The Black Dahlia

Little to Recommend in Sleazy DePalma Noir

I really like film noir. I love the atmosphere, the crimes, and the flawed characters. When I heard that Brian DePalma was directing a noir based on a James Ellroy novel, I was very excited. L.A. Confidential is one of my favorite films, and I was expecting the same dense plotting and layered characters. Add DePalma’s stylistic visuals (not to mention the lovely Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank) and you could have a sumptuous feast of a film. Notice I said could have.

Competing friends “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and “Lee” Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are made partners in the L.A. police department circa 1940. Their lives are so intertwined that both are in love with Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), Lee’s live-in girlfriend. When the gruesome death of aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) enters their lives, they are assigned the case. This leads Bucky to the mysterious Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), a sultry dame who looks a lot like the dead “Black Dahlia”. Further complicating matters is the impending release of criminal Bobby DeWitt, the man who abused Kay and was put into prison by Lee. How does the notorious murder tie in to all of these people, and who is really responsible?

As you can see, there is a lot going on in this movie, and it’s up to the filmmakers to keep us from feeling lost. L.A. Confidential was also complex, but you never felt confused. The Black Dahlia is not so fortunate, and often the screenplay by James Friedman (War of the Worlds) feels like it’s cramming stuff in that maybe made sense in the novel, but doesn’t really work (or isn’t presented in a cohesive manner) here.

Probably my biggest gripe is that the one-dimensional characters don’t draw you into their plight. Everyone is a stereotype (Hero, Ingenue, Femme Fatale) which keeps you at a distance. I realize that noir tends to be about archetypical characters, but good movies in this vein (go back to L.A. Confidential or classics like Double Indemnity or Gun Crazy for examples), rise above this and flesh out these people. Why should we care about them when the movie doesn’t?

The best performance comes from Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby), probably not because it’s a great part, but that she is cast against her typical non-glamorous roles. It’s fun to see her sache across the screen in her full-length black gowns and attitude (she was obviously having fun as well). The other sexy dame is played by Scarlett Johansson (Scoop), and she’s always good, but seems unusually held back this time around. Josh Hartnett (Lucky Number Slevin) is pretty wooden as usual, and generates no chemistry with these two women who are supposed to be falling all over him. Finally, Aaron Eckhart (Thank You for Smoking) gives a good character portrayal, but he seems to be limited as well. I don’t think the screenplay did these actors any favors.

The saddest part of this movie is when a pornographic film of Short is uncovered and shown to everyone involved in the case. I’m no expert, but when we see Mia Kirshner and “friend” having lesbian sex, it seems like DePalma has been watching too much late night cable television, and not something that would be made in this time period. Since he doesn’t cut away, we get to see Kirshner (Party Monster) topless and horribly exploited for the sake of showing how sad her character was. Neither Swank or Johansson (who both have sex scenes) are put through this, and it feels like DePalma is saying that A-list stars don’t have to appear nude, while “lesser” actors do. Maybe Kirshner was fine with all this, but I still find it pathetic.

Other than Hilary Swank, I didn’t see much to like about The Black Dahlia. It’s not good storytelling, it’s not good filmmaking, and it’s not good noir. While the surface may appear to be pretty, what it covers, isn’t.