Noir Town

Shadowy figure: Josh Hartnett plays a police officer in
Shadowy figure: Josh Hartnett plays a police officer in "The Black Dahlia," based on a novel by James Ellroy that was inspired by Hollywood's most notorious unsolved murder. (Universal Pictures)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2006

Here's the lowdown, the q.t., the true gen: "The Black Dahlia" is a big nowhere.

Despite genius-level contributions from cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and art director Dante Ferretti, the handsome film is almost abusively murky, trafficking in difficult-to-follow plot manipulations, arbitrary twists and mumbled dialogue. It ultimately comes to rely on one of those by-now de rigueur 10-minute final synopses that shuffle through the story for a second time, revealing the secret connections behind the seemingly unrelated events. Even a scene where one cop tosses his partner a matchbook is fraught with meaning and drama!

Brian De Palma, one of the showiest of the '70s breakthrough directors, pretty much keeps his hey-I'm-directing-a-movie! mannerisms in control in the wannabe gritty Southern California police procedural (derived from a beloved novel by James Ellroy), but not even that manful adoption of responsibility helps. This seems to be a case where there was too much book crammed into not enough film, and Josh Friedman, the screenwriter, just doesn't have the skill of Brian Helgeland adapting another complex, L.A.-set Ellroy to the screen, the superb "L.A. Confidential."

It's only nominally the Dahlia's story, though (as in Ellroy's book) the fictional takes possession of the factual. On Jan. 15, 1947, in a vacant lot in Los Angeles, a 22-year-old woman named Elizabeth "Betty" Short was found brutally murdered. So gruesome was the crime scene that it became legendary: Among other desecrations, the body had been cut in two. An Alan Ladd movie from a year earlier, "The Blue Dahlia," provided a catchy nom de crime for poor Betty Short, with the color adjustment provided by the trashier papers.

The slaughter, uncharacteristic in its violence and driven by the victim's haunting beauty and generally feckless life, was investigated by a huge team, some of the results comical (according to Wikipedia, one suspect was . . . Orson Welles!) but all of them unfortunately futile. To this day it has not been solved, though it has inspired a cottage industry in speculative works. The L.A. writer John Gregory Dunne took a crack at it, too, in "True Confessions" (the 1981 movie that resulted, written by Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion, was quite good).

In this case, the film follows two police officers assigned to the case, who let it grow in their minds until it haunts them, ultimately causing one a nervous breakdown with disastrous consequences. The result is a work busy in the least satisfying of ways, not teeming but crowded, not dense but packed. It's also so crammed with movie references that you suspect someone, at some time in his life, had way too much time on his hands. I spotted tidbits from most of the great Southern California film noirs, especially "Chinatown," with its theme of a twisted family of pioneer Golden State aristocrats. When she's not channeling Faye Dunaway, Hilary Swank veers toward Lauren Bacall in "The Big Sleep," while Rachel Miner does a neat spin on Martha Vickers, who played Bacall's little sister in that; here, Miner plays Swanks's sis.

De Palma hangs out with Patrolman Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Sgt. Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), both up-and-comers in the LAPD as it grows to deal with the exponential sprawl of that sleepy Pacific burg put on steroids by World War II. The two cops, as it turns out, are boxers, and the film begins by evoking a charity bout where they whup the tar out of each other to raise money for a ballot initiative to increase the LAPD budget. (Zsigmond shoots it as if he had a copy of George Bellows's "Stag at Sharkey's" on his lap in the camera chair; the color, the pallor of the flesh, the sense of smoke and dust in the air, the point of view, the posture of the fighters, are intensely reminiscent of that great painting.) From the fisticuffs, we learn their characters: The more charismatic Blanchard is a win-at-any-cost guy, possibly too tightly strung; the cooler Bleichert is more measured, more conciliatory, less macho. From the fight, they become fast pals, and the slightly older Lee's girlfriend, Kay, joins the two in conviviality in an art deco apartment mysteriously beyond a policeman's means (it's the sort of place where Cole Porter might have lived!). Kay, played in kewpie doll insouciance and sweater-gal pulchritude by Scarlett Johansson, soon becomes the center of gravity in the relationship, and the reluctant but noble Bucky falls in love with her, even if he'll never move to consummate his feelings.

Hmmm, around this point it gets really complicated. Too much of "The Black Dahlia" consists of narrated information; about half the movie is synopsis of what the filmmakers don't have time to dramatize, else they'd have a 17-hour film. It seems that Lee is extremely agitated because a bank robber he put away is about to be paroled, and it turns out (there's a lot of "it turns out" in this movie) he was also Kay's sadistic ex-boyfriend. Hmm, then the boys are staking somebody out -- I was never sure who, I'm sorry to say -- and gunplay breaks out. Lee saves Bucky's life, but kills three bad guys under somewhat dubious circumstances and then -- then! -- it turns out that one block over, the body of the Black Dahlia, Parts 1 and 2, has just been found.

From that point on, the film somewhat atomizes. One of the partners heads off into a nervous breakdown and all but leaves the film; the other, still on the case, turns up a porno movie in which the victim starred (though the real Elizabeth Short never starred in anything except her own murder). He tracks her through in the late-'40s L.A. porno underground, another trope from "The Big Sleep," and connects her with a Bacall look-alike who turns out to be sultry aristo Madeleine Linscott (Swank). Thus poor, doomed Betty somehow gained entree into the family culture of the crazed Linscotts, who follow age-old movie laws that rich people have to be evil or insane; failing that, they are evil and insane.

This brood, which could just as easily been the subject of a Rob Zombie massacre flick, includes some kind of "The Hills Have Eyes" refugee in the form of a brain-damaged son, the aforementioned slutty little sister Martha, as well as the vampy Madeleine (Swank is awful in the admittedly awful role). But worst of all is Mama Linscott, played by Fiona Shaw, in a tone of screaming who-moved-the-cheese? intensity that recalls Gloria Swanson twisting like Isadora Duncan high on horse tranquilizers, mad eyes dancing, mouth twisted like a hooked carp, eyebrow lofted to heaven, at the end of "Sunset Blvd."

Well, soon enough "The Black Dahlia" has become campy and ludicrous, almost in parts laughable. But it's not as if it's squandered goodwill; at no point does it have much in the way of goodwill. It generates almost no momentum at all, and if at any point you took a poll of the audience, asking "What is this movie about?," you'd get a different answer from everyone, except for the seven cynics who would say, "Smoking." (Everybody smokes, all the time. There's more smoking in it than in the original "Big Sleep," made in the original 1946, starring the original Lauren Bacall.)

De Palma has always been famed for his big production numbers: the blood-soaked conclusion to "Carrie," the train-station shootout in "The Untouchables," the apocalyptic finale to "Scarface." Here, sadly, that talent deserts him, or possibly his editor lets him down. A big shootout on the streets of L.A. is hard to follow and never makes much sense; and a confrontation in a hotel atrium toward the end doesn't really hang together either, leaving more befuddlement in its wake than confusion.

Zsigmond shoots in a kind of sepia light, so the movie seems to spring from old brown-bess rotogravure Sunday sections, and the clothes, the apartments, the gleamy streamlined black cars, all look gorgeous and seductive. It makes you yearn for great moviemakers and great stories. Where are the Robert Townes of yesteryear?

The Black Dahlia (119 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extreme violence toward women, sexual content and profanity.

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