Film review: The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia
Universal Studios, Nu Image Entertainment GmbH, Art Linson Productions

STARRING Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, John Kavanagh, Fiona Shaw, Rachel Miner
WRITTEN BY Josh Friedman (screenplay) based on the novel The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy
PRODUCED BY Art Linson, Rudy Cohen, Moshe Diamant
DIRECTED BY Brian De Palma

SHOT BY Vilmos Zsigmond
EDITED BY Bill Pankow
MUSIC BY Mark Isham
DISTRIBUTED BY Universal Pictures

Screened on 2006-09-13

The Black Dahlia follows two LA cops who tracked the infamous Dahlia killer in 1947.  Friends, partners, boxing buddies, cops Hartnett and Eckhart act more like war-veterans or actual brothers.  This camaraderie is oft swooned upon in action and crush-like reveries by Hartnett, the goodest cop written in perhaps a decade.  The two men share in the affections of glammy housewife Johansson who is married to Eckhart, in love with both men, yet only receiving the charms from her hubby.  The ordinary slime of cop routine helps the officers to stumble upon the body of a young woman – or rather, the specifically positioned remnants of her body.  While Eckhart mysteriously begins a detective-crusade for the young victim his behavior becomes more erratic and he distances himself from his wife and his partner, causing them both great anguish, and really leaving them no solace but each other’s arms.  Hartnett is dragged into his partner’s investigation and struggles to not be overwhelmed by the nausea of corruption he uncovers.  But bear in mind – the center of this film is emotional threesome, the scruples of a young man and his struggle to retain nobility.

DePalma is well-acquainted with noir; his gaudy melodrama aches for such narrative opportunities.  He’s plenty capable of making it work (The Untouchables) and vice-versa (Snake Eyes), the blame of which I would place almost entirely to the writing behind each (Mamet vs Koepp), since DePalma does not stray from his attributed auteur-hood.  Dahlia follows accordingly, and despite my reservations about the film as a whole, I admit that DePalma was the ideal candidate for direction – endowing the piece with the lavish production value of a sort of art-deco Stanislavski tackling American post-war nihilism.

Dahlia contains a combination of retro-noir and somber moodiness (whether or not this treads into “maudlin” is at the viewer’s discretion).  The content of the plot runs parallel to the nature of form – under the surface exist the noir archetypes of civic corruption, deadly dames, and moral ambiguity.  The surface, however, is chronologged with melancholy narrations by Hartnett which are intimately personal, novelistic (perhaps… modern!).  This personality elevates the film past its pulpy, predestined noir bloodweb, and would make it quite powerful if that darn convoluted story didn’t keep interfering.  The Dahlia murder moves the action forward but is sublimated by Hartnett’s Quest of Introspection.  By the time the mystery of the murder is to be resolved, we’re pretty much past caring (and frankly the wrap-up seems a trifle messy, I daresay rushed).

The Black Dahlia can be successful if the viewer is more interested in the “how” of films than the “why;” the performances, the writing, the production value – in a word, Hollywood-types.  But Hartnett did a swell job, Eckhart pleased (as always), and I get the feeling that Johansson and Swank will be forced into a Best Supporting Actress catfight soon enough.  I’m glad I saw it, but – I see movies all the time.

written by David Ashley