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The Black Dahlia (7/10)

by Tony Medley

If you remember those IQ tests you used to take, there were always some questions that gave you a list and asked you to pick the one that didn’t belong, like:

Which of the following doesn’t belong?

  1. Ocean
  2. Sea
  3. Lake
  4. Baseball


Which is the following doesn’t belong?

  1. Hitler
  2. Stalin
  3. Ayatollah Khomeini
  4. Marilyn Monroe

Those might be a little difficult, but, then, they were measuring IQ. Here’s one that everyone should be able to get:

Which of the following doesn’t belong?

  1. Hillary Swank
  2. Scarlett Johansson
  3. Aaron Eckhart
  4. Josh Hartnett

That’s so easy. Swank, Johansson, and Eckhart are actors!

That didn’t stop director Brian de Palma from casting Hartnett in the lead of his new film, “The Black Dahlia.” While it might seem strange if you haven’t seen the film, once you see it and realize that de Palma has descended into camp, you realize that it’s a brilliant bit of casting.

Not having read the book by James Ellroy, I foolishly went expecting an interesting examination of the notorious Black Dahlia murder that occurred in Los Angeles in 1947, when the body of Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) was found in a vacant lot at 39th and Norton cut in half and disemboweled (that’s what the movie says; in fact, Short’s entrails were not removed). Never solved, de Palma uses it to tell the story of LAPD detectives Ofcr. Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Hartnett) and his buddy, Sgt. Leland “Lee” Blanchard (Eckhart), Blanchard’s live-in girl friend, Kay Lake (Johannson), and a mysterious rich girl, Madeleine Linscott (Swank). It’s a totally fictional flight of fancy with no basis in fact whatever, except for the fact of Short’s macabre demise.

One of the first lines in the movie gives the tip about what you’re sitting here watching. Early on, Kay tells Bucky and Lee, “Keep talking about me in the third person; it sends me.” OK, this is noir, but it’s tongue-in-cheek noir.

Even though the film was shot on location in Bulgaria to save money, the ambience of 1947 Los Angeles is terrific. After “Hollywoodland’s” disappointing attempt to capture what it might have been like in Los Angeles in the 1950’s, de Palma gets it right for the 1940’s here. Kudos, if not an Oscar, to production designer Dante Ferretti, who was also the best thing that happened to “The Aviator.”

If you were looking at this as a serious movie, Hartnett would kill it. Here’s a guy who shows every emotion by squinting. Whether he’s experiencing joy, sorrow, ecstasy, compassion, or sadness is all determined by how tightly he squints. But it’s not a serious film, so Hartnett’s lack of range is OK, maybe perfect.

One of the camp scenes occurs when Bucky decides to make love to Kay. In a scene that can only be described as derivative, he grabs a table cloth covering a table filled with plates, throws it and all the plates off and takes her right there on the table. Wow!

In another one, Bucky is confronted with a padlocked garage. We all know how people in Hollywood get around that, don’t we? Pick up a rock and hit it a couple of times and the lock miraculously comes off and the door opens. Voila!

There are many other scenes that can only be interpreted as satirical, and if you think that I’m just being unfair to de Palma, give the guy credit; it’s clear that he was playing it mostly for laughs, especially when we see the scenes of the Linscott family. This is so laughable it must be intended as camp. All the scenes with Madeleine’s mother, Ramona (Fiona Shaw), are laughers. Rarely will you see anyone overact to such wonderful effect.

The story, translated from Ellroy’s novel by screenwriter Josh Freedman, is truly ludicrous. Here’s a theory of the Black Dahlia case that is so absurd and byzantine it doesn’t even raise an iota of interest or thought that, “Gee, maybe that’s what happened.” When Bucky finally figures things out, he goes right straight to the scenes of the crimes. There’s no stumbling around and looking; he just walks right straight to the correct locale, no matter that one of them is so remote Sherlock Holmes would have been stumped. And how he puts it all together, well, I guess that’s why Brian cast Hartnett because the women won’t care and the men will be laughing too hard.

De Palma can’t get away from his love of gore (remember “Scarface,” et. al.?), so for fans of that there are shots of heads crushing and being blown off by bullets. I guess once you are a lover of gore you never get over it.

Unfortunately, de Palma falls for the canned exposition of a boxing scene, as the fight between Bucky and Lee has the typical Hollywood sounds accompanying modest left jabs that would make an atomic blast blush. Apparently there isn’t a director in Hollywood who has ever seen a real prize fight. But maybe this is satire, too.

I gave this a seven, not because it’s a great picture, but because it is as campy as Sharon Stone’s “Basic Instinct 2” (2005), and there’s something in it for everyone, except maybe people who like reason with their mysteries.

I must admit I was disappointed this wasn’t a serious examination of the real Black Dahlia case. Oh, well, sometimes you don’t get what you pay for and it’s a pleasant surprise.

September 12, 2006