Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Black Dahlia

Originally Written and Posted at on 9/17/06 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.

Based on James Ellroy's novel that is based on the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia is the story of two detectives who investigate the murder of an aspiring actress as it would take a mental and emotional toll on the two men as well as their relationship for a young woman as a doppelganger seduces one of them. Directed by Brian de Palma and screenplay by Josh Friedman, the film is an exploration into a mysterious murder that occurred in the late 1940s as two men become lost in the mystery of who kill this woman. Starring Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Patrick Fischler, John Kavanagh, Jemima Rooper, Fiona Shaw, Rachel Miner, Rose McGowan, and Hilary Swank. The Black Dahlia is a stylish but very underwhelming film from Brian de Palma.

After a charity fight to raise the salary of L.A. policeman, local street cop Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) become opponents for the fight publicized by Ellis Loew (Patrick Fischler) as the two later become partners in the Warrants division as Bleichert also befriends Blanchard's girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). The two become successful in their work while Bleichart and Lake realize they're attracted to each other but keep their feelings intact out of respect for Blanchard. During a case to catch a child rapist where they encounter a shootout, the two find the body of a dead woman cut in half as she's revealed to be Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner). With news of the release of a criminal in Bobby DeWitt (Richard Brake) and the graphic nature of Short's death, Blanchard starts to unravel who wants to go after DeWitt but has to work on the Short case with Bleichert who learns a lot about Short and her aspirations to be an actress.

Bleichert's investigation leads him to clues that includes a journey into the underground lesbian bars where he meets a Short doppelganger in socialist Madeline Linscott (Hilary Swank) who later invites him to to a family dinner. Bleichert and Linscott would have an affair as he later retrieves a stag film that featured short and her friend Lorna Mertz (Jemima Rooper) which makes Blanchard more uneasy as he is later taken out of the case while an earlier case to lead to a falling out between him and Bleichert. Kay later reveals some information about Blanchard's state of mind and why he's become uneasy as things eventually get worse where Bleichert learns a deeper connection between Short and the Linscott family as he gets closer to close the case.

While the film has all of the elements of a stylish, 1940s film-noir and crime stories, it also has the style that Brian de Palma is known for when it comes to suspense considering his often ode to Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately, despite all of de Palma's efforts to create a fascinating, intriguing mystery. It loses its sense of direction right into the third act. While screenwriter Josh Friedman does create a faithful adaptation the Ellroy novel. What is lost is many of the psychological and character study aspect of Ellroy. Instead, the script loses some insight into the characters, the murder, and most of all, Bleichert's obsession with Short.

The changes from the book to script are unfortunate since it loses some of its suspense and the style of Ellroy's writing which weaves and entrances its audience. While the first two acts are faithful with some stuff along with major subplots and characters not making it into the film adaptation. The third act is crucial yet misses a lot on the psychological aspect of Ellroy's work where a lot of things is lost and the suspense in the book gets crammed up in too many moments. Notably the confrontation between the Linscott and Bleichert where too much goes on where in the book, Bleichert confronts the Sprague family on a series of suspenseful sequences.

The fault is really to Friedman and de Palma for wrapping things up a bit too fast while having some bizarre sequences, notably the DeWitt confrontation which in the book, is set in Tijuana, Mexico but in the film, it's in Los Angeles where it doesn't entirely work. It ends up overwhelming itself where a lot of the drama and action is forced and de Palma seems to have rushed things a bit too quickly. Still, de Palma does create some fascinating work that is reminiscent to his past films like a boxing fight scene between Bleichert and Blanchard. Some scenes are definitely borrowed from 1940s films with soft lenses on some scenes that adds style to the film. The only real falter in de Palma's directing is the ending. It feels totally false and not true to the character of Bleichert where his character in the end is forced to grow up and confront some inner demons. In the film, it wraps up to quickly with no resolve and comes out very lame. Overall, despite some strong moments in the film, de Palma loses sight of everything by the third and final act.

Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond does some wonderful work in the photography whether its some lovely, soft touches in some emotional sequences between Bleichert and Kay to some of the shading of windows that is true to the noir-style. Zsigmond's work also shines in many of the film's exterior's shot in Los Angeles while the interiors are very intimate with some great long shots from de Palma's directing as the veteran cinematographer does some fascinating work. Production designer Dante Ferretti and art directors Pier-Luigi Basile and Christopher Tandon adds a lot of flair and style to their extravagant presentation of 1940s Los Angeles including the worldly Linscott home and the lesbian bar scenes that all of the interiors were shot in Bulgaria. Costume designer Jenny Beaven also does some great work in the 1940s costume work from the suits and Fedoras that the men wear to the black clothing Kirshner and Swank wear along with the more loose, silvery, grey clothes of Johansson.

Editor Bill Pankow does some nice cutting into the film while adding some great, curtain-like cuts that owes to the old, 1940s film editing style that adds flair to the film while doing great work in not cutting on some great long shots de Palma did. Sound designer Paula Fairfield also does some great work in the sound including an earthquake scene that does add atmosphere along with the sounds of gunshots and things that adds an intensity to the film. Score composer Mark Isham plays to the world of 1940s style of jazz while the orchestral score works in conveying the emotions and intensity of the suspense. The soundtrack also includes an old Cole Porter jazz number performed by k.d. lang in a cameo appearance that is fun in one of the film's lesbian bar scenes.

The film's cast is wonderfully assembled that includes some small appearances from Rose McGowan, Kevin Dunn, Richard Brake, Troy Evans, Ian McNiece as the coroner, William Finley as the Linscott patriarch George Tilden, James Otis as Bucky's demented German father, and Scarface actor Pepe Serna in a cameo as Tomas dos Santos. Rachel Miner is good in the role of Martha Linscott but her character is underwritten since the book has more information on her. Miner isn't the only actress to suffer from the underwritten script as Jemima Rooper's Lorna Mertz is also underwritten since her character has more to hide despite a good performance from Rooper. Patrick Fischler is indeed, Ellis Loew as the publicity-driven D.A. who controls the investigation while trying to make a public thing for himself though the book had more of his plans. John Kavanagh is really good as the slimy, charming Emmett Linscott while noted character actor Mike Starr does some great work as the veteran good cop Russ Millard who unfortunately, is underused since Millard is a great character though Starr doe some great work.

In a performance that can be described as over-the-top, British actress Fiona Shaw gives a performance that goes way overboard as Ramona Linscott as she just goes all out to the point that it becomes unintentionally hilarious. Mia Kirshner delivers one of her best performances in the film's title role as she brings an innocence and sadness to Elizabeth Short as well as a troubling sexiness that is entrancing to watch. Hilary Swank continues to play interesting characters as she brings a lot of vamp in her role as the femme fatale Madeline Linscott. While the book portrayed Madeline as a more psychotic, seductive character, Swank does excellent work in playing sexy with a strange, Irish accent and a presence that is troubling. Though the performance is a bit over-the-top, it's nonetheless entertaining despite the fact it's underwritten. While Scarlett Johansson can transform herself into a true, 1940s starlet with her undeniable beauty. Her character however, suffers the most from the script since it's very underwritten in her connection with DeWitt as well as in her relationship with Bucky. Johansson still manages to be very good as the more guarded, traditional woman who loves the company of two men while often smoking a cigarette and being worrisome to everything around her.

Aaron Eckhart is really the film's best performance as the troubled Lee Blanchard. Eckhart has all of the sensitive tough guy qualities that Kay adores while his character ends up being more troubled with great reasons and a darker past beneath it. Eckhart is Lee Blanchard like the book though the script puts him in strange situations that isn't true to the character though Eckhart manages to do some fine work. Josh Hartnett isn't a great actor and never will be but he does manage to do some of his best work as Bucky Bleichert. While his narration and some of his performances, notably his scenes with the main actors are good. It's inconsistent since he often looks a bit wooden and sometimes, a bit smug including a confrontational scene between him and Johansson. It's not his best work, that goes to The Virgin Suicides, but Hartnett ends up being decent though the script fails to make his character into being far more complex and interesting.

While it has some moments that keeps it from being a disaster, The Black Dahlia is an over-stylized yet un-engaging film from Brian de Palma. While it has a good cast, great settings, look, and style, fans of the book will indeed be disappointed in what got cut and its psychological aspects of it. Fans of noir films will probably lean to the more successful and brilliant L.A. Confidential by Curtis Hanson that is also a novel by James Ellroy. In the end, while the film is entertaining and has style but lacks a lot of substance. In the end, The Black Dahlia is a very disappointing film-noir suspense film from Brian de Palma.

Brian de Palma Films: (Murder a la Mod) - (Greetings) - (The Wedding Party) - (Dionysus in ‘69) - (Hi, Mom!) - (Get to Know Your Rabbit) - Sisters - Phantom of the Paradise - Obsession - Carrie - The Fury - (Home Movies) - Dressed to Kill - Blow Out - Scarface (1983 film) - Body Double - (Wise Guys) - The Untouchables - Casualties of War - The Bonfire of the Vanities - Raising Cain - Carlito’s Way - Mission: Impossible - Snake Eyes - Mission to Mars - Femme Fatale - (Redacted) - Passion (2012 film) - (Domino (2018 film))

© thevoid99 2013


Anonymous said...

I thought this film was utter shit, to be honest. Nothing about it worked, outside of the set pieces. I've never seen so many miscast actors in one film in all my life. LMAO at Hilary Swank, and as much as I laud the reign of ScarJo, she was bland as hell here.

thevoid99 said...

Yeah, this film definitely sucked. I liked some of the visuals but man, it didn't work. Plus, it lost a lot of the things about the book that I enjoyed as I was gripped by it and the film didn't do that at all. Scarlett wasn't very good in this and Swank is definitely terrible. It's been some years since I've seen it though I know it's on Showtime/The Movie Channel right now.

BTW, where is Josh Hartnett?

Anonymous said...

I often wonder what happened to his career. I mean, he does (did) have talent and charm and it looked like he was going to be HUGE in the early 00's, but then he just disappeared. Strange.

thevoid99 said...

@Fisti-I think he was a victim of just someone who had the looks and charm to be a movie star where he was pushed to become the next big thing. Yet, his lack of range as an actor and bad choices did him in and I think he's moving into TV right now.

Brittani Burnham said...

I wouldn't call this a "good" movie, but I actually kind of enjoyed it. I never read the book, but it had it's moments where it was interesting. I thought Mia Kirschner was really good, the same can't be said for everyone else though.

thevoid99 said...

@Brittani Burnham-It has its moments as Kirshner is the best thing in the film. I would recommend reading the book though I do believe in the fact that books and film are two different mediums. It's just that there's so much more in the story in the book that is just ravishing to read.