The Black Dahlia really ought to be a lot better. The film’s problems vary from the slight to the significant, but for some reason, the James Ellroy plot keeps things going. The film ends on a problem too, which makes writing about it immediately following a pea in the bed–and the last act is a rush to the finish (a longer running time would have helped a lot) filled with conveniences… but it’s hard to be disappointed in the film.
I remember the trailer–The Black Dahlia being one of those long-delayed, both in development hell and then getting its actual release (Universal only released it, didn’t produce it), I hadn’t seen anything until the trailer–having some awful narration from Josh Hartnett. The narration, ranging from bad to decent–apparently straight from the source novel–is in the film, but not omnipresent. It actually makes a lot of the film work, since Dahlia has those wonderful Ellroy cops–the one who thinks he’s smart who actually isn’t and the one who isn’t smart who occasionally does smart things (the corrupt cop gets mixed into one of the others)–and Hartnett plays the dumb cop really well. In fact, Hartnett’s so good, he makes Aaron Eckhart background. The problem lies with their acting styles–both give unaffected performances, but Eckhart’s character needs something more since he’s not the protagonist and Eckhart doesn’t bring anything. At times, it’s hard to remember there’s supposed to be two of them.
Before getting to the other actors, I need to get the production end out of the way. De Palma’s got Vilmos Zsigmond shooting this one. It’s some of Zsigmond’s least impressive work–partially due to the Bulgarian sets (though, oddly, the alleys are great) and mostly due to De Palma’s framing style here. In the age of 16:9 HD, De Palma shoots Dahlia for pan and scan, just like he did with his other famous period crime film, The Untouchables. When De Palma and Zsigmond get together, they can make visual feasts like Blow Out, but apparently De Palma’s lost the sense for visual storytelling. Dahlia isn’t boring–except during the revelation scenes (which comprise the last act)–but it has an obviously disinterested director. Even when De Palma tries to shock, he fails… unless one counts k.d. lang’s idiotic cameo, but I doubt De Palma was going for being neon cheap.
On to the acting… I’ll get Scarlett Johansson out of the way first. Johansson’s performance in The Black Dahlia should be the end of her career. It ought to whoever cast her’s career too, but whatever. Johansson is awful. She can’t even manage to sit still well. Luckily, she’s absent for the majority of the second act and when she does come in, when it’s important, Hartnett’s carrying to scenes well enough. Hilary Swank is okay as a ludicrous, overdone Ellroy femme fatale. She has a really affected tone going, which is irritating, so it’s surprising she doesn’t completely fail. She’s fine. The real surprise is Mia Kirshner, playing the titular victim in screen tests. She’s excellent. The supporting cast varies–Mike Starr and John Kavanagh are both good, but Fiona Shaw (in a crucial role) is cartoony. Gregg Henry’s got a really small part at the beginning (The Black Dahlia begs for a longer version) and I kept hoping he’d show up again, but he never did. Kevin Dunn’s got an uncredited cameo and he’s great.
So, in general, The Black Dahlia is a passable attempt (though I could have given a paragraph to Mark Isham’s awful score). It ends better than one would think at the beginning, it keeps interest up throughout, and it does develop a character. But the most interesting details are only inferred, maybe mentioned in dialogue or narration. Even without technical or script changes though, Johansson’s terrible performance keeps the potential down. Hartnett’s performance is excellent (but only surprising given that awful trailer) and the character’s arc is excellent, but there’s such a disconnect with between the actors and the script (some of them anyway), the script and the director and the director and the actors, I wonder if De Palma even read Ellroy’s novel. Actually, given the film’s focus at the beginning–regardless of his oeuvre’s quality and his place in the film medium, De Palma knows something about how to make a movie by now–and the plot developments and the end, I wonder if De Palma even read the script in its entirety before filming.
Directed by Brian De Palma; written by Josh Friedman, based on the novel by James Ellroy; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Bill Pankow; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Dante Ferretti; produced by Art Linson, Avi Lerner, Moshe Diamant and Rudy Cohen; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Josh Hartnett (Bucky Bleichert), Scarlett Johansson (Kay Lake), Aaron Eckhart (Lee Blanchard), Hilary Swank (Madeleine Linscott), Mia Kirshner (Elizabeth Short), Mike Starr (Det. Russ Millard), Fiona Shaw (Ramona Linscott), Patrick Fischler (Deputy DA Ellis Loew), James Otis (Dolph Bleichert), John Kavanagh (Emmett Linscott), Troy Evans (Chief Ted Green), Anthony Russell (Morrie Friedman), Pepe Serna (Tomas Dos Santos), Angus MacInnes (Capt. John Tierney), Rachel Miner (Martha Linscott), Victor McGuire (Sgt. Bill Koenig), Gregg Henry (Pete Lukins), Jemima Rooper (Lorna Mertz), Rose McGowan (Sheryl Saddon) and Kevin Dunn (Mr. Short).