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Category:    Home > Reviews > Mystery > Thriller > Detective > The Black Dahlia (2006/Theatrical Film Review)

The Black Dahlia (2006/Theatrical Film Review)


Stars: Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank. Mia Kirshner

Director: Brian De Palma

Critic's rating: 3 out of 10


Review by Chuck O'Leary


Elizabeth Short, known to some as "Betty," was a party girl and movie extra in 1940s Los Angeles who aspired to become a famous Hollywood actress.  Her black hair combined with her often black wardrobe gained her the nickname the "Black Dahlia."  On January 15, 1947, Miss Short's dead body was found brutally murdered and mutilated in a L.A. empty lot.  To this day, her murder has never been officially solved.


Always fascinated this real-life mystery, James Ellroy wrote a 1987 novel called The Black Dahlia, a fictionalized story that centers around Short's murder.  Screenwriter Josh Friedman has adapted Ellroy's novel for the screen with Brian De Palma directing.


There have been three previous big-screen adaptations of Ellroy novels.  Blood on the Moon was made into the very enjoyable potboiler Cop (1988) starring a magnetic James Woods, and L.A. Confidential was made into a good, but somewhat overrated 1997 film by Curtis Hanson.  Brown's Requiem was also made into a feature film in 1998, but was barely released.  Not counting Brown's Requiem, which I've yet to see, The Black Dahlia is by far the least of the Ellroy adaptations to date.


The Black Dahlia case was already the basis for an excellent, infinitely-better fictionalized film built around it, 1981's True Confessions starring Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall.  In that film, Duvall plays a hard-boiled L.A. detective investigating a gruesome Dahlia-like murder, and De Niro plays his Catholic priest brother with big ambitions within the Church.  Directed by Ulu Grosbard and based on a novel by John Gregory Dunne, who also co-scripted, True Confessions is one of the truly great films of the 1980s, but rarely ever gets the credit it so richly deserves.


When I heard Brian De Palma was directing a film version of Ellroy's novel, The Black Dahlia, I was expecting something on the level of True Confessions.  Boy was I wrong.  The movie version of The Black Dahlia doesn't contain a single minute that rivals the excellence of True Confessions.  Anybody reading this review, please heed my advice: Skip De Palma's boring, unfocused and unconvincing film, and get your hands on a copy of True Confessions instead. Or at least watch True Confessions before wasting your time on The Black Dahlia, for De Palma's latest is really third rate compared to Grosbard's unsung masterpiece from 25 years ago.


Every moment in True Confessions feels authentic, and the film has genuine emotional resonance -- I'm still haunted by the beautiful wrap around story with Duvall and De Niro as old men that bookends the film.  Conversely, everything in The Black Dahlia seems fake, and the film is hopelessly flat and lifeless.  It is easily one of the biggest disappointments of the year.


De Palma only came to this project at the last minute when David Fincher dropped out.  The film's leads had already been cast, so De Palma had no choice but to use John Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson as his leads, both of whom turn out to be horribly miscast. Harnett and Johansson both seem too contemporary for the film's 1947 setting, and constantly look like two modern-day young actors playing dress up.  More to my surprise, two time Oscar winner Hilary Swank also seems out of her depth in a major supporting role, using an unconvincing accent that alternately sounds Irish, Scottish and Southern.  They're all so bad, the film's other lead actor, Aaron Eckhart, can't help but come away looking good.


Disappointingly, for a film called The Black Dahlia, we get to know precious little about Elizabeth Short, played here by Mia Kirshner during black & white flashbacks of one of her film auditions -- by the way, that's De Palma's voice as the unseen director in those scenes.  Unlike True Confessions, this film doesn't have fictional characters interesting enough for an audience to ever care about. The real-life Short case has to be way more intriguing than the muddled film noir we get her, and I have to believe Ellroy's novel reads a heck of a lot better than this plays.


Like the current, pretty-good Hollywoodland, also a fictional period detective story revolving around a real-life mystery, The Black Dahlia makes the mistake of spending too much time on the personal lives of fictional characters of limited interest when the real-life characters portrayed are of much greater interest.


The Black Dahlia is also one of those movies where the plot is so convoluted that it's almost impossible to follow.  Starting with a boxing match and a shootout, it takes more than a half an hour to get to the actual Short murder, and after that the murder itself seems like an afterthought.  Here's what I can tell you: Harnett and Eckhart portray two L.A. detectives investigating the Short murder, Johansson plays the ex-prostitute girlfriend of Eckhart's character, before sleeping with Harnett, while Swank shows up belatedly as a wealthy bisexual who seduces Harnett to keep her name out of the papers.


Everything is so muddled, uninvolving and poorly paced that after 45 minutes or so, I just couldn't wait for this to end.  The film only comes to life briefly during one sequence where De Palma employs his Hitchcockian techniques.  In a recent interview, De Palma seemed to be trying to distance himself from this film, saying he couldn't make some of the changes he wanted to.  You get the feeling De Palma was merely a hired hand on this one, and consequently was handcuffed.  For one thing, Friedman's lousy script needed another major rewrite so De Palma could add more of the Hitchcockian pizzazz that made his early thrillers like Sisters, Obsession, Carrie, The Fury, Dressed to Kill and Blow Out such a pleasure to watch.


If you're going to hire Brian De Palma, you might as well let him make a Brian De Palma thriller.  Any hack could have directed The Black Dahlia for what it is.  De Palma was doing much edgier work 26 years ago on Dressed to Kill, and when he's bored with material that isn't personal enough (as seen in Mission: Impossible, Mission to Mars and now this) that boredom definitely comes across in the finished product.


Dante Ferretti's 1940s production design and Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography are the film's strong suits, but worst of all is Mark Isham's overblown, overly melodramatic musical score that sounds like a bad score lifted from a 1947 movie.


Interestingly, Universal is promoting The Black Dahlia as "From the director of Scarface," a film from nearly 23 years ago that only did moderate box office during its theatrical run.  Scarface, however, has developed a big cult following over the years through ancillary markets, and has become the De Palma film with the longest afterlife.  Scarface, though, was characterized by the energy and intensity of the De Palma of the '70s and '80s.  Those going in expecting anything even slightly resembling Scarface are bound to come away bored to tears.  Compared to De Palma's best work, The Black Dahlia is downright somnambulant.


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