The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Ah, noir, genre of the stars. Done right it's edgy, dangerous and above all sexy. Brian De Palma, unfortunately, has done this most magnificent of styles a great wrong.

His adaptation of James Ellroy's novel - loosely based on a real-life killing - starts well. Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) are cops, they fight each other in the ring for the good of the squad and ultimately fetch up investigating the death of starlet Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) - whose grisly murder saw her dubbed 'The Black Dahlia'. Holding them together - or possibly pushing them apart - is Kay (Scarlett Johansson in Kim Novak mode). As they get more involved with the case and his friendship and partnership with Lee hits the rocks, Bucky gets snared by upper class femme fatale Madeleine (Hilary Swank).

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This could have been hard-boiled but instead it's scrambled. On the plus side, De Palma makes things look good - at least initially - opting for Hollywood stagey look, with sets taking their lead from films of the Forties. People smoke all the time - except for Johansson, who annoyingly wafts a cigarette in a holder from beginning to end of the film and yet fails to actually take a proper drag on it. And where is the smoke? With the exception of the squad room, there's none to be seen, making the whole thing feel too polished for its own good - done right, this should be recalling classics such as Chinatown, when in fact it is more reminiscent of a glossy comic book adaptation such as Dick Tracy.

Femme Swank, meanwhile, is not nearly fatale enough. Sure, she looks the period but is let down by her roaming accent - slightly off English, despite the fact that her father (John Kavanagh) is supposedly Scots - and she simply isn't irresistable, with Johannsson much more convincing as a dame who could turn dangerous. Equally Hartnett never quite convinces. He's too pretty and never seems conflicted enough.

The actors cannot be held entirely responsible, however. Eckhart is convincing and Kirshner's portrayal of Short is good - the script is the real bad guy here.

Firstly, there are problems with the time period. Friedman would have us believe lesbianism was rampant in the LA of the Forties, with bars able to ply their trade openly, without censure - which is clearly a nonsense - and the idea of pals going to see a silent movie after the advent of the talkies also stretches the bounds of disbelief.

Plus the plotting is too convoluted, with all the sex and danger being squished out of the equation as scriptwriter Josh Friedman rushes on to the next expositional scene. In fact, the last third of the movie is virtually all plot. There's corruption, the murder and countless other sub-plots which Friedman feels the need to explain to the audience. Everything is so hurried that the wheels begin to come off. You've barely time to soak up one revelation before another one is dumped on you from a great height. It's needlessly graphic, too, but the scenes of extreme violence just don't feel authentic due to the gloss of the set-up. Let's hope the upcoming Hollywoodland - which won Ben Affleck a best actor gong in Venice - does the time period and genre more justice.

Reviewed on: 14 Sep 2006
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Two cops hunt a killer in 1940s LA.
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Chris ****

Director: Brian De Palma

Writer: Josh Friedman, based on the book by James Ellroy

Starring: Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Fiona Shaw, John Kavanagh, Troy Evans

Year: 2006

Runtime: 121 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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