A literally ripping good yarn is undercut by some lackluster performances and late-inning overripe melodrama in “The Black Dahlia.” Based on James Ellroy’s estimable fictional account of what was, for 47 years, Los Angeles’ most notorious unsolved murder, this lushly rendered noir finds director Brian De Palma in fine visual fettle as he pulls off at least three characteristically eye-popping set pieces while trying, with mixed success, to keep some pretty cockeyed plotlines under control. Given the difficulty even the significantly superior Ellroy adaptation “L.A. Confidential” had in attracting a sizable audience, anything more than a moderate B.O. turnout looks doubtful.
Like the novel, script by Josh Friedman (“War of the Worlds”) uses the horrific 1947 killing of 22-year-old would-be actress Elizabeth “Betty” Short as a way to delve into the specifically Southern California brand of crime, sleaze, corruption, hypocrisy, cover-up, disillusionment and dream-crushing that has been a staple of resonant pulp fiction for decades.
In this respect, “The Black Dahlia” covers familiar ground, both thematically and in its seductively tawdry atmosphere highlighted by the usual downtown-area locations, deco apartments, constant cigarette smoke, beautiful cars, men in natty suits and hats and women in gorgeous glamour gowns, with the gap between the rich and powerful and those they would keep down never far from the center of things. Add the evocatively bluesy-jazz score and you might almost hear yourself muttering, “Chinatown.”
But “Chinatown” it ain’t, not in any department. On its own level, however, new pic generates a reasonable degree of intrigue, initially in the ambiguous relationship among tough L.A. homicide detectives Leland “Lee” Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), younger partner Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) — former boxers nicknamed “Fire” and “Ice”– and their voluptuous blond platonic ladyfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). What gives with this threesome isn’t revealed until later, but Eckhart in particular takes the opportunity of the opening half-hour set-up to carve a strong impression as a volatile, aggressive cop ready for just about anything on a police force that craves his kind of guy.
In the first big set piece, the camera arches high and low and around and about in covering Lee and Bucky’s stakeout of and shootout with some lowlifes in a lousy neighborhood. As their real target slips away, the mutilated body of a young woman is discovered in a field across the street; she’s been cut in half, disemboweled and drained of blood, her head bludgeoned and her mouth extended by three-inch cuts on each side into a sick grin, details the police are intent on withholding from the public.
Hotshots Fire and Ice take on the case, but their few interviews with those who knew Betty Short yield little other than her grandiose dreams of movie stardom and her good-times attitude toward men, especially those in uniform.
Bucky becomes fixated on a long screen test he discovers in which Betty (Mia Kirshner) was prodded and interrogated by a director (voiced by De Palma himself).
Strangely, the combination of Betty’s killing and the imminent release of a criminal he long ago put away makes the more experienced Lee flip out; with this, the most watchable and compelling character in the picture thus far frequently disappears from view for murky reasons, forcing the lower-voltage Bucky and Kay to the fore.
This changes for the better when Bucky’s investigation into a lesbian angle in Betty’s life leads him to high-society dark lady Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), who turns up during a wonderful for-gals-only supper club production number of “Love for Sale” crooned by none other than k.d. lang. The suggestive sparring between the working-class cop and the classy woman with a pronounced physical resemblance to the murder victim may not be of the highest order, but it’s enough to get them where they need to go, between the sheets and into a hot romance involving untold layers of deception.
Madeleine proves the lowly Bucky’s passport to the rarefied realm of the city’s drippingly wealthy, starting with her family: There’s naughty younger sister Martha (Rachel Miner), batty mother (Fiona Shaw) and strange Scottish father (John Kavanagh). A dinner scene with this quintet is so bizarre you can only laugh, with Shaw’s perf so over the top, albeit intentionally, that it amounts to a curious spectacle unto itself.
The convergence in a marbled lobby with massive surrounding stairs of Bucky, the unhinged Lee and his now ex-con adversary provides the elements for De Palma’s most virtuoso scene, one in which shocking and upsetting violence forever alters the trajectories of several lives and the picture.
Hereafter, revelations about who was up to what become essential, leading to a big and near-ludicrous explanatory scene in which far too much information needs to be swallowed in one gulp to be remotely digestible. Once the table has been cleared, it’s hard to buy what’s proposed here as a satisfactory resolution to an persistently baffling case.
Eckhart’s very good and so is Swank as a temptress with many games to play. But Hartnett is too blank and expressionless to carry the picture; he narrates and is almost constantly on view, but offers little nuance or depth. His Bucky is the eternal hard-bitten cop who learns life’s bitter lessons on the job. It’s not the actor’s fault that so many great macho stars have made their names playing such parts, but it’s impossible to watch “The Black Dahlia” and not idly think of how indelibly Bogart, Mitchum, Sterling Hayden, Jack Nicholson, Russell Crowe and numerous others have handled such roles.
Although she looks properly in period, Johansson also is weak, evoking little of the requisite vulnerability in a damaged woman who keeps the reasons for her hurt, and her real emotional impulses, deeply submerged.
Seen mostly in the vintage black-and-white screen test and brief flashbacks, Kirshner nicely catches the unformed dreaminess of a young fabulist who became famous only in death, while supporting cast of lesser-known thesps playing cops and baddies registers well.
It’s great to see cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond working at full command on a big picture again after several years on more marginal projects. His scope framing and constant camera moves possess a bracing confidence.
Much of the film was shot in Bulgaria, but you’d never know it, as Dante Ferretti’s unerring production design and Jenny Beavan’s costumes combine with sufficient Los Angeles exterior work to provide authentic atmosphere.
Mark Isham’s moody, old-fashioned score is one of his best, pumping up the dread and suspense and often providing emotional substance where the actors can’t manage it.