The Black Dahlia Review
Brian De Palma is the man behind Scarface, the 1983 gangster epic penned by Oliver Stone and starring the great Al Pacino. Ten years' later he reunited with Pacino for my favourite of his directorial efforts, Carlito's Way, another gangster masterpiece. In between he also made the superior De Niro / Connery gangster classic The Untouchables. Since then, however, De Palma's work has been sporadically good, at best, with glossy productions like the first Cruise Mission Impossible movie and the Nicholas Cage mystery Snake Eyes keeping him busy but never quite reaching the heights of his previous endeavours. However, even these, his more financially-orientated Hollywood vehicles, carry over that distinctive De Palma style, with trademark flourishes that fans will always be able to recognise, as well as that convoluted, twisting-turning plot that he is also famous for. It would be safe to assume that the same is true of his latest effort, The Black Dahlia, based on the James 'L.A. Confidential' Ellroy novel that fictionalised the infamous real-life murder and mutilation of a young woman.
We're in 1940s LA and two young cops, the upcoming Officer Dwight 'Bucky' Bleichert and the established Sergeant Leland 'Lee' Blanchard, are forced into an uneasy partnership - ostensibly as a marketing ploy to boost the image of the police department. After a bloody promotional boxing match between the two, their pairing evolves as Lee introduces Bucky to his glamorous girlfriend, Kay Lake. Pretty soon the trio become close friends, but when they get their latest grisly assignment - to track the murderer of beautiful Hollywood hopeful Elizabeth Short - Lee becomes increasingly obsessive in his behaviour, and Bucky begins to unearth some dark secrets about both the case and his newfound friends.
The lead detectives are brought to life by Paycheck's Aaron Eckhart, as Lee, and Lucky Number Slevin's Josh Hartnett as Bucky, both solid enough and convincing in the parts, although not a patch on the detective duo from Ellroy's LA Confidential, played by Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce. Then we have the many important female leads, from Lost in Translation's Scarlett Johansson as Kay, to Million Dollar Baby's Hilary Swank as a shady femme fatale and The L-Word's lovely Mia Kirshner as the ill-fated Elizabeth Short. Johansson pouts suitably, Kirschner looks gorgeous as ever and Swank looks slightly out of place in the femme fatale role, but all of them do their bit to keep the story together.
Despite their best efforts, however, De Palma's interpretation fails to bring either the real-life murder, or Ellroy's superior novel, to life, feeling somewhat like an epic crime study that has been abbreviated to a shorter runtime by taking the wrong scenes out. Still, whilst not classic De Palma, The Black Dahlia is nevertheless a sumptuous, dark, period crime thriller with signs of the award-winning auteur's magic touch. He spins the camera 360 degrees around a room-full of people, breaks tense action sequences down into slow-motion first-person shots, pans across what feels like an entire city block to focus in on the points of interest and, of course, gives us those dual-focus moments where both foreground and background characters are in focus on each half of the screen. It neither reaches the glitzy period glamour heights of the vastly superior LA Confidential or Ellroy's bestselling novel, but still works nicely as a reasonably well put-together and very stylishly directed film noir.