14 September 2006

Movie Review: "The Black Dahlia"

The Black Dahlia is director Brian De Palma's take on an adaptation of James Ellroy's period-1940 novel about two L.A. cops who head up the hunt for the killer of fledgling actress and Hollywood party girl Elizabeth Short. One of many young women who came to Hollywood to pursue dreams of Hollywood glory, Short never held down a steady job. She shared a top floor one-bedroom apartment in the middle of Hollywood, on Cherokee near Franklin, with seven other young women like herself who dated-for-dinner, and though she liked to party, she rarely drank and did not do drugs, she was not a prostitute as many accountings of her story allude. She was just one of many girls who had a Hollywood dream… a dream that went terribly wrong.

Born in Boston in the summer of 1924, Elizabeth Short drifted away from her family due to her father's boozing behavior. She wandered around the country as an early slacker chatting up guys to help pay for her drinks and meals. She arrived in Los Angeles in the summer of 1946 just as writer and screenwriter Raymond Chandler's film The Blue Dahlia was playing all over town. Smart was a proto-goth girl - obviously way ahead of her time - who dressed all in black, died her hair black, and wore a black flower in her hair. The list of people who were considered "people of interest" for her murder reads like a Hollywood celebrity guest list: gangsters Bugsy Seigel and Mickey Cohen, LA Times publisher Norman Chandler, surrealist Man Ray, directors John Huston and Orson Welles, artists Marcel Duchamp and Diego Rivera, screenwriter Ben Hecht, writer Henry Miller, actors Vincent Price and Edward G. Robinson, even Woody Guthrie was questioned, and there were whispers that Marilyn Monroe was her lover, but to this day the crime is still unsolved. Smart's posed dead body was found in an empty lot that today is a fully developed neighborhood on Norton Street in the middle of Los Angeles. She was found bludgeoned to death and then posed, her mouth extended on both sides in a sick clownish grin, with cuts on both breasts, details the cops held back from press reports. The clean cutting technique that severed Short's body in half was made exactly between the second and third lumbar vertebrae, all the blood was drained from her body and all of her internal organs were removed and never found, that, and the quality of the implement used, have also led many to believe that the killer had detailed knowledge of surgical techniques, leading to seven different doctors being under suspicion as well.

A Los Angeles Police Detective, Steve Hodel, believes his physician father, George Hodel, was the killer. The home in which he grew up was a place where Hollywood cocktail parties and great architecture mixed fantasy with reality. The house, architect Lloyd Wright's (son of archect-extraordinaire Frank Lloyd Wright) "Sowden House," a true-life Mayan Temple of Doom, is a well-known poured concrete bunker on Franklin Avenue near Normandie that has been used countless times as a film location; L.A. Confidential and The Aviator are two recent films shot there. Hodel was a dapper doctor with a long list of young girlfriends, his daughter accused him of incest, though the eventual court case was dismissed. The house was a celebrity party house fully equipped with a secret room hidden behind a bookcase. George Hodel was one of those doctors on the list of "people of interest."

You have now learned more about the Black Dahlia than you will from this film.

Brian De Palma, known for such classic crime dramas as The Untouchables, Scarface, Wise Guys, Carlito's Way, thrillers Carrie, Dressed to Kill, and Blow Out, directs this adaptation of Ellroy's (L.A. Confidential, American Tabloid) best-selling take on one of the most infamous and still unsolved crimes in Hollywood's history. You might think that with all the juicy stories, celebrity names, great sets, not to mention the strange slacker story of Elizabeth Short's shortened life, that are part of the sad tale of the Black Dahlia that we might get a film rich with Hollywood's seamy and steamy heritage from De Palma. But sadly such is not the case.

You might think that a film titled The Black Dahlia would be about the murder of Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner). Instead, this is a story about two smarmy detectives who started out as amateur boxers and ended up as partners in the LAPD. Called Fire and Ice by the LAPD movers and shakers who are more interested in playing politics than solving crime, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Bucky Bleichert (Josh Harnett) become two parts of a strange threesome, completed by Scarlett Johanson's Kay Lake, an ex-hooker with her pimp's initials carved in her back. It is through their story we witness events and it is hard to identify with characters with few redeeming qualities, and fewer acting chops. Poorly miscast as Bucky, Josh Harnett is too lightweight, too blank and emotionless, to play this pivotal character. On the other hand, Aaron Eckhart displays a full range of emotions as he keeps running to catch up with the winning cop and fighter he used to be. Mixed in the jumble are a rich nutty family whose daughter, Madeline Linscott (Hilary Swank), believes she looks like Short (but doesn't, Swank looks as much like Mia Kirshner as she does Sandra Bullock – not at all), dresses as a Black Dahlia wannabe, and picks up Bucky in a lesbian bar; and the only bit of interesting footage about Short - flashbacks of imagined black and white audition films of her (which never existed in real life), played mysteriously weird and wonderfully by Mia Kirshner. The lesbian bar scene had a floor show topped by a haunting cameo appearance of k. d. lang singing in drag. Though beautiful to behold, Scarlett Johansson's work in Dahlia is thin and weedy, desperately in need of some direction to appropriately portray the damaged woman she plays. Fiona Shaw adds her wacky over-the-top campy take as Swank's mother. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond did his usual standout work, and if any nominations are forthcoming from this film it will be for his work.

The story of The Black Dahlia seems only an after-thought in this film. There are odd scarred men, suspicious gangsters, pimps, and rapists, and a crooked LAPD, and a strange-looking Los Angeles that looks nothing like the real town where these events were supposed to take place, other than one quick exterior shot of the Pantages Theater and the Frolic Room next door. Someone should have acquainted the Location Manager with the town he was supposed to be doubling, the long rolling hills in this film, shot mostly in Bulgaria, bear no resemblance to the cragged peaks and valleys of The Santa Monica Mountains, which Hollywood is nestled in and below, where the Hollywoodland sign lives, and where pivotal action takes place at the end of this film.

Someone should have also re-acquainted De Palma with some of his past glories, as his work here is sadly lacking, with many performances almost bordering on camp. Much of the serious dialog in the film was laughed at by the packed insider audience, and many voices were heard nastily demeaning the film as the audience left the theater.

This film might burn brightly on opening weekend due to the heavy hype - and current lackluster box ofice offerings in general, but its flame will fall fast. Mr. De Palma would benefit by taking some time reviewing his past oeuvre on DVD before returning to the set. Perhaps he had a balloon mortgage payment come due and he simply called in his work.


Digital Dogs rating: B-

MPAA rating: Rated R for strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content and language.

Running Time: 121 minutes

Producers Art Linson, Avi Lerner, Moshe Diamant, Michael P, Flannigan, Rudy Cohen, Director Brian De Palma, Writer Josh Friedman, from the James Ellroy novel The Black Dahlia, Actors Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Aaron Eckhart, Mia Kirshner

-- Digital Dogs



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