A critic often has to play the role of coroner, dissecting a work to find out why it died (or never lived), but I’m frankly stumped by the Brian De Palma thriller The Black Dahlia; I can’t tell you how it ended up such a stiff. It has a potent source: James Ellroy’s feverishly overplotted fantasia on Hollywood’s most notorious unsolved murder, the 1947 killing of Elizabeth Short—a pretty, not too bright young woman who arrived in L.A. with dreams of stardom, got around (and around), and wound up a different sort of legend. Photos of her bisected corpse are horrible in ways that transcend the grisly particulars. Drained of blood and denuded of innards, her body had been turned into a sculpture of violation, with a smile slashed from ear to ear that made her look as if she were enjoying the spectacle of her own dismemberment. The sadism was mythic.
Ellroy’s spin on the Dahlia case is intensely personal; you fully understand it only when you read his nonfiction book My Dark Places, a memoir of his obsessive investigation of the unsolved murder of his mother—an alcoholic with a secret life who died when he was 10. In The Black Dahlia, the killing of Elizabeth Short warps everything in the world of Ellroy’s alter ego, a prizefighter turned cop named Bucky Bleichert (played in the film by Josh Hartnett). Obviously arrested at some prepubescent stage (like, uh, 10?), Bleichert is happiest as a third wheel in the company of his partner and sometime boxing opponent, a hothead named Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), and Blanchard’s girl, Kay (Scarlett Johansson). The Black Dahlia is one of those light-angel/dark-angel tugs-of-war: The caring part of Bleichert gravitates toward the damaged Kay, but the nasty part makes a beeline for Madeleine (Hilary Swank), a rich girl who’s a ringer for the Dahlia and who prowls the night for lovers in Dahlia regalia.
In this magazine’s “Fall Preview” issue, I wrote that “in prospect, The Black Dahlia is a disturbingly perfect marriage of filmmaker and subject”—and thank God for that “in prospect.” I guess I was primed for something that De Palma already gave us in Obsession, Dressed to Kill, and Body Double: a Vertigo-esque melodrama full of sinuous tracking shots and multiple planes of reality, a blood wedding of Hitchcock and the voluptuous Italian splattermaster Dario Argento. But either the director didn’t want to revisit that phase of his career (his last film, Femme Fatale, came close to burlesquing it) or he couldn’t hack a clear path through Josh Friedman’s overly faithful screenplay. I’m not sure anyone could: Friedman can’t get from plot point A to B without leaving the audience behind; I’ve read the novel twice, and even with the movie’s won’t-shut-up narrator I didn’t know what was going on. The Black Dahlia is an essay in incoherence.
The confusion wouldn’t matter if there were any feeling onscreen, but the blood and innards seem missing from the movie, too. It’s a stilted thing—overstylized and inexpressive, like high-school kids playing dress-up, or bad Kabuki. The great Vilmos Zsigmond’s sepia palette makes you wish you could adjust the tint knob, and what registers most powerfully in the low-angle shot of cops staring down at the Dahlia’s corpse are their snazzy hats. Out of perverse chivalry, the director, who has spent his career batting off (largely unfair) charges of eroticizing violence against women, points his camera at one of history’s most hideously fascinating crime scenes from a football field away.
Nothing here tracks. Madeleine is supposed to be the Dahlia’s double, but Swank doesn’t at all resemble the waifish Elizabeth Short of Mia Kirshner (seen in flashbacks). And since this is another hopeless attempt by Swank to embody sultry femininity, everything she touches turns to camp. Hartnett isn’t in the same picture anyway; he’s like a kid waking up in the middle of a movie with no idea what’s going on. Johansson was bred for long white gowns and cigarette holders, but her putative Madame Tussauds counterpart could have given this performance. In context, the solidly second-rate Aaron Eckhart looms large. And dwarfing all is Fiona Shaw as Swank’s dipsomaniacal mother—a loopy gargoyle.
There is one sequence for the De Palma highlight reel: a circular staircase killing with just the right mixture of spatial-temporal dislocation and a touch of freakish geometry—the elongated silhouette of a stiletto-wielding assassin. That it’s not of a piece with anything else is irrelevant; it’s the only part of The Black Dahlia with a pulse.
Unlike certain national political figures, Ben Affleck has always had the decency to look embarrassed at being unqualified for his job, but it’s sad that he doesn’t even have the histrionic resources to be convincing as a washed-up fifties B-movie actor. Hollywoodland is the other true-Hollywood-mystery movie in theaters, an exploration of the suicide (or was it murder?) of fifties TV Superman George Reeves. Reeves had an easy but peppy presence that was very likable, and Affleck’s moroseness doesn’t do him justice. The back-and-forth cutting between past and present would be clunky even if it weren’t so arbitrary, and it doesn’t help that Adrien Brody—as the film’s other protagonist, a burnt-out gumshoe—is more actorish than the supposed actor. So is Diane Lane as Reeves’s married lover, but she does know how to bounce off the handsome blob without being enveloped by it.