I’d like to think I’m a fairly patient movie-goer. Sometimes, directors make films that move slowly and then ultimately build to great things. Or maybe they make a film that’s determinedly subtle or vague in an effort to engage the viewer more than the average series of flickering images might. I’ve said it before, after all: “Mulholland Drive” is my favorite movie. That in itself doesn’t elevate me beyond the average chair-moistener at the multiplex, but it does speak to the fact that I have patience when it comes to difficult movies.
And then, last night, I saw “The Black Dahlia.”
Oh, for the love of god, how could anybody with a professed love of noir — much less a group of people, including James Ellroy and Brian de Palma — donkey punch the entire genre by insinuating this mess into it? How could a still-unsolved real-life murder that has all the elements of great noir — mystery, danger, depravity, vice, a beautiful woman, rich people, Los Angeles — be wrung dry of its juice and then stretched into a sad imitation of fictional works that preceded it? Yes, I did not enjoy this film, despite every bit of foreshadowing that I would.
At this point, I’m going to tell you to stop reading if you still plan on seeing the movie fresh. Perhaps my biggest problem with this movie is the revelation of the killer, and I will name names. However, since you’ve already registered my dissatisfaction with “The Black Dahlia,” you might as well keep reading, as I imagine my bashing of the film would give you more happiness than actually sitting through it would. Also, my blog is free. The movie will cost you, like, eight dollars. That’s a winning proposition.
Something struck me as wrong about the film from the opening credits. It’s a small criticism, I’ll admit, but I would like to think a film that can afford big-budget, time period-specific sets with scores of characters interacting in costume could possibly make the effort to display the names of the people who made the movie in something other than a font that came packed in with Microsoft Word. Maybe it wasn’t Times New Roman, but it certainly could have been Times New. At least Courier New would have given the vibe of the old-fashioned typewriters on which the reporters of the Black Dahlia’s day would have tapped their news stories into existence.
Furthermore, the opening credits actually spoiled a bit of the supposedly shocking ending for me, although I’m probably in the minority of viewers who actually know who Fiona Shaw, the actress playing the killer, actually is. You see, Ms. Shaw came into my awareness at a young age. She played the villainous Lena in the “Super Mario Bros.” movie, which I saw as a kid. Shaw was further entrenched into my memory when I found out she is currently the partner of Saffron Burrows, a younger and very pretty British actress. Thus, I noted that the name “Fiona Shaw” popped up early in the credits, suggesting a rather prominent role. She only appeared in one scene, however, about midway through the movie. So when the film began tying up its various loose ends, I knew we’d be seeing Fiona Shaw again. Call me crazy, but I don’t think it’s bad filmmaking to hide elements like that. In all the promotion for “Scream 2,” for example, Laurie Metcalf’s name was withheld so as to make viewers think she did, in fact, play a minor character. Only when the film had been in theaters for a few weeks did Metcalf’s name show up in advertisements for the film, as by then most people had already seen it and learned that Debbie Salt was actually the crazed Mrs. Loomis. So there.
As the film actually got going, I felt a little overwhelmed. I realize that by virtue of being a novel adaptation, this film had to cram a lot of exposition into every scene. Unfortunately, this resulted in a half hour’s worth of scenes that generally ran shorter than a minute. In true noir style, the characters talk fast and get to business, but as the leads — Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart — run about the Los Angeles crime world, I had fairly little idea what crime they were solving or what criminal they were chasing. This, we later find, is actually a major plot point, in that Eckhart’s character is a crooked cop whose reasons for being in any given location are not as noble as we initially think. Nonetheless, I couldn’t invest myself in characters whose motives were so needlessly inscrutable. I liked “L.A. Confidential” and I’ve enjoyed a lot of back-in-the-day noir, so I’m just used to my detective stories unfolding a little more slowly.
Of course, a major source of confusion for me was the fact that Ellroy chose to name his two leads almost identically. Hartnett plays Dwight “Bucky” Bleichart, while Eckhart plays Leland “Lee” Blanchard. What may be a neat verbal paring on the printed page yields a practically indistinguishable pronunciation in a film. Bleichart and Blanchard. Blanchard and Bleichart. And all this trouble is compounded by the fact that, by virtue of being how 40s-era detectives talk, the dialogue among virtually every other male character refers to the leads only by last name.
Eventually, Elizabeth Short’s body is discovered and the movie finally moves into the phase I was waiting for: the investigation into the murder of the movie’s title character. This, initially, was done well, though I’m pressed to think of any characters that were named as suspects into the case. Soon enough, however, Blanchard — that’s Eckart’s guy, for the record — goes loony after spending too much time starring at the autopsy photos of this poor girl, starts downing one Benzedrine pill after another, and is removed from the case, thankfully centering the film on the more stable plotline of Hartnett’s character’s involvement.
At this point, the film picks up. We meet Madeleine Linscott, played by Hillary Swank who wows and proves that her now dual Academy Awards are no fluke. She’s instantly captivating, as a noir femme fatale should be, and Swank’s performance recalls that of Faye Dunaway in “Chinatown,” which is perhaps the best compliment one can give any actress in this type of role. What’s more, Swank’s Madeleine is initially presented as a lesbian, or at least this handsome young socialite with enough lesbian tendencies to place her at an all-ladies bar when we first meet her. (The scene, I should note, is mostly fantastic. Lesbian bars of the era were probably not this extravagant, I’d wager, but I have to admit that seeing a full-on singing and dancing lesbian revue was fairly spectacular, even if the presence of k.d. “I don’t need no capital letters” lang as the bar’s resident crooner drew me out of the film’s setting somewhat.) This plot line, sadly, is ditched altogether as film the film progresses, save a later admission that Madeleine had a one-night stand with Elizabeth Short. Soon enough, she’s hopping into bed with Bleichart like there’s some shortage of good, old-fashioned 40s beaver in town.
Even Swank’s presence, which I enjoyed, caused a major problem for me. Characters are constantly remarking that her character looks just like Elizabeth Short. In truth, Swank looks nothing like Mia Kirshner, who we see playing Short pre-mutilation in film audition tapes and seedy stag films. Both actresses are white, have dark hair and breathe oxygen, sure. But similarities end there. Madeleine just wears black dresses and hair ornaments in a similar way to how Elizabeth Short did before she met her end.
As “The Black Dahlia” speeds past the halfway mark, the various side-plots are dispatched, for the most part. Eckhart gets killed in a particularly gory sequence that sends his character plummeting down a six-story drop that ends face-first onto an obelisk-shaped water fountain fixture. Dario Argento would be proud. His wife, Kay (Scarlett Johansson) vanishes for a bit, which is good in that even the heaving sweater cows she’s smuggling under her tight tops can’t help her be the sexpot her character needs to be.
Eventually, Hartnett visits Madeleine’s house and meets her wealthy family. In what is probably the film’s best scene, Madeleine’s wealthy parents bicker and yell like lunatics. Mrs. Linscott (Fiona Shaw) is appalled at the notion of entertaining someone as common as a police officer at her table, so she drunkenly relates a story about how her contractor husband once attempted to muster his political pull to get a street in Los Angeles named after her. In the end, all that resulted from this effort was Ramona Boulevard, which Mrs. Linscott notes is full of Hispanic prostitutes flashing their genitals from apartment windows. She then fumbles away. Although a welcome reprieve from the movie’s overall dark mood, this scene seems unfortunately out of place in “The Black Dahlia.” It’s simply too goofy and, in retrospect, seems a clumsy idea of introducing the notion that Mrs. Linscott is off-balance enough to commit murder. But that’s what happened, all right; in the concluding scenes, we learn that Mrs. Linscott, this loopy, pearl-wearing spoiled socialite wife, killed Elizabeth Short.
The movie eventually coughs up the facts: Madeleine is not the daughter of Mr. Linscott. Instead, she’s the product of an affair Mrs. Linscott had with her husband’s producing partner. After Madeleine was born, the partner, Georgie, was maimed in a suspicious automobile accident that we’re led to believe was planned by Mr. Linscott to avenge the cuckoldry. Because Georgie didn’t die, however, Mr. Linscott eventually took pity on him and gave him odd jobs — both in the sense of professional work and hook-ups with loose party girls. One of these girls was Elizabeth Short, who had starred in a porno that Mr. Linscott produced. After the film, Elizabeth and Georgie were alone in one of Linscott’s cheaply made houses — as he had set up several houses using pieces of not-to-code set timber after his movie heyday — when Mrs. Linscott showed up, bashed Elizabeth’s head in and horribly mutilated her. Why, exactly? I’m not sure. Mrs. Linscott, before she blows her brains out, claims she did it because Elizabeth simply looked so much like Madeleine. (Again — ugh.) Quite possibly she was too much of a “hophead,” as Madeline calls her, to know what she was doing. Possibly she was jealous of the fact that Georgie, her old flame, would want to knock boots with somebody else. And, as I wondered, she may have killed Elizabeth because she was jealous of the apparently incestuous relationship that the film hints Madeline shared with Mr. Linscott. (A crazed femme fatale doing her land developer father in noir-era Los Angeles? Unheard of. This almost counteracts all the great things I said about her role reminding me of Dunaway’s in “Chinatown.”) We learn that she slashed Elizabeth’s mouth from ear to ear in mockery of a painting that hangs in the Linscott house: “The Man Who Laughs,” which, in a nice touch, references the Victor Hugo story of the same name that was the inspiration for the silent film “The Man Who Laughs,” which Bleichart, Blanchard and Kay attend to together early in the film. (The story and the film concern a man whose face is deformed into a clownish smile. The latter eventually inspired the Joker character in the Batman comics, which is funny because that’s the first thing I thought when I saw the creepy clown painting in “The Black Dahlia” in the first place.) However, how or why Mrs. Linscott, who doesn’t seemed to be skilled in anything but drinking and pill-popping managed to bisect Elizabeth’s body, drain her blood, giver her a hysterectomy and then move the body to a different part of town is never explained. So boo on that.
Also, I should point out that Mr. Linscott takes credit for building a few houses under what he calls “that garish Hollywoodland” sign, or something to that effect. The sign is actually depicted in the film, although with shoddy CGI, and referenced in dialogue a few times. It’s not the fault of the filmmakers, but having that other Hollywood-set film noir, “Hollywoodland,” out in theaters simultaneously caused me to be drawn out of the film every time the word “Hollywoodland” was mentioned or depicted, if for no other reason than the fact that, despite its flaws, I enjoyed the latter film a whole lot more. Both movies deal with real-life murder mysteries. At least “Hollywoodland” doesn’t do the real-life dead the disservice of wrapping their untimely demises with a ridiculous, implausible explanation. (Also, notably, both films concern protagonists who refuse to smoke, despite that everybody else always has a cancer stick in hand. Both later smoke like chimneys when their respective cases become too stressful. Curious.)
“The Black Dahlia” ends with Hartnett realizing that Madeleine, in fact, is also a killer. Before poor Blanchard does his swan dive into the foyer, some especially feminine looking shadow slashes his throat. Bleichart reasons that only Madeleine could have done this, though how she knew to be lurking in the shadows when Blanchard would be busting up what presumably is a hush-hush drug deal is beyond me. She plugs her — this time with a bullet — and then speeds away to be with Johansson’s character. Or something.
Other minor quibbles: For a big-name director in a large-scale production, you’d think “The Black Dahlia” could have afforded better special effects than the film provides. All the blood and gore splatters beautifully, but at one point Bleichart gleans a crucial clue from a framed photo at the Linscott house depicting Georgie with Mr. and Mirs. Linscott. What the audience sees, however, is an actual old-timey photo with the respective actors’ faces superimposed onto other bodies in what looks like the result of the kind of copy-and-paste Photoshop job that people who are just learning the program might do. This trouble arises again whenever the film shows Elizabeth Short’s audition tapes or stag films, which always appear in startlingly clear focus that would seem impossible given the small budget of the films she appeared in. Give me film grain. Give ma shaky camera. Give me something to believe you actually thought this through, Brian de Palma.
Late in the movie, there's a scene in which Johansson's character yells "She looks just like that dead girl! How sick are you?" to Bleichart. Not a full minute passes before we see Bleichart in a different location, deep in thought, with Johansson's words echoing in his head. Again: "She looks just like that dead girl! How sick are you?" Me: We just heard this. It made me laugh then. It's making me laugh more now.
All in all, I hated “The Black Dahlia,” though it had a few good points. The funny scene with Madeleine’s family, as I sad before, would have worked beautifully in virtually any other film. Rose McGowan, whom I’ve loved since she got crunched in a garage door in “Scream,” puts in a good one-scene role as one of Elizabeth’s former roommates. And Eckhart does a decent job with his part, even if he’s limited to interacting with the underwritten Scarlett Johansson role and the unfortunately wooden acting of Josh Hartnett. And Mia Kirshner plays her character with genuine style. She’s beautifully pitiful. You actually feel bad for Elizabeth Short in that she had a hard life and not just a bad end. Also, I think every young person in the audience got a snicker out of the fact that Short — both the cinematic and real-life versions — had an arrest record stemming from underage drinking in Santa Barbara. Ha.
It’s too bad, really. The Black Dahlia case has intrigued me ever since I saw an “Unsolved Mysteries” segment on it when I was probably too young to be hearing the phrase “unnecessary hysterectomy.” Elizabeth Short could have made for a great noir movie. It may yet, but this isn’t what’s going to do it.