Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Black Dahlia

By Kirk Honeycutt

Bottom line: A gourmet meal somewhat overcooked.
"Black Dahlia" has the looks, smarts and attitude of a classic Brian De Palma/film noir thriller. During the first hour, the hope that the director has tapped into something really great mounts with each passing minute. Then, gradually, the feverish pulp imagination of James Ellroy, on whose novel Josh Friedman based his screenplay, feeds into De Palma's dark side. The violence grows absurd, emotions get overplayed, and the film revels once too often in its gleeful depiction of corrupt, decadent old Los Angeles. Disappointingly, the film edges dangerously into camp.

No, "Black Dahlia" never quite falls into that black hole. The actors in the major roles cling firmly, even lovingly, to their boisterous characters. The sordidness and madness never seem completely wrong given the rancid world the movie surveys. Nevertheless, the second half feels heavy and unfulfilled, potential greatness reduced to a good movie plagued with problems.

Because the want-to-see factor for this anticipated film is equal to your want-to-like desire, the film's domestic distributor, Universal, could enjoy potent boxoffice. But it might skewer older, to fans of De Palma and crime fiction as well as those who recall Los Angeles' most infamous murder.

On Jan. 15, 1947, the city, in its postwar frenzy of growth, development, racial tensions and unbridled ambition, awoke to an unimaginable crime: The torture-ravished body of a beautiful young woman named Elizabeth Short was found in a vacant lot off Crenshaw. The body was cut in half at the waist, disemboweled, drained of all blood and cruelly marked with grotesque taunts by her killer. The discovery sparked the city's greatest manhunt, but the killer was never found.

Which hasn't prevented continual articles, books, novels and documentaries from speculating on possible motives and suspects. Ellroy took a fictional crack at the case in arguably his best Los Angeles crime novel. It was typical Ellroy, who blamed the ghastly murder not on a deranged psychopath with a score to settle but rather police corruption, political chicanery, ruthless gangsters and various businessmen. In other words, the city killed Elizabeth.

Like any of his crackling crime tales, Ellroy surrounds historical events with fiendishly dark fictional characters. The cops on the case are Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), ex-boxers who become partners on the beat and off. Bucky finds himself in an unconsummated menage with Lee and his live-in lover, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). Each has troubling secrets.

Lee, hopped up on Benzedrine, grows obsessed with the Black Dahlia, as the newspapers named Elizabeth, driven to know everything about her. Bucky, too, is drawn to her fatal charm, especially when his lone-wolf investigation into lesbian bars brings him under the sway of an AC/DC hottie named Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), whose daddy is the richest developer in the city.

Characters, subplots and twists come fast and thick -- albeit abridged from an even greater onslaught in the novel. It is with the introduction of the Linscott family, though, that the story develops a noticeable wobble. Predictably, the Linscotts' involvement with the Dahlia proves extensive. Yet it is really so far-fetched. The family is one of those fictional creations where dementia, delusion and depravity run silent and deep, only to erupt in grotesque outbursts that border on the comic.

And speaking of comic, you should see De Palma and production designer Dante Ferretti's idea of a Los Angeles lesbian bar circa 1947. Instead of an underground hideaway, the place is a veritable Follies Bergere with half-naked chorines writhing and smooching on a towering stairway to the strains of a big band belting out Cole Porter.

But the film does many things right. The rapid dialogue is sharp throughout, as it should be because much of it is lifted from Ellroy's novel. Hartnett delivers an intriguing mix of tenderness, self-righteousness and self-incrimination -- Ellroy cops are never clean. Eckhart plays scenes at full throttle yet never feels out of control. As the good vamp, Johansson uses an angelic pout and faux innocence to have her way with men. As the bad vamp, Swank goes for such unrestrained sexuality that she makes the actual Dahlia -- Mia Kirshner seen in screen tests and one rather tame stag film -- seem almost demur.

Then there are the De Palma touches that pull you out of the movie: the black bird swooping down symbolically on the Dahlia's corpse, an earthquake thrown in for no good reason, Fiona Shaw's over-the-top performance as Madeleine's drug-addled mom, the rush of revelations in the final reel that feels more like footnotes than climactic moments.

Mark Isham's music is lush whether in a romantic or an overheated mood. Vilmos Zsigmond's graceful camera is a tad self-conscious as are sets and costumes, all a little too eager to flout their period trappings.

Universal Pictures
Universal in association with Millennnium Films presents a Signature Pictures production for Equity Pictures Medienfonds and Nu-Image Entertainment
Director: Brian De Palma
Screenwriter: Josh Friedman
Based on the novel by: James Ellroy
Producers: Art Linson, Avi Lerner, Moshe Diamant, Ruby Cohen
Executive producers: James B. Harris, Danny Dimbort, Boaz Davidson, Trevor Short, John Thompson, Andreas Thiesmeyer, Josef Lautenschlager, Henrik Huydts, Rolf Deyhle
Director of photography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Production designer: Dante Ferretti
Music: Mark Isham
Costume designer: Jenny Beavan
Editor: Bill Pankow
Bucky Bleichert: Josh Hartnett
Lee Blanchard: Aaron Eckhart
Kay Lake: Scarlett Johansson
Madeleine Linscott: Hilary Swank
Elizabeth Short: Mia Kirshner
Russ Millard: Mike Starr
Ramona: Fiona Shaw
Martha: Rachel Miner
Bill Koenig: Victor McGuire
MPAA rating: R
Running time -- 121 minutes