The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma has been a maestro of modern film noir. From “The Untouchables” to “L.A. Confidential”, even “Mission: Impossible” showing glimpses of noir. But with his new entry into the genre, “The Black Dahlia”, starring Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank and set in 1947 Hollywood, he misses, but just barely.

Hartnett and Eckhart play two boxer/cops assigned to the grizzly murder of Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), an aspiring actress who was found in a field carved and disemboweled. Twists, turns and sub-plots fly in the who-done-it, with the prerequisite femme fatales being Johansson as Eckhart’s loving girlfriend and Swank as an acquaintance of Short, who also happens to be the daughter of one of the more influential men in Hollywood.

It’s hard to come up with a more cohesive and in-depth plot summary for various reasons. I don’t want to give too much away. I barely understood it myself. And, by fault of De Palma or editor Bill Pankow or writer Josh Friedman, the story is so convoluted that it would take an entirely separate article to explain it. It’s an interesting story to be told, it was just told poorly. And I don’t know who to blame. It had wonderful dialogue, and when I was able to follow the plot, I could. There was nothing too inherently wrong with the editing as it was. Nice even cuts and it flowed nicely. I can’t think of a better modern director to handle this type of film. But it was one, or all of those, which contributed to the downfall of what could have been a fantastic film, a true breakout for Hartnett. I just can’t figure out who to blame for the poor storytelling. All the wrong portions of the story were told, some left unresolved.

In this day and age, classic film-noir style walks the very fine line of parody and sincerity. And “Dahlia” went back and forth. Eckhart’s Det. Blanchard seemed almost a goofy stereotype of 40’s cops, while Hartnett’s Det. Bleichert was as hard nosed as they come, challenging Humphrey Bogart for noir supremacy. The entire cast, really, handled the somewhat archaic style of acting without making it seem too hokey.

The acting is top notch all the way through. Hartnett has settled quite comfortably into this style, as his past three major films (“Sin City”, “Lucky Number Slevin” and now “Dahlia” have been of this genre and its sub-genres.) He was an actor I had originally written off in the late 90’s as a pin-up boy with no real talent other than to look good onscreen. But he shows some real charm and chops on screen when playing a style. He’s one of those young actors that will come up and join the ranks of the more prominent and serious actors, and major awards are in his future, that’s my prediction anyway.

But the true center of attention of this film is the sheer visual beauty of it. Credit should go to both Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond for paying homage to the classic noir films and Italian Oscar-winning production designer Dante Ferretti (2005 for “The Aviator”) for accurately and beautifully rendering the look of 1947 Hollywood(land). Zsigmond used the classic tricks of the trade to his advantage, and made a compelling and stark contrast between the feminine and the masculine characters by altering the focus to be softer on the females, making them appear angelic till true motives and intentions are revealed.

Ferretti was the only one to bring the new millennium into the classically stylized film. He made it more graphic and gory than what would have been shown in ’47. I urge the weak stomached to stay away.

3.5 stars

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