Should that be Black and Decker?
THE CASE of The Black Dahlia investigates one of the most notorious murders in Hollywood history. In 1947, Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress, was found brutally cut in half, mutilated, with a gruesome smile slashed across her face. The murder remains unsolved to this day and has created cult interest in California.
The film, directed by Brian De Palma (Scarface and The Untouchables) is based on the 1987 novel by James Ellroy that fictionalises the investigation and its surrounding events.
The plot focuses on Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Eckhart), two homicide detectives working in the corrupt crime haven that is 40s LA. Once they are put on the case of the Black Dahlia, they become obsessed with the life of Elizabeth Short and the investigation slowly consumes their lives.
The sub plot follows the bizarre love triangle between Bleichert, Blanchard and Kay Lake (Johansson). Hilary Swank also appears as Madeleine Scott, the key figure in unraveling Short’s background, which involves a hedonistic lifestyle in LA’s lesbian underworld.
The cinematography portrays LA in a gritty, fascinating style made even more impressive as it was filmed in Sofia, Bosnia. The film noir aspect creates a vibe somewhere between Sin City and LA Confidential (another novel penned by James Ellroy).
Most of the action reflects Bucky and Lee’s attempt to uncover an intricate plot that reaches far beyond the average murder. De Palma creates scenes showing the depth of an urban underworld rife with pornography, femme fatales, corrupt policemen and criminals.
Similarly to the particulars of the yet-unsolved case, the movie is frustratingly convoluted. What it accomplishes with its stunning cinematography and set design is undercut by a lack of coherence. This may be because so many different components are thrown into the overall picture, meaning that you do need to concentrate throughout. It lacks momentum at times, however, at other times the developments move so fast that you wish you had brought a notebook.
Josh Hartnett is a surprisingly neat fit for the detective investigating the murder of a would-be starlet in 40s Hollywood. His personal journey is an absorbing one. Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank both perform well, especially the latter, who seems to be paying tribute to Audrey Hepburn with her over the top glamour, playing the femme fatale.
De Palma captures all the macabre details of the real-life killing that sparked this fictional tale. The bygone era remains curiously fascinating and is translated onto the screen very effectively. He brings Southern California’s swinging lifestyle, crime, gruesome murders, sleaze, racial unrest and police corruption to life through elegant cinematography, knockout sets and a moody score.
The Black Dahlia is an intriguing story, which can be engaging for those prepared to switch their brains on for two hours. Don’t expect a conclusive end to the tale as the plot never seems to come together as a whole. There are still 22 prime suspects in this case, which has been a hot topic of debate in California for nearly 60 years.