Lee Marshall in Venice
Dir: Brian De Palma. US.2006. 121mins.
A stylish, steamy genre exercise with a solid castand a cluttered storyline, The BlackDahlia matches director Brian De Palma with hard-boiled LA crime writerJames Ellroy with entertaining, if not whollysatisfying, results.
Working closely withcinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond,set designer Dante Ferretti and composer Mark Isham, De Palma has nailed the queasy, menacing atmosphereof post-war Los Angeles and its obsession with violent death. Some classic DePalma themes - voyeurism, lookalikes, sexual ambivalence, shifting perspectives on the truth - areparaded, ensuring that fans of the love-him-or- hate-him director will be keptbusy with the rewind button when the film comes out on DVD.
But The Black Dahlia lacks the masterful mesh between look, sound,story and character of another 1940s-set Ellroyadaptation, Curtis Hanson's LAConfidential. The smart, noir-literate general audience at which thefeature will have to be pitched in order to recoup its $60m budget may wellwalk away with a sense of sadness at the opportunity missed, despite the solidstar cast. Certainly it will have to work hard if it is to exceed the $126mworldwide gross of LA Confidential.
The Black Dahlia, which opens Venice, plays in the UK and US from Sept 15 (in NorthAmerica it rolls out a week after the not dissimilar Hollywoodland),reaching most international territories during the autumn.
Based on the gruesome,unsolved 1947 murder of aspiring actress Betty Short - akaThe Black Dahlia - De Palma's noirish buddy thrilleris set in a seething, unstable Los Angeles in which the stink of corruptionrises up from the flophouses of the red-light district to lap around themansions of the rich.
The film starts off inpolice buddy mode, filling in the back story of the partnership betweenmuscular LA cops Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) andDwight 'Bucky' Bleichert(Josh Hartnett), who first met in the boxing ring, where their nicknames wereMr Fire and Mr Ice.
Their friendship is sealedduring a stylised streetfight between soldiers andsailors that comes on like Gene Kelly with ultraviolence.Later, it is put to the test when Blanchard introduces his new sidekick to hisglamorous girlfriend, Kay Lake (Johansson), a smart cookie who is not above alittle flirting with her man's best buddy.
When the murder that wouldappear to be essential to the plot finally happens, it does so in thebackground - literally, at the edge of a long crane shot - while Blanchard and Bleichart are busy on another case.
During the ensuinginvestigation, Bleichert finds himself torn betweenhis unconsumed attraction to Kay and his relationship with Madeleine Linscott (Swank), a rich- kid femme fatale and Dahlia lookalike who seems to know more about the murder than sheis giving away.
The Black Dahlia enjoys an intelligently structured screenplay from Josh Friedman (War Of The Worlds),but it often feels like it is running on separate tracks to De Palma'sdirection. Initially the disruption of the crime-investigation-resolutionstructure proves intriguing, but it then risks becoming wearisome, making analready difficult, switchback-laden plot even harder to follow.
Elements of noir and horror,steamy love triangle and grotesque black comedy co-exist all too uneasily. Ifanyone can pull off this kind of genre acrobatics then it's De Palma - but bythe end, The Black Dahlia may leave audiencesslightly resenting his sleight of hand.
Of the players, JoshHartnett delivers an authentic take on what could have been a cliched character, the tough-but-vulnerable cop with aconscience. Scarlett Johansson proves subdued butstill magnetic; Hilary Swank almost plays against type with a performance andHepburn-esque accent that manage to stay the rightside of hammy parody.
Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond is an ableinterpreter of the director's style quirks - like first-person camera anglesand restless, swooping circular and vertical shots (though, as so often with DePalma, there are scenes that would have been just as effective if the camerahad just kept still). Another De Palma trademark - voyeuristic fragments offilm within the film - is neatly gauged, especially in the touchingly patheticscreen tests that give us our only glimpse of Betty Short (played affectinglyby Mia Kirshner) in her pre-mutilation days (thevoice of the cynical off-screen director is De Palma's).
Ferretti and costume designer Jenny Beavanhave a lot of fun with the style vocabulary of 1940s Americana, mixing thefamiliar (trilbies, leather braces, sepia-tinged police HQ scenes, beach cafesright out of an Edward Hopper painting) with less obvious icons of the times,like the linear, modernist suburban home where Lee and Kay shack up.
Mark Isham'sscore segues from taut orchestral tension chords to jazzy, noirishtrumpet and sax mood music as the case requires, and there's an enjoyablemusical interlude featuring chanteuse kd lang in a lesbian nightclub.
Signature Pictures Production
Equity Pictures Medienfonds GmbH & Co. KG III
Nu Image Entertainment GmbH
Signature Pictures International
James B Harris
Josh Friedman, based on a novel by James Ellroy