Sunday, September 17, 2006

Review - The Black Dahlia

Once upon a time, Elizabeth Short was just another aspiring young actress arriving in Hollywood with dreams of stardom. Those dreams were never realised, but Short didn't just sink into obscurity as so many women like her have done down the years. Instead, her death made her something of a legend. On January 15th 1947 Elizabeth Short was murdered. She wasn't just murdered though; her body was bisected, her internal organs were removed, her blood was drained and her mouth was cut from ear to ear, giving her corpse a grotesque smile. Dubbed 'The Black Dahlia', the case perplexed the Hollywood police force, and the perpetrator of this shocking crime was never found.

And that was it, until James Ellroy decided this unsolved murder would be the perfect basis for a crime novel. He created a story around Elizabeth Short's death which followed two fictional detectives who become too involved emotionally and psychologically with the case. The result is one of his finest books; a gruesome, twisted and immensely readable tale of sex, violence and corruption. The Black Dahlia was part of Ellroy's 'LA Quartet', a quartet which also included LA Confidential.

The shadow of LA confidential looms large over Brian De Palma's screen adaptation of The Black Dahlia. James Ellroy has never been an easy writer for Hollywood to swallow - his books have all the elements which make great thrillers, but his dense plotting, psychological complexity and extreme violence have seen few filmmakers willing to take on the challenge of bringing his books to cinematic life. That all changed in 1997 when Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland turned Ellroy's LA Confidential into one of the best Hollywood films of the past decade. Their screenplay is a consummate lesson in how to effectively adapt a labyrinthine novel, by cutting away anything remotely extraneous, smoothing out the narrative and boiling the story down to its essential ingredients. The Black Dahlia is a consummate lesson in how not to adapt James Ellroy.

Hanson and Helgeland excised and condensed a huge amount of plot to make LA confidential work, but The Black Dahlia's screenwriter Josh Friedman has just thrown sizeable chunks of undiluted Ellroy onto the screen, creating a lumpy, inconsistent film which gets bogged down in details and never finds a satisfying rhythm. To be fair, the film starts promisingly, with the boxing match organised between detectives 'Bucky' Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) allowing Bucky to ruminate on their first meeting, a meeting which occurred during an skilfully depicted riot. During this flashback we are also introduced to Lee's girlfriend Kay (Scarlett Johansson), a seductive blonde siren, and the trio become seemingly inseparable friends. But when the Elizabeth Short case rears its ugly head, the film quickly has trouble managing the various subplots and ramifications which come with it, and it grows increasingly strained, before slipping into outright hysteria.

The Black Dahlia simply gets lost in a haze of exposition. Friedman tries to compensate by writing a lot of explanatory voiceover for Bucky, but there's far too much of it, and Hartnett's passionless reading quickly grates when it pops up with such frequency. Ellroy's pacing of his story was flawless, allowing his characters and their relationships time to develop while never losing sight of the investigation at the centre of the story, and he times his revelations for maximum impact. But De Palma's film grows more wayward and unsure of itself with every passing minute.

The actors also seem to get lost along the way. Surprisingly, Josh Hartnett actually pulls out a decent performance here; his monotone, straight-up style might not be particularly apt for the constant narration, but it fits the role of Bucky quite nicely, and he manages to give his part much more depth than his usually callow displays have managed. The other performer who stands out is Mia Kirshner who makes brief appearances as Elizabeth Short in brief audition footage and a clip from a porn film she made. Kirshner brings heart and ambiguity to the film, making Short an intriguing and touching character despite her scant screen time. What a shame everyone else shows up with the worst performances they can muster.

Aaron Eckhart can be a witty, effective actor, but here he expresses Lee's increasing obsession and instability by grimacing, shouting and repeatedly throwing things across various rooms; and Scarlett Johansson is woefully miscast as Kay, the supposedly irresistible woman who comes between the two detectives. It's as if De Palma's sole direction to her was "just stand over there and look sexy”, and Johansson responds by pouting, lounging across various pieces of furniture, and standing uneasily in her underwear, all of which is done in as cold and unsexy a manner as you can imagine. She never seems to have a grasp of what function her character is meant to serve, she speaks her lines as if it's her first time reading them, and she doesn't know quite what to do with herself when she's not the focus of the scene. De Palma occasionally occupies her by shoving a cigarette holder in her mouth. He might have taught her how to handle one first.

Hilary Swank also pops up to show that a two-time Oscar winner can gives just as bad a performance as these young bucks, but there's only one actor in The Black Dahlia whose efforts will stick with you when the credits have rolled. Fiona Shaw plays Ramona Linscott, the wife of a rich construction magnate and mother of the character played by Swank, and in her two scenes she offers a performance so over-the-top, so unsuitable, so plain weird, it simply beggars belief. I guess Ramona likes a drink or two, and Shaw stumbles around the set, pulling faces and slurring her words until they become almost unintelligible. Not a single piece of scenery remains unchewed, and Shaw's insane turn throws the whole climax of the film off-kilter. It really is one of the most misguided pieces of acting I've ever seen, and if The Black Dahlia wasn't such a bore I'd almost recommend it for the sheer novelty value of Shaw's circus act.

Alas, it is a terrible bore, and not even De Palma's trademark flashy tricks can liven things up - we get the usual Hitchcock references, we get point-of-view tracking shots, we get depth of field split-screen shots. Intermittently, something will spark, and De Palma does pull off one or two stylistic coups. There's a terrific crane shot which reveals the discovery of Short's body while Bucky and Lee are staking out a place around the corner, and De Palma brings some of that Untouchables/Carlito's Way magic to a well-crafted staircase shoot-out.

The story of The Black Dahlia will continue to intrigue and confound long after this film has been forgotten, and anyone looking for a gripping tale of violence and obsession from Hollywood's seamier side is advised to visit their nearest bookshop instead of their nearest cinema. Brian De Palma's film is cold, limp and forgettable - It's everything James Ellroy's novel isn't.