The Black Dahlia

Over the years, director Brian De Palma has been both praised and derided for evoking the work of past masters. He's lifted everyone from Hitchcock (Dressed to Kill, Obsession, Body Double) to Sergei Eisenstein (the baby carriage scene in The Untouchables) and Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow Out). But some critics question whether his incessant homages suggest an inability to develop his own voice and vision.

In his adaptation of James Ellroy's novel — a fictionalized account of the still unsolved murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short — De Palma pays his respects to a beloved film genre while indulging in his obsession with sordid sex and sleazy politics. Though comparisons to Curtis Hanson's sublime treatment of L.A. Confidential will be inevitable, the two films couldn't be more different in both tone and style. Where Hanson's movie was regal and mannered, De Palma's B-movie noir is a fevered mix of Greek tragedy, horror, black comedy and detective mystery. Though the styles don't always mesh, The Black Dahlia is by far De Palma's best work in years.

Much like his films of the early '80s, this is a triumph of style, attitude and mood. Lavish and authentic, De Palma navigates us through the nightmarish landscape of L.A. noir. Cool voiceovers, femmes fatales, psychotic murderers, ruthless gangsters, dirty cops and desperate actresses are just a few of the genre conventions on display here, but De Palma tackles each of them with flair.

Unfortunately, the storyline is beyond labyrinthine. Though it may do honor to Ellroy's 400-page book, it doesn't quite work for a two-hour movie. Josh Friedman's script is filled with terrific setpieces and dialogue, but overwhelms with its numerous characters, locations, motives and double-crosses.

It's the 1940s, and Los Angeles is in turmoil, with riots and corruption running rampant. Street cop and ex-boxer Bucky Bleichart (Josh Hartnett) is talked into returning to the ring to fight fellow pugilist cop Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) as a publicity stunt for a charity. The two are promoted as partner detectives and become fast friends, but their relationship is complicated when Bucky develops eyes for Lee's mysterious and alluring fiancee Kay (Scarlett Johansson). When the horribly mutilated body of Betty Short (Mia Kirshner) is discovered, the men become immersed in Hollywood's dark underbelly: police corruption, lesbian porn, a sultry society girl (Hilary Swank) and a wealthy family with a freakish sexual history.

Incorporated into this creepy maze of dysfunction is black-and-white footage of Short's screen tests, revealing a beautiful young victim who was abused by both the industry and her killer.

De Palma tackles the early acts with subtlety and grace, layering on the atmosphere with a master's touch. Equally impressive is the director's use of mise-en-scène to set the mood and reveal the story. In the scene where Betty's body is discovered, De Palma demonstrates a mastery of geography and timing that would impress Orson Welles.

But as the complex story unfolds, the tone shifts with each plot convolution, and we're not sure what to take seriously. Should we shed a tear for Betty's tragic and fate or smirk at its campy lesbian undertones? Is the divide between L.A.'s haves and have-nots to be taken as social critique or black comedy? In the last reel, Dahlia completely goes off the rails. As the story slips into trashy melodrama and overwrought violence, De Palma's direction and his actors' performances become equally hysterical.

Much of the cast is terrific. Cast against type, Swank is convincingly carnal as the increasingly suspicious Madeleine Linscott (despite her affected upper-crust accent). Eckhart proves once again how unappreciated he is, giving his seedy role a tragic desperation. Kirshner turns an anonymous corpse into a heartbreaking victim in a just few short flashbacks, and Fiona Shaw nearly steals the show as Swank's Lady Macbeth-like mother.

Johansson and Hartnett, on the other hand, are simply bland. Cursed with dull vocal deliveries and fresh-scrubbed personas, they seem out of their league. Hartnett comes closest to hitting the mark but never finds the balance between Bucky's heart and mind, and we never get the sense that anything's boiling beneath his surface. Johansson is plenty sexy but fatally inexpressive; nothing smolders in her eyes or on her lips.

There's much to admire in this odyssey into sleaze — but with its overcomplicated structure and unabashed descent into camp, The Black Dahlia turns out as lurid as the unsolved murder it depicts.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].