Baby’s in ‘Black’
|Director:||Brian De Palma,|
|Starring:||Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, and Hilary Swank|
Nearly 60 years after the mutilated body of an aspiring actress was discovered in a vacant lot in Los Angeles, and 20 years after famed novelist James Ellroy used that grisly murder to frame the backdrop of his best-selling novel, director Brian De Palma’s big-screen adaptation of “The Black Dahlia” is dead on arrival. Despite complex characterization and a stylish period setting that recalls De Palma’s own masterpiece, 1987’s “The Untouchables,” and another terrific Ellroy adaptation, 1997’s “LA Confidential,” the film ultimately suffers from cheesy, over-the-top performances and a few too many convoluted subplots that are neither fully realized nor particularly interesting.
That’s surprising, given that the horrific nature of the crime continues to haunt LA to this very day. On January 15, 1947, the body of Elizabeth “Betty” Short was discovered cut in half at the waist, with several of her internal organs removed from her naked body. She was sodomized and sliced from ear-to-ear, leaving her with a haunting, clown-like grin. Nicknamed the Black Dahlia for her dark hair and matching wardrobe, Short became far more famous in death than she ever hoped to be in life, and the mystery surrounding her murder continues to fuel fascination in one of history’s most notorious cold cases.
But as depicted by De Palma, that mystery took a backseat to the far more important matters that were distracting LAPD officers Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett). Their first homicide case together threatens to get in the way of Blanchard’s relationship with his girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson), while Bleichert becomes irresistibly drawn to a secretive femme fatale (Hilary Swank) who bears more than a passing resemblance to the Black Dahlia. As their obsession with the case draws them further into the underbelly of a corrupt Los Angeles, Bleichert is in for a terrifying shock when the true motive behind the sickening murder is finally revealed.
If Brian De Palma spent as much time re-focusing and fine-tuning Josh Friedman’s convoluted screenplay as he did setting up some of the sexy, stylish, moody scenes that he’s best known for, he might have ended up with a film that’s on par with 1976’s “Carrie,” 1980’s “Dressed to Kill” and 1987’s “The Untouchables” as one of the finest of his career. But as it is, “The Black Dahlia” is a patience-testing bust that’s more akin to his recent string of disappointments, which include 1998’s “Snake Eyes,” 2000’s “Mission to Mars” and 2002’s “Femme Fatale.”
Perhaps he should have instructed his cast to tone it down just a bit, as “The Black Dahlia” features some of the most over-the-top performances to grace a De Palma movie since 1983’s “Scarface.” Aaron Eckhart fares the worst here, while two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank is just plain miscast as a seductive femme fatale. Scarlett Johansson, whose wise-beyond-her-years persona served her well in 2003’s “Lost in Translation” and last year’s excellent “Match Point,” actually looks too young for a change, but at least Josh Hartnett’s more understated performance suits the film’s LA noir setting and mood.
The grisly murder of the Black Dahlia may serve as a cautionary tale for naïve wannabes chasing their dreams of stardom, but I can’t help but be reminded of another current film that covers roughly the same ground with much better results – “Hollywoodland,” which investigates the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death in 1959 of TV’s Superman, George Reeves (played by a never-better Ben Affleck). Though Reeves got a lot further in his career than Elizabeth Short, it’s hard not to see the tragic similarities between the two movies, which ironically hit theaters just a week apart. At least one of them is actually worth seeing.