by Josh Boris
Following in the footsteps of “Hollywoodland,” “The Black Dahlia” presents yet another unsolved mystery from Hollywood circa 1950. It is not rare for movies to be paired—to have two movies similar in topic released within a year of each other. However, as is often the case, one far outshines the other. Unfortunately for “The Black Dahlia,” the spotlight should be pointed on “Hollywoodland.”
“The Black Dahlia” offers an intriguing multi-tiered plotline. Officers Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) are Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice, the heroic partners of the LAPD. Blanchard is hot and passionate while Bleichert is cool and commanding. When Elizabeth Short (Mia Kershner), a young wannabe starlet, is grotesquely murdered, Blanchard throws himself headlong into her case at the risk of his personal relationships. Meanwhile, Bleichert is torn between his desire to finish another case and the alluring, yet bizarre, steps the Short case takes. The plot whisks and whirls around as connections are made between different pieces and other subplots are introduced, such as Bleichert’s affair with Hollywood rich girl Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank).
While it may be a little confusing to keep the pieces together, the interwoven plotlines come together nicely to form a solid story. There are twists and turns and mysterious people hiding in. There are also interesting metaphoric undertones that give it a little extra kick. While the detective story may be a little standard, it still has enough oomph to please.
What is most disappointing about the film is that the plot really has potential. However, it’s difficult to isolate that plotline from all the muck covering it. The presentation is classic film noir, with a dark ambiance, murderous intrigue, snappy dialogue, voiceover monologues; the whole nine yards. Unfortunately, that is exactly what ends up being its downfall. It appears as if director Brian DePalma (who has directed many hits in the past) was given the “Beginner’s Guide to Making Film Noir” and then just went apeshit. Not only does he grab every convention, but he lays it on thick, lacquering over the promising plot with a whole layer of heavy handed hackery. One femme fatale isn’t good enough, so DePalma has to throw in Scarlett Johansson, too, for good measure. The soundtrack constantly barrages you with a single trumpet to remind you of the loneliness of Bleichert, or a tension-filled vibrating orchestra to let you know that you should be on your toes. At every step of the way the film yells “look at how clever I am!” and “look at how gritty this is!” and never lets you alone. “The Black Dahlia” screams when it should be a muted hush.
This brings me to the acting. It appears as if DePalma prodded them at every step of the way to give more and more. Parts that should be reserved end up being over-the-top, and it becomes increasingly difficult to take the picture seriously. While many of the original film noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s were overacted to death, it’s part of their charm and it ends up working because of the era and the way that the actors handled it (think Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca”). However, in this day and age it’s hard to pull that style off and in the end “The Black Dahlia” is just too much and almost appears farcical.
As a big fan of film noir I really wanted to like this movie. It’s disappointing to see a film that at first looks like it got everything right, and then to find out that it all collapses under its own weight. If you want a dark Hollywood noir, go see “Hollywoodland” instead.