The glib consensus is that The Black Dahlia is a bad movie when it’s really just an easy one to dislike. It brings complexity to genre (not just in the thick plot details—the film’s true weakness). True 1940s noir style is met by director Brian De Palma’s obsessions with guilt surrounding violence and sex. The mystery of aspiring star Elizabeth Short’s disgraceful murder and mutilation hangs over a film populated by self-serving prostitutes. Based on James Ellroy’s crime novel, it resembles a 60-year-old Hollywood artifact, with a prevalent cynicism.
For detective Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), striving to do the right thing cements his outsider placement. It’s made worse as his involvement with Short’s case plunges him deep into despair. This is the first time Hartnett’s been asked to carry a movie so far, and he meets the task. Watching Short’s reels, auditioning for an abusive director played by De Palma, Bucky is drawn to her haunted, fragile image. His voyeuristic attraction is our own, as De Palma explores accusations levelled against him for exploiting the female figure. These fake ideals of physical perfection extend to the happy face Short’s killer carved from her ears to mouth, the dentures covering Bucky’s disfigured smile.
The melodramatic noir tones (replete with wipe edits, bombastic score and soft focus on femme fatales Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank) will likely hold The Black Dahlia from ever being the popular hit anticipated by its trailer. The brevity of many of the scenes helps build the tapestry of LA’s cesspool. De Palma designs his movies rhythmically, like a musician knowing the desired effect of every note; where images still mean something. It’s cinema that speaks to the senses. Surprising then that critics prefer the less sophisticated Hollywoodland and previous Ellroy adaptation LA Confidential. They’re too comfortable with relating to movies as theatre—complaining that De Palma’s flourish masks a lack of content rather than noting how his style holds meaning.
The Black Dahlia doesn’t give a graphic recreation of Short’s murder, but when it does throw in a detailed killing, it allows itself an “Oh my god!” moment—De Palma commands viewer attention through belief in the power of cinema. But it’s a visceral power that finally gets diminished by the convoluted storyline. De Palma’s emotional path remains subservient to Ellroy’s novel, and the complicated story gets in the way. Bucky’s oppression by the system resembles the arc of John Travolta’s diminished crusader in Blow Out, but The Black Dahlia’s scope of characters and subplots is too large to let it clearly register. It’s when Brian De Palma gets to make a Brian De Palma film that The Black Dahlia penetrates the impact of corruption on a soul—noir writ spectacular.
Even hyperstylized action film Crank is better received than The Black Dahlia. Crank gets a pass because it’s upfront that its mayhem is weightless and morally appalling. Writer and director Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s clever premise has a hit man trying to keep his adrenaline level high enough so that a poison he’s injected with doesn’t kill him. To stay alive, he resorts to butchery, murder, near rape and siccing a white mob on a Middle Eastern cabbie he falsely claims belongs to al-Qaeda. Some of the directing touches are fun, but the Grand Theft Auto overdrive wears thin quickly. Removed from moral effect, Crank’s violence is boring.
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