The Black Dahlia—a stylish return to '40s noir—comes on strong when it dashes out of the gate, but develops an ungainly limp before long. In adapting James Ellroy's crime novel about the famously unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, director Brian De Palma at first suggests he's working at a level on par with Curtis Hanson's treatment of L.A. Confidential, a shadowy crime drama that lived intimately with Ellroy's characters in the city of his imagination.
De Palma vigorously recreates the Zoot Suit riots, as callously observed by the cops, on a stylized L.A. set that's actually a dressed-up bit of Bulgaria; immediately thereafter, the picture rushes headlong into the complex politics of the LAPD. Cops Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) face off in amateur boxing matches and agree to do so again to benefit the pet bond measure of their police higher-ups. Perceived as a game player, Bucky gets promoted to Lee's partner just as the two land the now-infamous "Black Dahlia" case.
The real-life Dahlia case concerns the murder of aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirschner, fetchingly trapped in celluloid), but Ellroy's novel and De Palma's film run away with the unsolved case, imagining fictional investigators, suspects, and clues. Unfortunately, Ellroy's superior hardbitten copland verisimilitude competes with De Palma's florid sense of melodrama, which in turn competes with somnambulant leading performances by Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson as Blanchard's significant other. Offering nothing in the way of help, Hilary Swank likewise proves miscast as a femme fatale bombshell.
Audiences can seemingly follow De Palma's state of mind through production. As the character drama bogs down in Hartnett and Johansson's maudlin mumbling, De Palma starts to focus on shoehorning in a punchy setpiece or stylistic outrage. He gets a signature moment out of a confrontation on a vertiginous staircase, and gleefully allows the whole film to boil over whenever Fiona Shaw is on screen; the great actress gives a spectacular—and unfortunately inappropriate—comic performance in the middle of an otherwise poker-faced mystery-thriller.
Somewhere in its development—once overseen by director David Fincher—The Black Dahlia became an A- picture helmed by a fading talent and built around the conspicuous lack of presence that is Hartnett. De Palma hasn't been in top form in some time, but at least he has the distinction of failing in interesting ways. When all is said and done, The Black Dahlia makes a very expensive commercial for Ellroy's superior prose, which like Betty Short, gets too little justice here.
[For Groucho's interview with James Ellroy, click here.]