Wilted Flower: 'The Black Dahlia' Review
To kick off True Crime month, it seems fitting to take a look at one attempt of countless at adapting the still unsolved yet infamous Black Dahlia murder case into a story. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. The real “adaptation” is the book upon which this film is based: The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy. Though the case itself was never solved, that didn’t deter Ellroy, a veteran crime fiction writer, from constructing an entire, sprawling neo-noir masterpiece around the murder. An instant genre classic, Ellroy’s novel would go on to be the inspiration creatives would most draw from when using elements of the case in fiction. A pinnacle of literary period exploration, it seems fitting that director Brian de Palma, a noir aficionado himself, attempted to bring the visceral and unbridled gratuity of late ‘40s Los Angeles to life on the silver screen.
Though the film takes its title after the case, the murder of Elizabeth Short serves only as a subplot to motivate the characters’ obsessions and eventual paranoia. The film is centered instead around Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), a pair of LAPD partners, two of the best cops on the force and renowned for their almost spotless conviction track record. At the time of Elizabeth Short’s gruesome murder and the opening of what would go on to be known as the Black Dahlia case, Lee and Bucky are working a separate case tracking a child rapist. Short’s death, however, catches Lee’s attention – an initial curiosity that later devolves into full on obsession. Reluctantly, Bucky agrees to request a transfer for him and his partner to the task force assigned to work the Short case and in his pursuit for more information on Short herself; he’s lead to the mysterious femme fatale Madeline Linscott (Hillary Swank) with whom he starts a relationship with.
What fails in The Black Dahlia is not a potentially overreaching plotline or rushed pace as one would expect from the adaptation of a novel as epic as Ellroy’s original story, but rather a multitude of other, adaptational failures – cinematic or otherwise.
For example, and this pains me to say it, the acting is disappointing. When you have such a heavy-hitting troupe of a-list actors (at least when the film was made) like Eckhart, Hartnett, Swank, and Scarlett Johansson (who stars as Lee’s girlfriend), you tend to go into the movie expecting, if anything at all, a decent performance out of a majority of the few. But, as tends to be the case with films relying on a big name, large-lettered, poster-occupying movie stars, one is often let down. In the case of The Black Dahlia (no pun intended), the disappointing performances are not a result of conflicting on screen chemistry or an overbearing, melodramatic intensity in every scene but rather, it is a complete lack of effort at all. Hartnett and Johansson specifically, are the worst offenders; they mime the words as they’re printed on the script with little feeling or passion. Swank, on the other hand, is too intense at times and in one instance is entirely over-the-top ridiculous in tone and volume. Eckhart, fortunately, is a steady rock of consistent, conscientious, delivery and presence in a river of capricious rapids.
When adapting novels, it’s always difficult to avoid falling into the trap of verbosity; in novels, the author has essentially unlimited freedom to speak on and on about the character’s feelings, internal motivation, and moral struggles. In a film, much of that internal processing must be visually implied. Starting with a quick first 90 minutes, de Palma manages to derail his first steady-going cinematic train with not one, but two, utterly boring dialogue-heavy scenes. Though they’re not useless and certainly add relevant, almost necessary plot information, their execution stinks of indifferent necessity and involves little creative spirit.
There are, however, as with any de Palma film, some shining elements to the movie. For one the makeup, set design, and costumes are excellent and bring the late ‘40s LA to life. Though their expressions are fleeting and sporadic, the actors themselves look their characters’ part in every physical way. It being a de Palma film there’s also no lack of cinematographic talent. Few scenes are left unbeautified and the whole movie, at least visually speaking, ties together in one consistent tonal atmosphere nicely. One scene, a thrilling on-foot chase, is beautifully shot and perfectly paced as are a handful of others. But, though the on-screen elegance is a treat, it’s unfortunately not enough to distract one from a story as reliant on the plot as The Black Dahlia.
As much star power as this film has, both in directorial and acting chairs, The Black Dahlia is unfortunately not a movie worthy of calling itself an adaption of one of the best neo-noir novels of all time. Buckling under the immense weight of its story and failing to deliver a compelling and consistent cinematic experience, The Black Dahlia is one of de Palma’s weaker attempts at crafting a noir classic and is an, unfortunately, a significant misstep in his legendary career. Unfortunately, the time, resources, and names attached to this production ensure that there won’t be another attempt at adapting the story anytime soon, the novel itself is most certainly worth a read.