There’s more moral weight in one paragraph of James Ellroy’s somber 1987 novel The Black Dahlia than in all 121 minutes of Brian De Palma’s florid, sprawling, self-satisfied film version. Where Ellroy exposed, with an often brutal candor, the misogynist rage behind his protagonists’ (and his own) obsession with the beautiful, bisected murder victim of the title, De Palma exploits that same misogyny without a trace of introspection. When the movie does exhibit a flash of spirit, it’s because some of Ellroy’s dialogue has survived the glitzifying machine. When it sags—and there’s a long enough sag about three-quarters of the way through that you could go refinance your home and still make it back for the closing credits—it’s because, story-wise, De Palma has taken matters into his own hands.
But there’s a reason De Palma remains in the rank of important filmmakers after a nearly 15-year run of bad movies (the first Mission: Impossible, in 1996, was one notable exception). Even when engineering a howler like this, he does it in such high style, with such a confident swagger, that the movie is half over before you realize how little is there. And De Palma has a way of surrounding himself with the best: The production design by Dante Ferretti and cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond give The Black Dahlia (Universal) a feeling of texture and solidity that belies its inherent flimsiness.
In the screenplay, co-authored by Ellroy and Josh Friedman, the novel’s countless overlapping threads have been condensed to a still-confusing three or four plotlines. Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are cops and former boxers who become partners after a bout in the ring orchestrated by the LAPD. Bucky falls hard for Lee’s live-in girlfriend, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), but the crush remains chaste and the three become fast friends.
On the trail of a child molester, Bucky and Lee are sidetracked by the sensational murder of an aspiring actress named Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), who’s been found chopped in two in a vacant lot. (The famously gruesome tabloid photos of the real-life victim are reproduced with a creepy exactitude.) As Lee spirals further down into an obsession with the woman the press dubs the Black Dahlia, Bucky embarks on a dangerous flirtation with Kay and an even scarier affair with a bisexual heiress named Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank).
One important plot point hangs on Madeleine’s ostensibly eerie resemblance to the dead girl, but Swank’s strong, hawklike features have nothing to do with Kirshner’s gamine face. The movie asks us once too often to take things like this for granted and loses our trust along the way. Eckhart’s Lee descends so quickly into a slavering preoccupation with the Dahlia murder (complete with that universal murder-mystery cliché, the hidden shrine to the victim) that we stop even paying attention to the nuances of Eckhart’s hard-charging performance.
But it almost doesn’t make sense to analyze the performances in The Black Dahlia since every actor seems cast in a movie of his or her own invention. Josh Hartnett is his usual blank, boyish self, more a Hardy boy than a hardened cop. Hilary Swank gives a Jennifer Jason Leigh-style performance, full of hysterical bravado. Her voice is a note-perfect mock-up of Faye Dunaway’s in Chinatown, and her bearing is that of the classic noir vamp, but all that technique nearly smothers the overmatched Hartnett (in addition to killing the audience’s libido). Scarlett Johansson’s problem is the exact reverse. She doesn’t really bother to act at all, but her rounded, confectionery beauty is perfectly suited to Jenny Beavan’s luscious 1940s costumes; in angora, she’s like a sex toy manufactured by Gund.
De Palma’s last film, Femme Fatale, was frank, fun trash; The Black Dahlia’spretensions to be something more are what trip it up and make it, at times, embarrassing to watch. And if The Black Dahlia’sambitions are to be anything but pure camp, someone forgot to copy Fiona Shaw on that e-mail. She plays Madeleine’s permanently drunk mother, Ramona, as a late Bette Davis by way of Margaret Dumont. She’s uproariously funny in her one big scene, but was she intended to be?
“How sick are you?” Kay asks Bucky at one point in the film, questioning his and his partner’s growing involvement with the dead Dahlia. Unfortunately for the audience, De Palma has no interest in answering her question, either for Bucky or for himself.