9.16.2006

The Black Dahlia

Perhaps they're trying to make sense of the dismembered plot as well...

The murder of Elizabeth Short in 1948 has remained one of Hollywood's most chilling unsolved crimes and a horrific representation of American hopes and dreams dashed. A young girl, struggling to break into acting, greusomely murdered, mutilated, and left for display in a neighborhood lot, the Dahlia became a source of obsession for those who searched desperately for her slayer, and remains a dark legend haunting the minds of those who still ferverently pursue her tragic, limited backtrail.

In fact, the case of the Black Dahlia encapsulates all of the elements that create a classic noir story. Beautiful, mysterious young girl, drawn by the allure and glamor of Hollywood's silver screen lifestyle, cut down brutally before the flower of any promise could begin to bloom. Take this and then add in the seedy, unorthodox history and tactics of the LAPD in the 1940s, some background involving the pornography industry, a few of Hollywood's elite families, and a couple of detectives obsessed enough to track the footsteps of a psychopathic murderer, and you have the makings of a captivating, chilling film that few who see it would forget.

The problem is, you won't find this in Brian de Palma's film. You will find the flower of promise, but it remains stubbornly in its bud form, despite the competent acting and superbly constructed classic film noir atmosphere that the director captured so well in his other films The Untouchables and Scarface. What makes The Black Dahlia a surprisingly weak execution in the genre is the story. Writer James Ellroy's novel was rife with sprawling complexities and plot layers, and they are a mess translated onto screen. We aren't sure if we are watching a tale about the dark twists of the obsessed mind, as portrayed by grizzled police officers Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) who are hot on the case, or if we are watching a procedural about Short's killer. That's because intermingled in all of that are vague plot threads and distractions that take away potency from both possibilities. By the end of the film, when all of those loose threads are finally connected, it makes little sense and it's just so silly and contrived that we don't even care.

The most interesting character in the movie, the femme fatale Madeline Linscott (played with cunning, sexy brilliance by Hillary Swank), makes a late appearance as a lookalike/former lover of the Dahlia, but the manner by which her storyline resolves itself is an exercise in wasted talent.

The film's strengths are all technical, with incredible camera work that is reminiscent of Hitchcock and beautiful wardrobe and set designs that capture the era when Hollywood never looked better, but it's not enough to escape the convoluted mess of a plot that inspires more apathy than empathy about this tragic, compelling real-life murder.

Gouda's Grade: C

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the tip, Allie. You just saved me about thirty dollars (when you add in the popcorn, drinks, etc.)

    I saw an interview with a guy who believes his own father (once a prominent LA doctor with high-profile friends) killed the girl. Freaky stuff. But it sounds as though this case will remain cold.

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