De Palma’s gratuitous lesbianism can’t save confused thriller
THE BLACK DAHLIA
Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank and Mia Kirshner
Opens Sept. 15 in wide release.
2 hrs. R
If you want to know about the “Black Dahlia Murder Case,” television offers several documentaries on the subject, most of them designed to sell tickets to Brian De Palma’s movie, “The Black Dahlia.”
The movie, based on James Ellroy’s novel, offers a fictitious (and largely incomprehensible) solution to the officially unsolved 1947 murder. Retired LAPD cop Steve Hodel claims to have solved the case pinning it on his late father and pushes his theory on the documentaries with plugs for his books on the subject.
Another subplot of De Palma’s film which has no main plot, only subplots involves a millionaire who built his business on “shoddy construction.” If his buildings were as shoddily constructed as Josh Friedman’s script, they wouldn’t have stood long enough to get a roof on them.
Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) narrates in film noir fashion. He’s an L.A. cop in 1946, but he used to be a boxer. And at first, “The Black Dahlia” seems to be a movie about boxing. The department lobbying for raises sets up a promotional bout between “Mr. Fire” (Aaron Eckhart as Lee Blanchard) and “Mr. Ice” (Bucky).
Except for Dwight losing his front teeth, it proves to be a win-win situation that advances his career. He and Lee are made partners. They also become off-duty partners, in a platonic m?nage a trois with Lee’s girlfriend, Kay (Scarlett Johansson).
Lee and Dwight are involved in a stakeout that turns into a shootout when, a block away, the body of wannabe starlet Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) is discovered. I’ll spare you the details, although De Palma spares us nothing.
Dwight begins methodically investigating the case, which the press dubs the “Black Dahlia.” Lee, however, is obsessed with the murder. Lee’s also concerned about a criminal who’s being released from prison the following week.
The trail leads Dwight to a lesbian bar where tuxedo-clad K.D. Lang is singing “Love for Sale” while a dozen or so female dancers pair up and writhe suggestively. A woman comes in, catches Dwight’s eye and leaves hurriedly.
He gets her license number and finds she’s Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank).
Could she be the mysterious lesbian Elizabeth and another woman were said to have been chatting with on Hollywood Boulevard?
Much is made of Madeleine’s supposed resemblance to the deceased. It explains Dwight’s attraction to her and why, according to Madeleine, “Betty and I made love once I just did it to see what it would be like with someone who looked like me.”
Well, they’re both brunettes. But otherwise, they couldn’t look less alike if one of them had a penis. (Sorry, that was another Hilary Swank movie.)
Madeleine invites Dwight home to meet her family: her father (John Kavanagh), the aforementioned sleazy builder; her crazy mother (Fiona Shaw in the worst performance of the decade) and her little sister (Rachel Miner).
The boxing movie that became a romantic triangle that became a police procedural briefly becomes a romantic triangle again, this time with Dwight caught between Kay and Madeleine.
Most of the action in the movie is, or initially appears to be, unrelated to the Black Dahlia case. It’s as if De Palma only threw it in to introduce gratuitous lesbian porn. In the end, you may believe Elizabeth Short died of boredom waiting for the movie to get to the point.
A bigger budget gives “The Black Dahlia” better production values than “Hollywoodland” last week’s disappointment spun off from a true LAPD case history. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography and Mark Isham’s score belong in a much better movie.
Johansson and Swank give interesting performances, although it’s a shock to finally learn Swank’s intermittent accent is supposed to be Scottish. Hartnett is still coasting on his looks, and Eckhart doesn’t have enough screen time to pull together the different aspects of his character.
The real mystery, which “The Black Dahlia” fails to solve, is why people keep giving Brian De Palma big budgets to make bad movies.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, September 15, 2006.