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'The Black Dahlia' Movie Review

An Almost Too Literal Adaptation of James Ellroy's Book

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson and Josh Hartnett Photo from The Black Dahlia

Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson and Josh Hartnett in The Black Dahlia.

© Universal Pictures
The Black Dahlia is a crime noir with more meat on its bones than might be palatable for those who haven’t read James Ellroy’s bestselling book. Unless you’re familiar with the source material, following the intricacies of the Black Dahlia plot can be a frustrating experience and one that all but requires a detailed set of notes in order to keep up with the key players.

Another potential strike against the film is that anyone who hasn’t read Ellroy’s book might go into The Black Dahlia anticipating a straight-forward murder mystery. While The Black Dahlia definitely involves both murder and mystery, the film’s not strictly a whodunit. What The Black Dahlia actually is is a relationship drama, something not readily apparent from the trailer and a fact which might disappoint those expecting a CSI-style crime story.

This examination of the seedy underbelly of Hollywood in the 1940s puts less emphasis on the actual murder of The Black Dahlia and the search for the killer than it does on the intersecting relationships of those who knew her in life and the men assigned to solve her grisly murder.

The Story

Josh Hartnett and Hilary Swank Photo from The Black Dahlia

Josh Hartnett and Hilary Swank in The Black Dahlia.

© Universal Pictures
The discovery of slain actress Elizabeth Short’s body on January 15, 1947 serves only as the backdrop to The Black Dahlia’s central story of two Los Angeles Police Officers known in the media as Mr Fire and Mr Ice. As their boxing nicknames imply, the two have diametrically opposed styles and personalities. Mr Fire is Officer Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), a fast-talking, action-oriented man who loves the limelight. Mr Ice is Dwight ‘Bucky’ Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), a cop who avoids confrontations unless he’s forced into action. More of an introvert, it’s only after partnering up with Lee that Bucky becomes a player to be reckoned with within the police department.

The partners spend their daytime hours working high profile cases while their evenings are spent palling around with Lee’s live-in love, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). Lee rescued Kay from a thug who liked to carve his initials in his women (before sharing them with his buddies), but it soon becomes apparent it’s Bucky and Kay who should be together.

Before that can of worms can be opened, Mr Fire and Mr Ice are assigned to work on what’s sure to be one of the biggest cases in Hollywood’s history. Struggling actress Elizabeth Short’s dead body is found dumped in a vacant lot, body cut in two with the internal organs missing from her lower half. Even worse, her mouth has been carved into a garish smile that stretches from ear to ear.

The case, dubbed The Black Dahlia murder because of the victim’s penchant for dressing all in black, soon becomes an obsession of Lee’s as he equates Short’s murder with that of his younger sister’s. As the case eats at him, Lee’s behavior deteriorates – he pops pills and bounces off the wall and basically becomes useless – which means Bucky’s left to work the case without his partner. Following up on a potential lead, Bucky checks out lesbian hangouts and runs into Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), the daughter of one of LA’s wealthiest citizens. Madeleine’s not only a dead ringer for the murdered woman but also someone who knows more about the Black Dahlia case than she first lets on.

De Palma does a fantastic job of recreating Hollywood from the ‘40s and does justice to Ellroy’s work in a way that perhaps no other filmmaker could have accomplished. De Palma's signature touches are all present, yet he never adds elements just to make the film more his own. This is Ellroy’s story brought to life, with only a couple of added scenes to pad out specific characters or make the film adaptation more visually appealing.

Condensing Ellroy’s novel had to have been a tough task for screenwriter Josh Friedman but, for the most part, he pulls it off. It’s only in the film’s final act that Friedman’s screenplay fails to live up to Ellroy’s work. Some red herrings aren’t addressed and some plotlines are left dangling, while others are tied up too neatly.

Continued on Page 2: The Acting and the Bottom Line

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