The Black Dahlia Brian De Palma

The Black Dahlia Brian De Palma
The film noir road may be dark and twisty but it’s also pretty smoothly paved and well travelled — it’s a journey that a noir-fluent director like Brian De Palma should be able to make blindfolded. But perhaps his familiarity with the form — the convoluted plots, the double-crossing dames, the hard-bitten cops and tough-nut, broken schemers — is what dooms The Black Dahlia to the ranks of ambitious failures.

Having too many ideas is part of his problem; he starts his tale with two former boxers/cops (Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart) coming to blows before partnering up and forming an unusual non-sexual threesome with Eckhart’s wife (Scarlett Johansson). They get caught up in an elaborate scheme (are there any other kinds in films like these?) involving high society plotting, rich art collectors and underground pornography. No to mention a woman who looks very much like Hilary Swank, which becomes an issue (or is it a turn-on?) when Swank shows up, sultry in dark lipstick and tight dresses, looking more by the day like film icon Katharine Hepburn. Her high society breeding clashes with her desire to troll underground lesbian clubs (kd lang makes a tuxedoed singing cameo), which doesn’t prevent her from seducing Josh Harnett’s hard-boiled cop.

That none of this makes a lot of sense isn’t a death knell for the average noir — the genre thrives, after all, on the final act expositional monologue — but to be successful, it needs to be on a leash. Not a short one necessarily, but De Palma’s effort — drawn from James Ellroy’s novel, itself drawn from a real life murder case — seems to wander freely, obsessed with Johansson in its first third, then moving on to Swank as the film progresses. The women do their level best against the two cop clichés and Eckhart does what he can with seemingly random character details (including a twice referenced, never explained Benedrine addiction), while Hartnett remains a block of uncarved wood.

Hartnett seems perfectly capable of bearing the weight of the film on his broad shoulders and crooked smile but the deft manoeuvring of character — so crucial in a whodunit like this — are well beyond his limited skills. Despite some game performances, particularly from Swank who is unlike any role she’s become known for (read: sexy and womanly), The Black Dahlia is a bore and a chore. (Universal)