphic 2.35:1 video is stunning. The colors run the gamut from bright to sullen and subdued. The contrast is excellent. The Dolby 5.1 audio is also well done. The front speakers providing excellent channel separation while the rear speakers enfold you in the sound field. The extras include a look at the real Black Dahlia case, ‘Reality and Fiction: The Story of the Black Dahlia’. There is also a case file and a Volkswagen sponsored bit. This could have been better but like other De Palma flicks no matter what it will deliver some entertainment.