We’ve been here before – not just because The Black Dahlia is yet another noir set in the sunlight-scorched streets of Los Angeles, but also because it’s another effort from one-time whiz kid Brian De Palma (Carrie (1976), Blow Out (1981), Scarface (1983)) that falls way short of expectation.
As ever, it isn’t too difficult to spot the director’s sources – the former Hitchcock-phile has moved on to Howard Hawks (The Big Sleep (1946)), Roman Polanski (Chinatown (1974)) and Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential (1997)) in search of inspiration, but no amount of hard-boiled dicks, double-crossing femmes fatales, or chain-smoked tabs can disguise that this is the palest of noir imitations.
And that’s a real pity, because the source material was so inspiring. It’s based on James Ellroy’s classy novel about the grisly unsolved real-life murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short (played by Mia Kirshner) in 1947.
The story follows a pair of Los Angeles detectives, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Dwight ‘Bucky’ Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), two ex-boxers partnered up to investigate the case of Short, who was found chopped in half with a smile cut ear-to-ear. Dubbed ‘Mr. Fire’ and ‘Mr. Ice’ by the media, Blanchard becomes obsessed with avenging the girl while Bleichert follows sparse leads that hint at Short’s possible lesbian dalliances and connection with the Linscotts, a rich Los Angeles family who made it big building Hollywood.
The ubiquitous Scarlett Johansson is also involved, giving perhaps her worst performance to date as Kay Lake, former ‘bad girl’ rescued by Blanchard from a boyfriend who found her useful as a punch bag, and Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), who provides the overacted, scenery-chewing love interest for Bleichert.
Josh Friedman’s adaptation of Ellroy’s novel, coupled with the cast’s hammy delivery, renders the dialogue quite laughable, with would-be acid lines turned into near pastiche. Johansson and Hartnett, meanwhile, manage to prove that neither can carry a film on their own. Johansson runs the gamut of emotions from apathy to boredom, while Hartnett has all the on-screen charisma of a Roger Moore eyebrow movement.
Fair enough, it’s pretty to look at (at least De Palma copied that part correctly) but window-dressing cannot hide a stuffed turkey. Don’t.