The “Black Dahlia:” How to murder a movie
If after reading this review you decide to see “The Black Dahlia”– the biggest bust of a film this year– you will have the opportunity to provide a valuable service to your fellow moviegoers. While watching director Brian De Palma’s interpretation of James Ellroy’s best-selling crime novel, count how many times a cigarette is lighted on screen. I stopped counting at 23; the actual number is much higher. Not only will you be solving this mystery but it will also help you stay awake during this incoherent, poorly written, boorishly acted, lame excuse for an Oscar contender.
That hype is officially pronounced DOA about 30 minutes into the film when it becomes clear no one knows what’s going on, and the audience couldn’t care less. As film noir goes, De Palma gets the noir part mostly right (hence the half star), with its setting in mid-40s Los Angeles where this fictional account based on the true story of a grisly unsolved murder takes place.
As a crime drama, the film fails on every level, especially since the two cops (Aaron Eckhart and Josh Hartnett) assigned to investigate the homicide of aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short do little substantive, or relevant investigative work. A romantic triangle of sorts emerges involving a character portrayed by Scarlet Johansson, who, though perfectly suited for the hairstyles and clothing of the period, evokes a wooden doll in dress-up. Things could have begun to simmer halfway through when Hillary Swank appears. Alas, another bombshell’s talent is wasted. Even the sex scenes in the film are devoid of heat.
“The Black Dahlia” could almost be a film school model for all its amateurish miscues. In one scene, burned initials on Johansson’s character’s backside are shown not once, not twice, but three times all with increasing zooms, just in case the audience missed it. Even Swank’s supposed likeness to the murdered girl doesn’t wash. Hartnett is totally miscast, of course, but his squinting gaze and purse-lipped impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t help matters. It will be a surprise if Hartnett ever makes another film of any import.
This is mistake-prone filmmaking of epic proportions. That a movie wastes so much celluloid showing cigarettes being lit reveals either an editor’s lazy indifference or a director’s unconscionable passion for tedium. The controversial De Palma is responsible for some of the better films of the 80s, namely “The Untouchables,” “Body Double” and “Blow Out.” But even ardent supporters of the director’s overrated works such as “Dressed to Kill,” or “Scarface” will have to face the facts. This time Mr. De Palma has traveled beyond camp into sloppy sadism, with the audience cast in the role of victim.
Rated R for strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content, and language.