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Black Dahlia, The (2006)

Release Date:
Friday, September 15, 2006

MPAA Rating:


Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Mia Kirshner, Hilary Swank

Written By:
Josh Friedman

Brian De Palma

Master storyteller Brian De Palma, known for such classic crime dramas as "The Untouchables," "Scarface" and "Carlito's Way," as well as his suspense thrillers "Carrie," "Dressed to Kill" and "Blow Out," directs this adaptation of James Ellroy's ("L.A. Confidential," "American Tabloid") best-selling crime novel.

"The Black Dahlia" weaves a fictionalized tale of obsession, love, corruption, greed and depravity around the true story of the brutal murder of a fledgling Hollywood starlet that shocked and fascinated the nation in 1947 and remains unsolved today. Two ex-pugilist cops, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), are called to investigate the homicide of ambitious silver-screen B-lister Betty Ann Short (Mia Kirshner) A.K.A. "The Black Dahlia"-an attack so grisly that images of the killing were kept from the public.

While Blanchard's growing preoccupation with the sensational murder threatens his marriage to Kay (Scarlett Johansson), his partner Bleichert finds himself attracted to the enigmatic Madeleine Linscott (two-time Oscar® winner Hilary Swank), the daughter of one of the city's most prominent families-who just happens to have an unsavory connection to the murder victim.

True crime meets urban legend when De Palma brings Ellroy's "The Black Dahlia" to the big screen.

Black Dahlia, The (2006) | Preview

De Palma’s Inflated Noir (Bell)
Nathaniel Bell

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A big, beautiful bore, The Black Dahlia signals Brian De Palma’s first full-blooded foray into film noir territory, a genre whose aesthetics have influenced his style throughout his varied career. Because De Palma is a filmmaker with an unerring eye for glossy surfaces, it’s no surprise that his movie is one of the best looking of the year. Vilmos Zsigmond’s burnished, old-Hollywood cinematography captures the feel of 1940’s Los Angeles with a palette of earthy browns and impenetrable blacks, but the visual pomp is wasted on a story that wanders in circles.

Based on the book by James Ellroy, which is itself inspired by a notorious unsolved murder that occurred in Los Angeles in 1947, the movie begins breathlessly. Its two lead characters (police officers Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, played by Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckert) are first glimpsed pummeling their way through a street riot littered with cops and sailors. Both men are part-time prizefighters who once faced each other in the ring, but their friendship is put on hold when the body of Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) is discovered, cut in half at the waist and horrifically mutilated.

The scenes leading up to this discovery are inarguably exciting, but De Palma insists on diverting attention away from the homicide subplot with a parade of gaudy supporting characters, including a treacherously seductive vamp named Madeleine (Hilary Swank). A dinner with Madeleine’s dysfunctional family becomes one of the film’s highlights, and Fiona Shaw gives a brilliant, showy performance as a boozy wreck of a debutante. Scarlett Johansson has little to do but skulk around as Bucky’s would-be girlfriend.

In these postmodern times it’s impossible to make a film noir without being self-conscious about it, and screenwriter Josh Friedman’s hardboiled dialogue sounds funny coming out of Josh Hartnett. Well groomed and pokerfaced, Hartnett looks good in a fedora but can’t sustain interest as a leading man. Eckert fares much better as his confrontational partner who becomes obsessed with tracking down the Black Dahlia killer.

Uninterested in mapping the trajectory of Bucky’s spiritual development (or, in this case, his spiritual decline), the film is even more despairing than Chinatown, which at least offered the consolation of a coherent resolution. The Black Dahlia, with its oblique final scene, offers no such closure, and you get the sense that there’s something grander and more important De Palma is trying to coax out of the stubbornly inert material.

For all its melodramatic excesses (stag films, grinning corpses, splashes of gore), The Black Dahlia emerges as empty spectacle—a “who cares?” whodunit.

Copyright © 2006 Hollywood Jesus. All rights reserved.
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