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The Black Dahlia

Fire and Ice
Opposing Elements Cancel Out De Palma’s Cinematic Flower
By Cole Smithey

After years of being passed around Hollywood as unfilmable, Josh Friedman’s ("War of the Worlds") notoriously faithful screenplay adaptation of James Ellroy’s popular novel "The Black Dahlia" has made it to the big screen with less than stellar results. In spite of several momentarily propulsive eye-popping set pieces, suspense master Brian De Palma is unable to pry a cohesive movie from Friedman’s abstruse script. Excessive exposition, subplots, and secondary characters distract from the title story about the barbaric 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, a striving 22-year-old actress at odds with the treacherous streets of Los Angeles. Hillary Swank also degrades the film with a wandering accent that slips from New Orleans to Scotland in her role as Madeleine Linscott, an Elizabeth Short look-alike with a penchant for prostitution even though she is a daughter of privilege.

Famed cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond ("The Deer Hunter") immediately invigorates De Palma’s visually dense mise en scene with a virtuosic tracking shot of a sidewalk melee between a crew of drunken sailors and Los Angeles locals. A man is thrown through a storefront window as lazy police officers avoid entering into the fray. Boxer-turned-homicide detective Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) single handedly brings order to the violence in a suitcase alley, and solicits the prizefighting support of fellow officer Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett). The movie gets off to a creeping start as Lee and Bucky are elected by their police precinct to fight a politically motivated exhibition boxing match. The duo’s boxing nicknames "Fire" (Lee) and "Ice" (Bucky) disguise the ensuing alliance that the two men will share as detective partners and as friends caught in an oddball love triangle at the hand of Lee’s platonic girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson).

An elegant crane shot reveals simultaneous narrative information when a woman discovers the nude corpse of Elizabeth Short in a field a block away from a stakeout that explodes into gunfire for Lee and Bucky. De Palma delays the gruesome discovery while Lee "saves Bucky’s life" from a couple of lowlife pimps doing business over a pet store. Lee and Bucky hardly miss a beat before joining their fellow officers to take notes about "Betty" Short’s body that has been bludgeoned, severed in the middle, disemboweled, and left with deep cuts on both sides of her mouth. The partners are assigned to the Dahlia case but are gradually distracted by personal interests. Bucky attempts to reconcile his fetishized interest in Betty Short (Mia Kirshner) after viewing a screen test with the would be actress while Lee becomes obsessed with the impending release of a criminal with abusive ties to Kay.

Problematic to the momentum of the Dahlia investigation is the awkward relationship that develops among Lee, Kay, and Bucky. The three dine together every Wednesday night at Lee and Kay’s art deco-appointed house. The trio attends the cinema where Kay always sits in the middle and holds both men’s hands. Scarlett Johansson is too hesitant with her performance to register Kay as the story’s cunning woman with a painful and sordid past. Although Johansson doesn’t ruin her scenes to the degree that Hillary Swank does, she invites speculation at what a more experienced actress like Nicole Kidman could have done with the role. Ultimately however, it is the very presence of Johansson’s character, as an extraneous character and subplot, which subtracts from the film.

Bucky endures more narrative diversion when he develops a sexual relationship with Madeleine Linscott (Swank) after meeting the Betty Short doppelganger in a chic lesbian club where k.d. Lang beguiles the crowd with a perfectly phrased rendition of "Love for Sale." The paring serves to introduce Bucky to Madeleine’s wealthy family led by Scottish patriarch Emmett Linscott (John Kavanagh). The movie attends David Lynch territory during a family dinner where Bucky observes the clinically insane behavior of Madeleine’s mother Ramona (Fiona Shaw). The Linscott family provides essential information for Bucky to solve the Dahlia case, but the story line is too weak to sustain its intrinsic significance to the murder.

"The Black Dahlia" shares coincidental elements with "Chinatown," "True Confessions," "L.A. Confidential," and even the currently running "Hollywoodland." All are films that drink from the same Los Angeles riverbed of cruelty and betrayal. If only Brian De Palma had been able to distill his movie down to its primary mystery. An audience for a movie called "The Black Dahlia" doesn’t care about some half-baked love triangle between detectives. We want to be taken on a filmic investigation of a horrible crime, not be fed piecemeal portions of a novel. David Lynch was smart when he rejected directing "The Black Dahlia," but I bet he would have made a better movie than De Palma did.

Rated R, 121 mins. (C-)

September 14, 2006 in Thiller | Permalink