Judge Brett Cullum has terminated his Brian DePalma fan club membership in protest of this film.
"Hollywood will fuck you when no-one else will."—Russ Millard
I heard Brain De Palma's The Black Dahlia is notoriously wretched, but I fear not to tread where other critics tremble in the face of awfulness. Let me open the case with a shocking statement—I love Brian De Palma. These words are blasphemy in film snob circles, yet I don't mind the derisive glares from gourmet movie buffs. I found Femme Fatale enjoyable if silly fun that entertained; proudly own the Criterion edition of Sisters as one of my cherished titles; Carrie remains my favorite almost faithful Stephen King adaptation, and couldn't ask for better treatment; and Body Double coupled with Dressed to Kill make for one damn fine pulpy evening. Pretty much whenever De Palma is around I lose my sense of "good" and "bad," and ride along with him with an ear-to-ear grin on my face. The man made Scarface, and that film was completely dismissed by both critics and audiences upon release as complete and utter crap. Nowadays, people regard it as a cult classic. You can buy anything from key chains to couches with Al Pacino's mug plastered on them. So when I heard The Black Dahlia was a mangled mess that made little sense, I worried not. I thought to myself, "There will be something here to enjoy." So the mystery unfolds, is The Black Dahlia good on any level, or is it as bad as the rest of the world says it is?
Facts of the Case
Based on the fictional novel by James Ellroy, The Black Dahlia focuses on two Hollywood cops rather than the real unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short. Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart, Thank You for Smoking) and Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett, Lucky Number Slevin) are former champion boxers who end up partners for the Los Angeles Police Department in the late '40s. They are in love with Lee's gorgeous blonde wife (Scarlett Johansson, Girl With a Pearl Earring), and a complicated love triangle begins. The star-crossed pair end up working a murder case of a young wannabe starlet, Elizabeth "Betty" Short, better known as "The Black Dahlia." The case ignites obsession, guilt, and leads the buddy cops to revelations about who they really are. Secrets will be exposed, glamorous wealthy lesbians (Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby) consulted, and bodies will pile up in fountains, as the two men chase Hollywood's most notorious unsolved mystery and find their own dark secrets laid open in front of them.
The Black Dahlia is typical for De Palma, consisting of slick visual flash and little narrative substance. It's a fabulous exotic sports car with a go-cart engine under the hood, or a fantastic gift box with the rotten air of flatulence rattling inside. If you can let go expectations of a strong mystery or anything resembling sense, it can be considered a fun ride. There are several movies stuffed in here—murder mystery, buddy cop drama, two dark romances, historical Hollywood portrait, a David Lynch feature, and a campy noir thriller with laughable hard boiled dialogue. Ellroy's novel was so complex, with hundreds of subplots. What De Palma and his team have done is try to stuff as many of the threads into The Black Dahlia as they can. As a result, it feels bloated and unfocused. It's so busy scrambling to be everything, it ultimately becomes nothing more than a pretty well-made mess.
There are many things to admire in this release, and we might as well start with the good news. Appropriately The Black Dahlia has been Oscar nominated for its sumptuous cinematography supervised by Vilmos Zsigmond. It is shot beautifully, and the camera whirls and pans through dizzying shots and edits that average out to just over seven seconds each. The film was also highly regarded for set design, costumes, and musical score. If you look at the production elements, the movie is sublime and well executed. You couldn't ask for more beauty recreating Hollywood during the late '40s, and the images and dreams conjured are spectacular. The Black Dahlia looks like a million bucks on the screen, and the DVD delivers a nice transfer to preserve all of the craftsmanship. There is a trademark noir black murk to the picture, but the shadows and amber tints are translated deftly. There's a five channel surround track which provides an outstanding sound stage for the sultry horn heavy score and explosive action. Technically The Black Dahlia delivers. De Palma never seems to do full commentaries for his films, but the three featurettes provided cover everything in about forty minutes, with all major players participating. This is a nice looking picture with some well thought out extras (though puzzlingly one is "sponsored by Volkswagen").
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The beautiful film is derailed by a messy narrative with little focus and ludicrous elements that spin the whole affair into camp. James Ellroy's complex novels have been successfully translated to screen before such as with L.A. Confidential, but The Black Dahlia just can't get there. The fascinating murder mystery hovers only in the background, as we get a bland look at the threesome between the two cops and Johansson's character. There is another goofy subplot which circles around the lesbian tendencies of Hilary Swank's heiress character, and this all seems to add only a lascivious look at ladies in skimpy period clothing. Yet another subplot is a case where the two cops are after a child molester, and we hardly get enough of that thread to care. Unfortunately the Dahlia case, which is the most compelling, never gets to take center stage and only enters a full half hour into the piece. So the film meanders from one situation we don't care about to another, and then in the last thirty minutes resorts to two explanation sequences to tell us how all of the arcs connect. When the final reel of your thriller is a lecture, you've not succeeded with a story. De Palma gives the proceedings style, but he forgets the most crucial mission of his job which is to provide a clear and compelling narrative. His tone is never established with unintentional comedy coming from poorly written and delivered noir dialogue at inappropriate places. It's not nearly enough fun to rank with "bad movies we love," but it flirts dangerously close to fitting in with Valley of the Dolls as a silly Hollywood morality tale that is more comical than anything else.
The cast list reads like a dream with Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, and Hilary Swank getting top billing. They all have moments, look fabulous, but ultimately fall victim to campy noir dialogue, nonsensical plot, and inappropriate pacing. Swank and Johansson are particularly hobbled, with Scarlett miscast in a period "sweet girl" role she doesn't commit to and Hilary careens so far over the top with her sex kitten act I was sure she was in a Paul Verhoeven (Showgirls) movie. I kept waiting for Swank to emerge naked out of a volcano, but unfortunately all we get is her character ogling K.D. Lang and feathered showgirls during an onstage musical lesbian orgy. Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart do credible jobs with what they are given, but can't save the film. Mia Kirshner (The L Word) portrays Elizabeth Short in quick screen tests with Brian De Palma asking pointed questions and cruelly directing her from behind the camera. Kirshner was born to play the role, but unfortunately she is not the focus for more than ten minutes in a two hour story. Her parts are a highlight of the film, and she definitely handles the tone and time period better than any other actress in the project. Watch out for a quirky cameo by Rose McGowan (Jawbreaker) as a Hollywood starlet who is questioned in Egyptian garb while waiting for an extras truck to pick her up and literally haul her ass off to the studio. Most of the supporting characters are straight from a David Lynch film with the wealthy Linscott family winning the Twin Peaks award for "most bizarre scenes in the movie." The mom gets to chew ham and scenery as she makes rubbery faces that would scare Jim Carrey, the dad has an impenetrable accent as well a taxidermy dog, and the daughter draws nonsensical portraits of people at the dinner table. These silly elements undermine the film's serious tones.
I can't say I wasn't entertained, but the enjoyment I got from The Black Dahlia was for all the wrong reasons. The production is handsome, the cast is first rate, but the story is so mishandled that everyone involved is sunk into one of the most god awful messes in recent memory. It's a nice package to look at, but you'll howl with laughter before the mystery is solved, in a sequence that reminded me of Clue. I expected someone to come up and say, "And that's when I took Elizabeth Short into the study and beat her with my candlestick!" The narrative doesn't work on any level, which is something you can't rise above no matter how stylish your art direction and cinematography. De Palma has done better and this one becomes an interesting misfire that will move to the bottom of the list right under Mission to Mars and Snake Eyes (which are cinematic classics by comparison). As a De Palma fan, The Black Dahlia held my interest, but it doesn't work. And trust me, if it did, I'd be the first to champion it. Maybe the spell is broken, and I have finally become a dreaded film snob.
What a pity nobody to date has made an effective movie of the historic crime that shocked Hollywood back in the day. Elizabeth Short's murder was a horrific "Jack the Ripper" unsolved mystery that has inspired legends for decades. The real facts of the case are far more disturbing, and I was shocked De Palma restrained himself from playing them up. Mia Kirshner should find a film director who wants to bring the true tale to life. She proves she has the goods. The real story rings way more interesting than a buddy cop drama mixed with silly rich lesbians and their dysfunctional families. The Black Dahlia case caught America's imagination because it revealed the dirty, nasty, underside to the glamorous world of Hollywood. There's still a movie to be made. Unfortunately, this one ain't it. Better luck next time "Ms. Dahlia." Maybe one day, you'll get the respect you deserve.
Guilty of killing a great story, The Black Dahlia is a pretty mess only De Palma could carve up. Case closed. It's as bad as everyone says it is.
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette - Reality and Fiction: The Story of the Black Dahlia
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