The Black Dahlia (Universal Pictures, R)

To extend the unavoidable comparison of The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential, I will compare the two films SAT analogy–style here to the most apt set of like films—The Black Dahlia : L.A. Confidential :: 8MM : Seven.

 

Aaron Eckhart and Scarlett Johansson in The Black Dahlia.

Seeing as how Brian De Palma's new film, The Black Dahlia, was based on a novel by James Ellroy, who also wrote the source material for the brilliant L.A. Confidential, expectations for the quality of The Black Dahlia have been running high for some time. Coupled with the fact that the film has a great cast (Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank) and is based on one of the greater enigmas in American crime in the past century, and you've got the potential for a great film. To extend the unavoidable comparison of The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential, I will compare the two films SAT analogy–style here to the most apt set of like films—The Black Dahlia : L.A. Confidential :: 8MM : Seven.

The Black Dahlia, which is, of course, based on a true story, is riffed on here and is primarily the story of Detective Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), who gets roped into the Black Dahlia case with his sometimes partner and boxing buddy Lee Blanchard (Eckhart). Along the way Bucky hits bumps in the road including the eternally unflatteringly dressed Kay (Johansson), Lee's wife with whom Bucky is a little too chummy, rich kid Madeleine Linscott (Swank), who is notable to the film's plot pretty much exclusively because she is a really good look-alike of Elizabeth Short (who is the Black Dahlia of the title; she got the nickname because of her black hair and all-black attire), and, of course, Short herself (the luminous Mia Kirshner), whom he gets to know via old reels of her auditions and things. (The Black Dahlia case hits home so well because it has long been taken as the ultimate and most extreme tale of the innocent-girl-goes-to-Hollywood story, insofar as that Short wound up cut in two and mutilated almost beyond recognition.)

One has to wish that a filmmaker who is less clunky than De Palma had gotten their hands on this material, as De Palma doesn't exactly add anything to the proceedings. For one thing, the film is far too self-consciously old-fashioned, and is distracting with its forced use of wipes and fade-outs to transition from scene to scene without any real transition in the script. Also, De Palma's almost Cronenberg-like predilection toward arguably unnecessary shots of gore doesn't really seem to fit into the film's vibe, or at least not the way De Palma employs them. And strangely enough, at the end of a summer where it feels like I've said that nearly every movie was too long (which is a criticism I tend to hate when other people make), The Black Dahlia feels awfully busy in its two-hour running time; I'd've liked to have seen it stretch out and relax in its storytelling, with a running time in the 140- to 160-minute range.

But it isn't just De Palma making the mistakes here. Although Hartnett, with his squinty, dark eyes and inscrutable presence, could make a great noir hero in the future, he feels a little too green for this role. Even worse is Eckhart, whom I usually love, woefully miscast as a dumb, hotheaded detective who gets unnaturally obsessed with a dumb dead girl, and the weird plotline about how Linscott looks exactly like Short feels awfully forced, as Swank and Kirshner look pretty much nothing alike.

This isn't all to say that The Black Dahlia is completely worthless; as I said before, it is thoroughly watchable and even enjoyable to a fault. It's just the combination of unfilled potential and overly high expectations regarding the film will wind up being its undoing, and it will all but surely be forgotten forever more once it is released on DVD.

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