“The Black Dahlia” is based on James Ellroy’s fictional novel, which is inspired by the real-life murder of Elizabeth Short. In the 1940s, Short was a young starlet wannabe trying to break into Hollywood. Alas, the elusive fame would be in her grasp once she was dead. Her corpse, found in a vacant lot, was abused, disemboweled, and mutilated. To this very day, the identity of her killer is a mystery.
In the fictionalized version, there are two male characters caught up in the investigation: Bucky Bleichert (Josh Harnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). Both men are Warrants Squad cops, friends, and might be rivals in love with the same woman (Scarlett Johansson). As complicated as their relationship might be, their involvement with the Dahlia case would even twist them closer to hell. Friendship and love begin to expire. Secret agendas are buried. And amidst all this, the ghost of Elizabeth haunts, while obsessions and madness possess them.
Having read it just last year, I am a huge fan of Ellroy’s phenomenal book. I highly recommend it, assuming that some of you actually read for fun. Ellroy is such a masterful novelist who likes to run parallel stories and then intersect them in fascinating ways. I had a lot of fun watching the movie, mainly because I’m already informed of where the crazy plot was heading to. I knew the little answers the movie’s been trying to hide and the little important clues that appear meaningless. I also got a kick out of meeting these characters again. Although they’re not who I imagined, it’s touching to see them come alive and share in their troubles once again. Having read the novel though doesn’t really make me immune from surprises. The adapted screenplay varies from the novel, especially towards the end. I suspect this is because of economical and time length issues. There’s one crazy twist that doesn’t sit well with me, but I think I’ll just label that as a quibble.
The movie has an average cast. Josh Harnett is a capable actor as Bucky, but one can’t help if another actor with brooding weight could have done better. Aaron Eckhart, on the other hand, was just superb in a simmering performance as Lee. As for the roles of romantic interests, Scarlett Johansson and Hillary Swank deliver contrasting performances. The former appears stiff sometimes, while the latter overacts in few scenes. To me, the real actress to marvel is Mia Kirshner, who achingly comes alive as the tortured Elizabeth Short. Her scenes are few in black and white reel clips, but they standout. Brian De Palma has always been a skilled visual director to me. The look of this movie is scrumptious and some scenes are just amazingly constructed. The long-track shots, the play of shadows, and the noir visuals are very alluring to watch. However, there’s a ghost that haunts the movie, and it isn’t just Elizabeth Short. It’s “L.A. Confidential,” another film based on a James Ellroy novel. It’s a reminder that while “The Black Dahlia” is an accomplished film, it remotely falls short of that 1997 film’s greatness.
Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw, and Patrick Fischler
Based on the novel by
Brian De Palma
Rated R for strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content and language