Saturday, September 16, 2006

Reel To Reel: The Black Dahlia

Dark drama and distressing disorganization.

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank
Rated: R
Red Flags: Strong Sexual Content, Grisly Images, Strong Violence, Language

Brian De Palma's film noir of a notorious 1940's Hollywood murder is highly watchable but barely understandable. It dazzled me with its period ambience and beautiful cinematography but lost me in a murky plot which draws in so much more than the case of a dead would-be starlet.

The Black Dahlia is based on true events but adapted from a novel by James Ellroy, which accounts for its lack of cohesion and numerous sidebars. The film doesn't even start with the homicide, but with cop boxers Lee Blanchard (Eckhart) and Bucky Bleichert (Hartnett) in a prize fight as PR for the Los Angeles Police, angling to get a bond measure passed. Lee wins the fight. Bucky loses several teeth. Both of them get a ticket off crummy beats and into the Homicide division.

The partners stumble into the murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, her body cut and half, her face slashed ear to ear. Yes, we do see the body, but De Palma approaches it in a way that doesn't go for the gross -- at least not right away. From here, the picture bobs and weaves just like the fight sequence from earlier as the two detectives uncover lurid and scandalous secrets on the trail of Short's killer. Blanchard obsesses over the case with destructive passion, alienating the woman in his life (Johansson). Bucky hooks up with a tawdry socialite (Swank) who bears a resemblance to the murdered girl and links to the case.

Dahlia delves too much into the personal lives of Lee and Bucky and not enough into Short's. We see her through a screen test and a porno film, and I sympathized with her as a struggling actress with pretty eyes and a beautiful face but minor talent. She's ready for her close up, Mr. DeMille. But unlike last week's Hollywoodland, we see nothing beyond that except the girl's mangled corpse and the dirty secrets of those who knew her.

Hartnett, Eckhart, Johansson and Swank are all fine in their performances. A dinner scene involving Bucky and the family of Swank's character is a ribald classic. But if their material had been cut down like the dead girl, the rest of the film would play the same way.

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