Review: The Black Dahlia

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(Scarlett Johansson in the film).

Expectations were high with word that Brian De Palma was making his first film in four years. Afterall, the veteran director is responsible for such popular screen classics as Scarface, The Untouchables, Mission Impossible, Blow Out, Body Double, Carrie, and Carlito’s Way. Unfortunately, the buzz surrounding The Black Dahlia turns out to be undeserved, because this distinctly-disappointing detective drama fails to measure up to the rest of the De Palma resume’. In fact, the grisly whodunit isn’t even the best example of the genre released this September, being easily overshadowed by another neo-noir, the relatively-spellbinding Hollywoodland.

The Black Dahlia is adapted from the James Ellroy novel of the same name which, in turn, was loosely based on the real-life mystery involving the gruesome vivisection of a 22 year-old cocktail waitress named Elizabeth “Betty� Short. As for the known facts, the aspiring actress’ disemboweled body was discovered lying face-up, nude and chopped in half in a vacant lot in downtown Los Angeles on the morning of January 15, 1947. Her sadistic killer had not only removed her internal organs but had carved an eerie, clownish grin into the raven-haired beauty’s pretty face by slicing it open from ear-to-ear.

Posthumously dubbed “The Black Dahlia� by a reporter looking for a lurid headline, Betty’s private life became the subject of wild speculation of tabloids competing to capture the public’s attention by sensationalizing the case. For instance, the papers were quick to insinuate that there might be a slasher with a thing for brunettes on the loose, given the strangling a year earlier of socialite Georgette Bauerdorf, a dead-ringer for Betty said to frequent the same seedy haunt until her untimely demise.

Hundreds of police officers, some from neighboring jurisdictions, joined in the Black Dahlia investigation, leaving no stone unturned as they interrogated thousands of witnesses, treating anyone who had known the victim at all as a potential suspect, including the scores of former boyfriends whose phone numbers they found in her little black book. The cops even questioned the party girl’s estranged father, who had refused to identify his daughter’s corpse, although he lived only a few miles from the crime scene. Although there was no shortage of suspects, ultimately, none panned out and the perpetrator of the gruesome slaying was never found.

De Palma’s incoherent screen version of the tawdry tale takes considerable license with the truth, concocting a cockamamie crime theory so preposterous, it’s laughable, all the while interweaving several salacious subplots ostensibly to whet the appetite of today’s more sexually-obsessed audiences. Plus, he’s cobbled on a distracting love triangle involving the two lead detectives assigned to handle the case, Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart).

Bucky narrates the blow-by-blow in that low-key monotone of your typical pulp fiction yarn. Early on, we learn that he and his new partner Lee were once foes as amateur boxers, but that they have supposedly left any antagonism in the ring. Yet, Bucky takes an interest in his partner’s common-law wife, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), an openly flirtatious femme fatale with a dark past.

Lee is not exactly an altar boy, either, as he’s hiding his own illicit liaison with an heiress (Hilary Swank) who resembles the dearly departed Dahlia (Mia Kirshner). The plot thickens when we learn that not only is she bisexual but she made a lesbian stag film which embarrassed her father (John Kavanagh) and drove her mother (Fiona Shaw) batty. Suddenly all the suspects seem to be somehow related to this one well-to-do family, and isn’t convenient that a cop has already ingratiated himself with daddy’s little girl? With skeletons flying out of the closet at every turn, this overplotted mess unfolds more like a dumb, daytime soap opera than a well-crafted crime thriller. For that, check out Hollywoodland.

Fair (1 star).  Rated R for sex, expletives, graphic violence and grisly images.
Running time: 121 minutes.  Studio: Universal Pictures

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