The Black Dahlia (2006) has, at its core, one fatal flaw: that it fails to realize the haunting mystique surrounding murder victim Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress-turned-corpse who became a deathly obsession for the two police detectives assigned to her case, Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). Short’s mystique lies beyond the fictional realm: hers is a real life unsolved murder, one of Hollywood’s most notorious, that has seduced generations of curious minds, including Kenneth Anger (who wrote about her in his book Hollywood Babylon), but also writer James Ellroy, upon who’s novel the film is based. But this movie engenders none of the obsession, none of the fascination felt by these real-life writers, nor by the fictional detectives within the film. As far as The Black Dahlia is concerned, Elizabeth Short is as anonymous dead as she was alive: a small town girl who came to the big city to try and make it, but who never did.
The rest of the film is equally flawed: Josh Friedman’s screenplay seems focused solely on the film’s ending, where in a series of unforeseeable (and unintelligible) revelations Short’s murderers are exposed (no such resolution has been reached regarding Short’s case in real life). But for the rest of the film, the script fails to offer any scenes where the characters can act beyond the details necessary to forward the plot. The film’s subplot, a love triangle formed by Hartnett, Eckhart and his wife (played by Scarlett Johansson), never so much as shows a single spark: the torrents of love are decidedly absent. Likewise, Hartnett and Eckhart go through no gradual descent when it comes to obsession: it’s not there in one scene, and it is there the next. The sudden shift from “normal” to “obsessed” is so quick that it, like so much of the movie, is hardly credible. Whenever the script falters, the actors do not pick up the slack. Their readings rarely emote any veracity or believability. One may credit Johansson the way she wears her slacks up around her bellybutton, but Hartnett wears his trousers so low and his suspenders so long that he looks more suited to a contemporary swing-revival band than to a 1940s police force.
Brian de Palma’s directing is so excessive it often achieves caricature when it is trying for realism. Critic Phillip Lopate praised Good Night, And Good Luck (2005) for avoiding “fetishization of vintage props,” something which de Palma does not understand: for all of The Black Dahlia’s painfully detailed sets and costumes, their abundance is so overwhelming is cannot help but feel artificial. People are less characters than objects: women’s lips are of a red, red attraction, and men’s fedoras are always properly tipped as though a spoof of film noir than a dramatic story set in the 1940s. A more exaggerated moment is outside of a shady motel, where a man and woman, drunk, silently mimic conversation on some stairs, only their gestures are so overly articulated that it is obvious they are not actually engaged in conversation, merely props to create atmosphere. Only in detailing the grotesque is de Palma effective: a vertiginous shot of two men falling from a banister to their death, and the re-creation of Short’s decimated and disemboweled body, are the film’s two most impressionable moments.
Those familiar with L.A. Confidential (1997), based on another Ellroy novel, will recognize many familiar tropes within The Black Dahlia: vintage Hollywood with its underbelly exposed, with corrupt and brutal cops who’d quicker punch a guy than take him downtown; dreamy-eyed starlets who have turned to smut when their big shot never came; and gangsters who run the city more than the politicians do. But where L.A. Confidential succeeds is in effectively detailing a story of moral and economic corruption, with actors whose gestures do more than mimic the past: they inhabit that particular grace of timelessness. The Black Dahlia is dead by comparison.
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