The Black Dahlia

Noir-tainted thriller ruined by its own silly tendencies.

Released in 2006, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 25 Sep 2006 by Scott Morris
Black Dahlia image

It's tempting to automatically expect brilliance from Brian De Palma on the basis of his track record, although that's only because we can tune out the shaky pegs such as Mission to Mars in favour of Carlito's Way and The Untouchables. This adaptation of James Ellroy's book is 'inspired' by the 'true story' of the 'real life' murder of Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), Hollywood wannabe found horribly mutilated and very dead indeed. The emphasis in the last sentence ought probably to be on the 'story' more than anything else, though.

Assigned to the homicide team investigating what became known as the Black Dahlia case are ex-boxer police department posterboys Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Leland "Lee" Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), Blanchard in particular growing dangerously obsessed over a case with no leads, no motive and no obvious hope of solution, all the while in face of the media's sensationalist howling and demands. This takes a toll on Blanchard's relationship with girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson) and pushes her towards Bucky, an attraction that doesn't need much external help at the best of times.

This little co-dependant triangle takes a bit of buffeting as the case lingers, with Bucky finding some comfort between the legs of femme fatale Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), although the liaison with a commoner seems to displease the batty matriarch Ramona Linscott (Fiona Shaw). Events occur, hunches are played and we wind up with an answer of sorts, which may or may not be correct and certainly not proven.

Black Dahlia image

So, what do we like about Black Dahlia, then? Well, it has a wide selection of stylish 1940's hats that really cut a dash. For those of us who love hats, (and let's be honest, who doesn't? Commies, that's who. Filthy, stinking communists. You're not a communist are you? No? Then you must love hats then.) Black Dahlia is a welcome treat; festooned with a selection of wonderful boncewear, some stylish, some utilitarian. I predict with some degree of confidence that there will be no better parade of hats in the cinema this calendar year, and for that I roundly applaud it.

Now, if you're going to spend a paragraph talking about hats as the first thing we like about any film, warning bells ought to start sounding. For a while it seems like it could be pretty decent, De Palma's noir stylings and Ellroy's rapid-fire hard-boiledisms prove mildly successful in creating an atmospheric film, if not one that's redefining cinematic boundaries. Why, then, it takes this atmosphere and destroys it utterly and completely with a dinner party scene that belongs more to a Zucker script than a thriller is something of a mystery. After we're finished laughing at it, there's never any hope of rebuilding any of the tension or intrigue that it hinted towards earlier, and the whole thing comes across as faintly silly. Until the final revelation of 'whodunnit' (read 'whomighthavedunnitmaybe'), at which point it comes across as exceedingly ridiculous. A sure sign of failure in a thriller is reducing an audience to gales of laughter when they ought to be on the edge of their seats. In Black Dahlia's case, they're rolling around in the aisles.

There's little point attributing blame anywhere other than the script, with everyone involved doing as well as you'd expect (and perhaps in Hartnett's case, better than you'd expect) based on prior form. It's just not too messy and unfocused a story, certainly for something that's marketing itself as a crime drama it's spending far too much time on love triangles and melodrama. Perhaps we'd find this more charming is the superlative Brick hadn't stolen its stylistic thunder earlier in the year, as well as having a substantially more interesting and less laughable story.

My, but aren't we being negative Nellies today. In the grand scheme of things Black Dahlia isn't awful, it's just pretty bad. Any film that features Scarlett Johansson parading around in her underwear and still manages to be distinctly under whelming has some serious problems. Eminently avoidable.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 2/5 TippyMarks.

Brian De Palma
Cast list:
Josh Hartnett (Ofcr. Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert)
Scarlett Johansson (Kay Lake)
Aaron Eckhart (Sgt. Leland "Lee" Blanchard)
Hilary Swank (Madeleine Linscott)
Mia Kirshner (Elizabeth Short)
John Kavanagh (Emmet Linscott)
Fiona Shaw (Ramona Linscott)