Review by Paul Stathakis | 2006

Not "The Blue Dahlia"

Bri­an De Pal­ma is a vet­er­an direc­tor whose résumé fea­tures a list of notable films such as “Blow Out” (1981), “The Untouch­ables” (1987), and “Carlito’s Way” (1993).  De Pal­ma undoubt­ed­ly has a flair for direct­ing and his images are con­tin­u­ous­ly spell­bind­ing.  With “The Black Dahlia” he revis­its 1947, a time where detec­tives were slick, chain-smok­ing there way through every inves­ti­ga­tion, wear­ing fedo­ras, and dri­ving nice cars.  “The Black Dahlia”, loose­ly based on a nov­el by James Ell­roy, is cen­tred on the mur­der of Eliz­a­beth Short (Mia Kir­sh­n­er), a B movie actress.

Bucky Ble­ichert (Josh Har­nett) is assigned to Short’s case along with his ill-tem­pered part­ner Lee Blan­chard (Aaron Eck­hart) who becomes obsessed with solv­ing the case.  We learn that Short was an aspir­ing actress who came to Hol­ly­wood (then known as Hol­ly­wood­land) for a taste of fame and glo­ry.  But then we get a glimpse of Eliz­a­beth Short’s audi­tion.  The footage shows her crawl­ing, being seduc­tive for the cam­era or the mys­tery man sit­ting behind it.  We see her cry­ing with make­up run­ning down her face and her tears nev­er seem part of a per­for­mance.  Audi­tions nev­er go that far and so, we get the idea.

The detec­tives exam­ine pic­tures of her bru­tal mur­der as view­ers also try to fig­ure out who com­mit­ted the crime.  Bucky soon real­izes that his girl­friend, Madeleine (Hilary Swank) had ties to the deceased, and soon after that, he begins uncov­er­ing cor­rup­tion with­in the police depart­ment.  Join­ing the cast is Scar­lett Johans­son who stars as Lee’s allur­ing girl­friend, Kay.  Johansson’s eyes lit­er­al­ly shine in each scene but the same can­not be said about her per­for­mance.  Unlike Johans­son, Hilary Swank deliv­ers sol­id act­ing and reminds us why she is one of this generation’s best actress­es.  Here she is unsur­pris­ing­ly seduc­tive.

The sets, cars, and the cos­tumes also bring a touch of noir to this thriller.  Although “The Black Dahlia” some­times has a fun­ny way of being sophis­ti­cat­ed, with the actors deliv­er­ing explic­it dia­logue, there are cer­tain scenes which stand out.  Con­sid­er a moment in which Lee pro­tects Bucky dur­ing an intense shootout.  The cam­era moves through the action while plac­ing us in the mid­dle of it.  It’s an excit­ing moment as is anoth­er scene which sort of calls to mind the famous stair­case scene in “The Untouch­ables.”

The Black Dahlia” is not to be mis­tak­en with George Marshall’s clas­sic mas­ter­piece “The Blue Dahlia” (1946).  40 min­utes into this pic­ture it becomes clear that De Pal­ma has ven­tured into a genre which requires a great plot to go along with the sharp cin­e­matog­ra­phy.  Not only is the sto­ry com­plex but it enjoys throw­ing names and new char­ac­ters in the view­ers way through­out.  When the film ends we’re not quite sure what it was real­ly about.  We bare­ly know any­thing about the sur­prise mur­der­er.  Like Richard Roeper of the Chica­go Sun-Times notes, “That’s just not play­ing fair.”

The Black Dahlia” relies on its good looks and the charm of the actors to be a con­vinc­ing peri­od piece.  But the real mys­tery here is try­ing to under­stand what per­suad­ed De Pal­ma to direct such a min­i­mal­ist screen adap­ta­tion of Ellroy’s book. “The Black Dahlia” is a inco­her­ent thriller, hard to fol­low, tough to admire, a film noir that pre­tends to be a film noir. If there’s one film that has real­ly dis­ap­point­ed me this year, this is it.

 

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