The young, dark-haired ingenue stares out from the frames of a flickering, black-and-white screen test; there is something fragile about her even as she plies her seductive charms. In a breathy whisper, she tells the off-screen director that she’s a master at foreign accents, though surely he couldn’t expect her to do one of them on the spot. But she will do her Scarlett O’Hara for him, just like she did once for “Mr. Selznick,” who’s been ever so kind to her. The woman on screen is one Elizabeth “Betty” Short, and while she wasn’t the first small-town tumbleweed to blow into Hollywood seeking movie-star romance and fame, the Hyde Park, Massachusetts, native would pay for her naiveté in a particularly brutal way. On January 15, 1947, her bisected, disemboweled body was found in a vacant lot on Norton Avenue. Betty Short had been “discovered” at last, and the legend of the Black Dahlia was born.
The lurid appeal of Short’s murder was instant and lasting. Immediately, rumors — most of them later disproved — circulated that she was a high-priced call girl who trafficked in industry circles, or perhaps she was the pregnant mistress of Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler. Woody Guthrie, Orson Welles, Bugsy Siegel and a host of prominent L.A. surgeons ranked among the official and unofficial suspects. Dozens of other men (and a few women) falsely confessed. And in the six decades since, the still-unsolved crime has provided the impetus for video games, musical compositions and no fewer than a dozen books (two of them by authors who finger their respective fathers as Short’s killer). Now The BlackDahlia is a movie based on a novel by that scion of L.A. crime fiction, James Ellroy, and directed by that perverted genius of American suspense cinema, Brian De Palma — two artists who are no strangers to dangerous women, the men who love them and the vast conspiracies that threaten to consume them all.
It’s an ideal match of director, writer and subject, and The Black Dahlia has so many of the right moves, you wish the whole thing were better. Shooting almost entirely on soundstages in Sofia, Bulgaria, De Palma (with the invaluable aid of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and production designer Dante Ferretti) has conjured a scintillating fever dream of bygone Los Angeles, opening on Zoot Suit rioters spilling out onto Soto Street — all in one elaborate tracking shot, of course — and climaxing in the shadows of Mack Sennett’s ill-fated Hollywoodland development. The brassy, Elmer Bernstein–ish score by Mark Isham further adds to the period flavor. And the movie is rife with energetic De Palma set pieces, from an early boxing sequence that’s all lyrical superimpositions and lap dissolves to the spectacular introduction of a lesbian night club where Short look-alikes make bedroom eyes while k.d. lang sings “Love for Sale” flanked by the butchest chorus girls this side of Weimar Berlin.
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Now for the bad news: Despite its title, The Black Dahlia is less about Short (very well played by Canadian actress Mia Kirshner, who appears only in flashbacks) than about how her death spurs a crisis in the lives of two LAPD officers and the beautiful-but-dangerous woman who comes between them. It’s essentially the same formula Ellroy deployed to fine effect in L.A. Confidential, where a similar romantic triangle foregrounded another sprawling mystery story. Only here, instead of Guy Pearce or Russell Crowe, we get Josh Hartnett — in what ranks as one of the most head-scratching casting boondoggles since John Wayne played Genghis Khan — as Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert, a quiet “good cop” who finds himself partnered on the Dahlia case with the boisterous, devil-may-care detective Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). When Bucky starts falling for Lee’s live-in girlfriend, Kay (Scarlett Johansson), Blanchard scarcely notices, so consumed — for reasons the movie never makes clear — has he become by the search for Short’s killer.
No matter the offscreen sparks that reportedly flew between Hartnett and Johansson, we scarcely believe Bucky as a rival for Kay’s affections, because the mumbly, terminally boyish Hartnett is so wholly unconvincing as a grown-up — let alone a rough-and-tumble 1940s prole — that he’s like an acting student who stumbled into a costume warehouse and thought it would be cool to dress up as Sam Spade for a while. And when he has to deliver one of Ellroy’s hard-boiled lines, like “Who are these people who feed on others?” it’s downright laughable. Nor is Johansson (despite still looking like sex incarnate) particularly better, delivering all her dialogue in the same breathy-voiced huff and seeming a far less fatale femme than she did in Woody Allen’s Match Point. Their scenes together grind The Black Dahlia to a halt in a way that all the brilliant stylistic touches in the world can’t reverse.
Fortunately, De Palma has one last stiletto up his sleeve. As the brunette seductress Madeleine Linscott, a privileged society girl who knew Short and bears more than a passing resemblance to her, Hilary Swank is the one performer in The Black Dahlia who seems to have walked right out of a 1940s noir: It’s the first role in which the actress seems radiantly sexy and dangerous — neither a gender-bending tomboy nor a costumed glamour queen, but a woman who can say to a guy, “So, what do I need to do to keep my name out of the papers?” and immediately know she has him in the palm of her hand. Eventually, Linscott will lead Bucky to the truth — at least, Ellroy’s version of it — about the Dahlia and, with it, a torrent of third-act plot exposition that took me a second viewing to fully sort out. (Besides, who wants resolution in a movie about one of history’s greatest unsolved murder mysteries?) But Swank’s character and her performance are good enough to merit a movie of their own, instead of serving as fourth wheel to this lifeless ménage à trois.
THE BLACK DAHLIA | Directed by BRIAN DE PALMA | Written by JOSH FRIEDMAN, based on a novel by JAMES ELLROY | Produced by ART LINSON, AVI LERNER, MOSHE DIAMANT and RUDY COHEN | Released by Universal Pictures | Citywide