Review: “The Black Dahlia”

An attempt to explore one of Hollywood’s more sinister unsolved mysteries turns into an over cooked ham of a film, overstuffed with vampish performances and a narrative far too convoluted for its own good. It’s a shame really considering Director Brian DePalma is back in the corrupt system noir genre that yielded his biggest hit “The Untouchables”. “Dahlia” is a film that can only wish for that pedigree despite various attempts to emulate it from the clothing to a similar ‘body falling’ sequence.

It’s not a film one can write-off easily as a complete failure, even if by the end it is essentially a mass pile-up. Dahlia throws it all on screen in a desperate attempt that something will stick, a dangerous proposition considering the source material is James Ellroy’s pulpy novel which is already overdone as is. Ellroy though has a masterful skill with efficient prose, biting social commentary and an understanding of some of the darker elements of the human psyche, something that doesn’t translate well into a melodramatic two hour period drama.

Ellroy himself became obsessed with this mystery and went into great depths to come up with his theory of who did it, tying in lots of ancillary names and dates. Unfortunately writer Josh Friedman doesn’t streamline that tapestry, deciding rather to cram it all in resulting in exposition so heavy and muddled that it sucks the life out of a lot of the film as you try and keep up with all the names flying left and right. The story is so complex, props must be given that Friedman does make it all eventually digestible, even if one or two names get lost in the ether and the whole thing ultimately doesn’t sit well.

The Dahlia herself seems almost ancillary to it all as the film is for the most part driven by every cliche noir element you can think of. Corrupt cops who moonight as boxers, a love triangle, lots of sex (before & after shots only), lots of smoking, a magnate’s vampish daughter and booze-soaked wife, drug addiction, shady dealings, gaudish lesbian bars, etc. In spite of its few genuine moments of darkness, the film often steers into territory that could easily be described as self-parody with all these hard cheese elements thrown together and let free to run wild. More than mere conviction is needed here to reign these elements in, subtlety and inference would be good as well but those aren’t two qualities one hires the likes of Brian DePalma for.

The man certainly knows how to shoot though, so various sequence glisten with camera moves that simply dance – from POV perspectives to smart quick cut editing and several true beauty wide shots of period street activitiy in Los Angeles (the Dahlia ‘discovery’ crane shot is a jaw-dropper). The shots add a real epic scope to some of the scenes, helped along by Dante Ferretti’s great production design and all the period costumes money can buy. At some points the era seems almost too glossy though, lacking that realistic grit which made last week’s “Hollywoodland” a more convincing if less flashy recreation of a Los Angeles bygone era.

Both Johansson and Swank’s turns are so gloriously over the top you’ll either find it fitting for the material or simply indulge in the campy glory of them. Johansson, dressed and acting much like a Lana Turner, gets the more stable role and comes off not too bad as a bottle blonde of which Hitchcock would be proud. Swank though is in full drag queen meets Gloria Swanson mode complete with arching eyebrows and mouthy breathless accent. Fiona Shaw as Swank’s gin-soaked stepmother does a performance that makes the already camp material seem bland and gives “Mommie Dearest” a run for its money.

The boys fare much worse, Aaron Eckhart left stuck holding the supporting cop role with little flair or fire, and ultimately washes out in a tired addict subplot. Josh Hartnett plays, well Josh Hartnett – that young brooding thing he does either clicks with you or doesn’t, and in this case doesn’t. He’s not bad per se, its just that most of the film revolves around him and he just lacks the charisma to carry the part.

The one person who comes out of the whole thing shining is Mia Kirshner, seen mostly in B&W audition tape flashbacks, as the Dahlia herself. Kirshner superbly personifies the despair, desperation and eventual descent into darkness that most wide-innocents who try the Hollywood route often end up being consumed by. In her few scenes she manages to imbue the film with its few moments of genuine emotion, which makes her ultimate fate a heartbreaking act to watch.

The leaden last act of the film, filled with rushed exposition to try and explain the muddled plot, manages to get the job done but by which time we’ve long ago lost any interest or investment. There are hints of greatness here, moments that shine through the camp and bombast to show the chilling and somewhat desolate landscape of people and places that made up that era in Hollywood. It’s all too swallowed up in a far too self-aware, stagey and ultimately hokey feature which proves yet another disappointment from a once great filmmaker. It’s no “Mission to Mars”, but it’s no “Scarface” either.