Once again, the trailer for a film horribly misrepresents what you, as an audience member, will in fact be seeing when you put down your hard-earned cash to sit in a cinema seat. The Black Dahlia’s trailer sells the film as a taut murder mystery with a dash of psychological thriller thrown in for good measure; what you get instead is a bogged-down film about two Los Angeles cops, their relationship with a woman and a murder that quite honestly could have been left out of the film entirely.
I was truly disappointed with The Black Dahlia, in part because it has such pedigree – from the cast to the crew. Director Brian De Palma is, after all, the man who brought us the excellent The Untouchables (1987), a film about the mob war between Elliot Ness and Gangster Al Capone. With this achievement under his belt you’d expect another De Palma film with similar themes and settings to be equally stunning. Think again.
The Black Dahlia is based on author James Ellroy’s novel of the same name, which in turn is based on the unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short in Hollywood during the 1940s. Ellroy is also responsible for writing L.A. Confidential, which was adapted masterfully into a film by Curtis Hanson in 1997. If L.A. Confidential represents one side of the filmmaking coin, then The Black Dahlia represents the other.
De Palma, armed with possibly the most convoluted and disastrous script brought to life in a long time, has produced a film that should be studied by film students in order to learn what not to do. No amount of description can effectively convey enough how uninspiring The Black Dahlia is.
From the opening riot scene with its over-stylised and immediately obvious choreography to its stilted performances from its leads – the usually talented Hartnett, Johansson, Eckhart and Swank – it just feels that De Palma is trying too hard. What you have here is a soulless film that throws so many plotlines, subplots and twists your way – in the last act especially – that you’ll soon find yourself drowning in Josh Friedman’s story.
Nothing and no one – including characters and audience – is allowed to breath, and there is no clear single narrative. Which is a pity because if you were to ‘wiki’ (www.wikipedia.org) “The Black Dahlia” you’d discover a truly fascinating story about a young girl’s murder and the suspects and events surrounding her death. Instead of focusing on this, De Palma and Friedman turn The Black Dahlia into an elaborate character study of men of the badge and the woman in their lives. Which, to be painfully honest, turns out to be extremely boring.
The only positive element that The Black Dahlia has going for it is the world that its flat characters inhabit; it is superbly created and realized, and everything feels and looks authentic and alive. The production design and wardrobe teams have come together to wonderfully recreate the 1940s and this for me is the film’s high point. It is visually appealing but that, unfortunately, is not nearly enough to save it.
If you’re in the mood for a 1940’s detective story, like I was, avoid this and rather re-watch L.A. Confidential or De Palma’s The Untouchables. The Black Dahlia is – simply put – a tedious mess of a movie.