September 17, 2006 -- “The Black Dahlia” is a film noir murder mystery which involves the film industry. This self-absorbed production is so overwrought, so hair brained, so improbable, with such bizarre characters it is downright funny, perhaps unintentionally so. I laughed more at this would-be drama than I did at most comedies I have seen this year. This is one sick puppy of a film.
“The Black Dahlia” has a marvelous pedigree. It is based on a novel by James Ellroy (“L.A. Confidential” and “Dark Blue”). It is helmed by veteran director Brian De Palma (“Mission: Impossible,” “Scarface,” “The Untouchables,” “Carrie” and “Carlito's Way”). The production design by Dante Ferretti (“The Aviator”), cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond (“Life as a House”) and art direction by Pier-Luigi Basile and Christopher Tandon (“Spartan”) are impeccable, as is the costume design by Jenny Beavan (“Gosford Park”). The film looks great. It is slick and professional. There are also some good young actors in it like Josh Hartnett (“Sin City”), Scarlett Johansson (“Match Point”), Aaron Eckhart (“Possession”), Hilary Swank (“Million Dollar Baby”), Mia Kirshner (“Party Monster”) and Rachel Miner (“Joe the King”).
The problem with the film seems to arise from a screenplay which doesn't seem interested in providing rational, or even believable motivations for its characters, some of whom would fit in better with “The Aadams Family.” The story centers around a very solid threesome of Los Angeles police detective Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Hartnett), his partner, Sgt. Leland “Lee” Blanchard (Eckhart) and Leland's live-in girlfriend Kay Lake (Johansson). Both Dwight and Leland are former boxers, known as fire and ice. After raising money for the department and helping to pass a bond issue with a boxing match, the two are heroes of the department. Leland is an expert in maneuvering through the good old boy system of department politics and he brings Dwight on the upwardly mobile path with him.
One day, everything changes, a violent shoot-out involving Leland leaves a pile of corpses in and around a seedy Hollywood storefront, while a few yards away, the body of Elizabeth Short (Kirshner) is found cut in half. Leland becomes obsessed with solving Short's murder and rapidly spirals out of control. He's not talking about it, so Dwight has to try to figure out why his partner is behaving so strangely on his own. The answer is very complicated. It involves a convict, a loony tunes wealthy family, police corruption, the movie business, and some characters who barely register earlier in the movie.
The ending of the film is a real bloodbath. There are more people dead on the stage at the end than there are in Hamlet. Dwight has a torrid affair with a femme fatale named Madeleine Linscott (Swank) and wants to have an affair with Kay Lake (Johansson). He's mighty confused for a while, as is the audience, but he finally gets it all figured out in the end. The audience is not so fortunate. The movies conclusion trails off weakly. In the end it is sort of like finding out the butler did it after all.
One of looniest characters in all of this mess is Ramona Linscott (played by Fiona Shaw of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), a frustrated society matron who has married a man who is rich, but has no class. Shaw does a great acting job with this stark raving bonkers character, providing some of the funniest moments in the movie, along with Ramona's daughter, Martha Linscott, who draws a hilarious sketch during a bizarre dinner scene.
The story goes overboard digging into the seamy underbelly of Hollywood with Jack the Ripper-style murders and mutilations, pornographic films, corrupt officials, crooked businessmen and cops. Much of this gleefully portrayed depravation and evil is so over the top that I simply could not take it seriously. Although director Brian DePalma is given to excess at times, this is beyond the pale, even for him. He must have known that some of these scenes are funny. How much of this humor is by design and how much of it is just plain excess? I don't know. This is one sick puppy of a movie. It is also entertaining in its own strange way if you don't take it seriously, and really, how could you? This film rates a C+.
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