Based on a real homicide case in LA in the 1940’s, James Ellroy’s novelisation has itself been adapted to the screen in search of similar success to Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential. With veteran Brian De Palma in charge and a clutch of attractive young Hollywood A-listers, this should be a modern noir classic…
Brian de Palma is one of the greatest over- or under-rated living directors, depending on how you regard his body of work. From class acts in Carlito’s Way, Casualties of War, huge commercial hits in The Untouchables, Mission Impossible, heroic misses in Snake Eyes, Raising Cain, cult exploitation ‘classics’ Scarface, Carrie, the Fury, to abject failures Bonfire of the Vanities and Femme Fatale.
James Ellroy is uncontroversially the master of modern noir, titles including LA Confidential, White Jazz and the novel of the Black Dahlia on which this movie is based.
De Palma turns out slick, glossy, handsome pictures using slick, glossy, handsome actors and is not averse to throwing the gruesome and grisly at his audience; blood, violence and a callous disregard of his, mostly hard-edged, characters. His shooting scripts, however good their source screen-play, somehow lose the plot. The Black Dahlia ticks all the De Palma boxes, sadly including this last.
This is an efficient, if chilly noir thriller for 90-odd minutes of its running time as two detectives go beyond a professional investigation of the case. Some effective sequences nod to Hitchcock and other noir classics (including LA Confidential) with many De Palma trademarks – street brawls, gay nightclubs, gunfights – but without much atmosphere. Josh Hartnett suffers the mandatory noir hero’s attraction to good girl Scarlett Johansson (another vapid performance, but her character is written that way) or femme fatale Hilary Swank (good, but no femme fatale). This being a De Palma picture, however, he gets both of them. Aaron Eckhart plays Hartnett’s rival, then partner, with his usual good-looking queasiness.
It suffers De Palma’s usual unevenness of tone and performance. Hartnett and Johansson are stiff, while Swank tips into melodrama only outdone by full-time hystrionic Fiona Shaw as her mother.
Sadly, the resolution gets so convoluted that it takes two big set-piece scenes of clumsy and dull exposition. I had long since guessed the ‘who-dunnit’ owing to the formulaic type-casting and didn’t actually care about anyone’s motives by the end. For all the cynicism, corruption and darkness in boom-town ’40’s LA, it doesn’t add up and you don’t really care. RC
The Black Dahlia
Production year: 2006
Director: Brian De Palma
Screenplay: Josh Friedman, based on the novel by James Ellroy
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Certification (UK): 15
Runtime: 120 mins
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw