THE BLACK DAHLIA

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


 

            You will need graph paper and pencils to navigate “The Black Dahlia,” if indeed you decide it’s worth your time.  It’s one of those movies with so many characters that you finally give up the struggle to get them straight.  But let’s look first at the positives; there are some.  Brian De Palma has turned the seamy side of post-war Los Angeles into the major focus of the movie.  Skillfully filmed in golden brown, the thick atmosphere simply reeks of closed rooms, walls of smoke, and butts thrown into dark streets. 

            Glamour and cigarettes were synonymous in 1946.  There was a culture of smoking back then, and if you didn’t get it right you weren’t a player.  When Paul Henreid lit two cigarettes at once and handed one to Bette Davis in “Dark Victory,” it was such a suave maneuver that it spawned admirers, but few imitators.  Josh Hartnett is no Henreid, and when he tries the famous move, embarrassment settles over the audience.  He gives sophistication another go by whipping a cloth from its table as prelude to a sex scene, but he still looks like the All-American Boy, and nothing can make him a sophisticated lover or a down and dirty cop.

            Let’s get to the beginning of things.  Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) has been found by the roadside – cut in half, disemboweled, and slit from ear to ear.  Betty was one of the deluded innocents who went to Hollywood certain she had the real goods only to fail even to grasp the basics of the political system of studios and stars.  She ended up making porn films and then dead beside the road in a still unsolved murder of unthinkable cruelty.  

            Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are the fictional detectives assigned to solve this real life mystery – and solve it one of them does.  That’s another problem with filming true stories.  The audience is rooting for a real solution, not an imaginary one.  This case is still open in the Los Angeles police files.  Bucky and Lee establish their friendship and identities (Mr.Fire and Mr. Ice) in an brutal opening boxing scene when they fight for a purse for the benefit of their superiors.  They become partners and friends for life.

            The screen soon fills with villains - small timers, big bosses –  all cogs in some vast trade in money, drugs, and sex.  I promise you there is no way to get it straight, so try concentrating on the extraordinarily sick Linscott family – particularly Hilary Swank (daughter) and Fiona Shaw (mother) who fulfill Mr. De Palma’s ecstatic love of horrific imagery.  Unfortunately, as girlfriend to the two policemen, Scarlett Johansson is genuinely inept.  Is it possible that she shone so beautifully in “Girl with a Pearl Earring” simply because she was a portrait?  This whole movie is a disorganized mess.  “Nothing stays buried forever,” says the cop; nothing, that is, except the solution to this crime. 

            You will need graph paper and pencils to navigate “The Black Dahlia,” if indeed you decide it’s worth your time.  It’s one of those movies with so many characters that you finally give up the struggle to get them straight.  But let’s look first at the positives; there are some.  Brian De Palma has turned the seamy side of post-war Los Angeles into the major focus of the movie.  Skillfully filmed in golden brown, the thick atmosphere simply reeks of closed rooms, walls of smoke, and butts thrown into dark streets. 

            Glamour and cigarettes were synonymous in 1946.  There was a culture of smoking back then, and if you didn’t get it right you weren’t a player.  When Paul Henreid lit two cigarettes at once and handed one to Bette Davis in “Dark Victory,” it was such a suave maneuver that it spawned admirers, but few imitators.  Josh Hartnett is no Henreid, and when he tries the famous move, embarrassment settles over the audience.  He gives sophistication another go by whipping a cloth from its table as prelude to a sex scene, but he still looks like the All-American Boy, and nothing can make him a sophisticated lover or a down and dirty cop.

            Let’s get to the beginning of things.  Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) has been found by the roadside – cut in half, disemboweled, and slit from ear to ear.  Betty was one of the deluded innocents who went to Hollywood certain she had the real goods only to fail even to grasp the basics of the political system of studios and stars.  She ended up making porn films and then dead beside the road in a still unsolved murder of unthinkable cruelty.  

            Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are the fictional detectives assigned to solve this real life mystery – and solve it one of them does.  That’s another problem with filming true stories.  The audience is rooting for a real solution, not an imaginary one.  This case is still open in the Los Angeles police files.  Bucky and Lee establish their friendship and identities (Mr.Fire and Mr. Ice) in an brutal opening boxing scene when they fight for a purse for the benefit of their superiors.  They become partners and friends for life.

            The screen soon fills with villains - small timers, big bosses –  all cogs in some vast trade in money, drugs, and sex.  I promise you there is no way to get it straight, so try concentrating on the extraordinarily sick Linscott family – particularly Hilary Swank (daughter) and Fiona Shaw (mother) who fulfill Mr. De Palma’s ecstatic love of horrific imagery.  Unfortunately, as girlfriend to the two policemen, Scarlett Johansson is genuinely inept.  Is it possible that she shone so beautifully in “Girl with a Pearl Earring” simply because she was a portrait?  This whole movie is a disorganized mess.  “Nothing stays buried forever,” says the cop; nothing, that is, except the solution to this crime. 


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