Movie Reviews

The Black Dahlia

Reviewed by: Edward Douglas
Rating: 7 out of 10
Movie Details: View here

Josh Hartnett as Ofcr. Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert
Scarlett Johansson as Kay Lake
Aaron Eckhart as Sgt. Leland "Lee" Blanchard
Hilary Swank as Madeleine Linscott
Mia Kirshner as Elizabeth Short
Mike Starr as Russ Millard
Fiona Shaw as Ramona Linscott
Patrick Fischler as Ellis Loew
James Otis as Dolph Bleichert
John Kavanagh as Emmet Linscott
Troy Evans as Chief T. Green
Anthony Russell as Morrie Friedman
Pepe Serna as Dos Santos
Angus MacInnes as Capt. John Tierney
Rachel Miner as Martha Linscott

Directed by Brian De Palma

Brian De Palma and James Ellroy have created a gorgeous, glorious tribute to old Hollywood and crime noir that's only marred by a confounding ending.

Police detectives Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard (Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart) are stumped by the grisly murder of actress wannabe Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), her body found severed in two with all her organs removed. Before they can find her killer, they need to resolve a few issues of their own first.

Coming out just a week after "Hollywoodland," it might seem like a second murder mystery set in the seedy underside of Hollywood might be overkill, but "The Black Dahlia," based on James Ellroy's novel, is a different type of movie. Ellroy's latest crime story revolves around the unsolved 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, and it gives filmmaker Brian De Palma a chance to explore the crime noir genre in a period setting, while still maintaining many of his signature themes.

Before the movie gets to the mutilated corpse at the center of the mystery, we're introduced to Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert, a boxer turned police officer, who gets partnered with his boxing arch-rival Lee Blanchard-the two fought against each other in high profile matches heralded as "Mr. Fire vs. Mr. Ice." It's not long before they're spending their time off-duty together with Blanchard's girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), and it doesn't take a film major to know that thing are being set for a love triangle between them. Things might not play out like most might expect, because the partners are put onto a high-profile case to find the brutal killer of a fledgling actress, coined by the press as "The Black Dahlia" due to the limited color in her wardrobe. Lee is having domestic issues with Kay and he can't handle the pressures of the case, so Bucky is forced to investigate the murder by himself, taking him into lesbian hangouts where he meets Madeline Liscott (Hilary Swank), a woman who dresses exactly like the murdered woman and seems to know something about the murders.

If you think this complex murder mystery, actually two interlinked stories, seems right up De Palma's alley, than you'd probably be right, because it shares a few elements with his previous thrillers "Dressed to Kill," "Body Double," and even "Femme Fatale." The period setting gives De Palma a chance to add a few new tropes to his repertoire, as he faithfully recreates the look and feel of early crime noir films, rarely diverging from that facade. If you weren't familiar with the cast, you might not even blink if you saw this movie on Turner Movie Classics after actual movies from the era. Despite this new setting, De Palma never shies away from the sensationalism of his earlier thrillers, showing Short appearing in a stag film with another actress ala Bettie Page, and making every death grislier than they need be. Like De Palma's previous films, "The Black Dahlia" is absolutely gorgeous, while avoiding modern filmmaking techniques and camera angles to further enhance the illusion.

Otherwise, Josh Friedman has written a sharp script that uses proper noir language in its quips and double entendres, all delivered with impeccable timing by De Palma's able cast. It's not much of a stretch for Josh Harnett or Scarlett Johansson from their previous roles, and Aaron Eckhart has probably had better roles himself.

There's more than a little irony having Hilary Swank play a lipstick lesbian, since she's played so many butch roles in the past. Her character Madeline shows up just in time to lighten up the somber mood with her arrogant air and entertaining innuendos. Things pick up even more when Bucky goes to pick Madeline up for a date and winds up having dinner with her rich, eccentric family, including her enterprising Scottish father and her uptight alcoholic mother. The latter is played by Fiona Shaw, who steals these scenes with an outrageous performance, as she blurts out the truth when others around her start mincing words. This dinner scene makes it obvious why Madeline is so rebellious, having come from such a whacked-out family.

The movie's most haunting scenes are when Bucky and Lee watch Elizabeth Short's failed screen tests, as she's grilled by the disembodied voice of a producer (who sounds like it might be Jeff Bridges), and we realize how her sadness and low self-esteem might led her into situation that got her killed. It's a true breakout performance from Mia Kirschner, who steals the movie without ever interacting with the primary cast.

The problem with having a movie look this good is that you might miss some important clues or banter early on that will play a large part in the resolution of the movie, and because of this, the last half hour ends up being a bit hard to follow, leaving a number of red herrings swinging in the wind.

The Bottom Line:
Anyone who enjoys old crime dramas will get a kick out of the faithful way that De Palma has recreated the era and used old noir techniques to tell Ellroy's complex story. Although the dialogue and performance are all decent, it's a shame that the plot wasn't tightened up a bit to make the finale less confusing.

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