"That's a nice-a donut."

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Black Dahlia (2006)

L.A. Confidential is regularly considered as one of the best movies of the 1990s, by both critics and casual moviegoers alike. So it isn't any surprise that there many people looking forward to The Black Dahlia. Dahlia was the first release from author James Ellroy in what became known as his "L.A. Quartet", four stories of crime fiction revolving around the Los Angeles Police Department. Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential was actually the third book in the quartet. His award-winning adaptation was tight, impeccably acted, stylish, and highly mesmerizing. It fits in neatly with other classics such as Chinatown in the "modern noir" category.

In addition to his love-it or hate-it fondness for Hitchcock (which, depending on what side you fall on come off as nice homages or blatant ripoffs), director Brian De Palma also has a taste for classic film noir. In Dahlia he is clearly set on capturing the essence and atmosphere of 40s noir, including Scarlett Johansson as the classic blonde and the use of raspy voiceover from the hardened detective, and at points he succeeds to great effect.

The story itself is actually rooted in a real-life story; The Black Dahlia was the nickname given to the victim of one of the most gruesome and infamous crimes in California history. The woman, Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) was a fledgling actress who was one day found naked and dead on the side of the road in the middle of broad daylight. Oh yeah: she also had her mouth slit ear to ear, was cut into two pieces and had been eviscerated. Detectives Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are assigned to the difficult case, which seems to have very few workable clues. The case begins to consumer Bucky and Lees lives - Lee in particular - and quickly gets them into trouble. Bucky gets involved with a mysterious woman (Hilary Swank) from a wealthy family, while Lees relationship with his wife (Johansson) suffers. With a hard-boiled story like this, you know it can't end well for everyone.

Hartnett, perhaps the weakest link of the main actors acquits himself why and shows that he is quite capable of both leading a movie and showing a believable range of emotions. The rest of the cast is obviously quite solid and the performances are quite fine, but nobody seems to be used in quite the right way. The story diverts from the main mystery of interest a few times too many and, while it isn't so much convoluted, it becomes almost a chore. Nothing comes together in the end the way it should have, in yet another case of a movie that I wanted to like a lot more than I did. Though, certainly, the plausibility isn't helped after one of the detectives becomes a soothsayer suddenly in the end and the crime is wrapped up in a convenient little way.

It may be one of those that grows on you over time, but as it is now, the only thing The Black Dahlia shares with L.A. Confidential is the original author. As movies, they aren't in the same league.

The Verdict: C+.


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