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Overall Rating

Awesome: 11.7%
Worth A Look: 20.21%
Just Average: 9.57%
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6 reviews, 58 user ratings

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Black Dahlia, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Brian De Palma Is Once Again A Cut Above The Rest"
5 stars

When I first heard the news that “The Black Dahlia,” James Ellroy’s 1987 best-seller inspired by the 1947 murder that lives on in the collective memory to this day due to the sheer brutality of the crime and the fact that it remains unsolved to this day, was going to be brought to the screen by Brian De Palma, I have to admit to some mixed feelings about the project. On the one hand, De Palma, to my mind, remains one of the most striking and dynamic American filmmakers working today and the idea of him tackling a book chock-full of the very elements that have driven many of his best films (voyeurism, lurid sexuality and morally ambiguous characters who are driven to distraction by their obsessions and who wind up paying a heavy psychological price) sounded like a match made in heaven. On the other hand, De Palma, as even his detractors will admit, is primarily a visual stylist whose best films are symphonies of sound and vision intricately pieced together with clockwork precision while Ellroy is one of those writers whose genius lies not in his narrative structure (though that aspect is not to be ignored) but in the way that he uses his voice as a writer to conjure up intricately detailed characters and environments with nothing more than a few well-chosen words. Capturing the voice of a distinctive writer in cinematic terms is a difficult chore for even the most skilled filmmaker and the last time that De Palma tried it himself, the result was “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” a film which isn’t quite as bad as its reputation suggests but one that certainly never came close to capturing any of what Tom Wolfe put on the page. Luckily for all involved, the pairing of De Palma & Ellroy turns out to have been a far more fruitful endeavor for all involved and the resulting film is a real knockout–a great-looking neo-noir gem that shows off their respective talents in ways that will surely dazzle even the most jaded of viewers.

Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart star as Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, a pair of L.A. cops who meet while trying to restore order during a riot and who bond when they are thrown together in a charity boxing match that has been cynically designed to promote goodwill just before a bond issue involving pay raises goes before the public. (The fight turns out to be fixed, a revelation whose ironies will multiply as the story unwinds.) The bond passes and Bucky and Lee, the new glamour boys of the department, are transferred from warrants to homicide. After hours, they hang out with Kay (Scarlett Johansson), a small-town girl who Lee saved from a bad situation and made his girlfriend, and form an oddly friendly trio. Some viewers may question the relevance of this section of the film, which takes up roughly the first 30 minutes, and look at it as little more than “Jules & Jim” with fedoras. It does seem odd at first by De Palma and screenwriter Josh Friedman are quietly and effectively laying down a lot of character-related material that will pay off in spades later on.

While cleaning up after a stakeout that ends in a hail of gunfire and several dead bodies, Bucky and Lee become aware of another, bigger crime scene just across the way–the discovery of the bisected nude body of a young woman has been drained of all her blood and major internal organs and had her mouth slit from ear to ear into a hideous grin. (Generally never one to shy away from depicting violence performed on women, De Palma wittily handles this revelation not be offering a lurid close-up of the corpse, which would be expected, but by having a cop dryly reciting the damage with the looks on the faces of his colleagues telling the rest of the story.) Bucky looks at it as just another dead girl and wants to get back to more pressing concerns, such as a known rapist/killer thought to be on the prowl, but something about the sight of the woman, reveled to be party girl/failed actress Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), throws a switch in Lee and he gets the two of them assigned to the case. Before long, Lee becomes obsessed with the case to such a degree that it begins to frighten both Kay and Bucky. On his end, Bucky pursues leads that take him on a convoluted journey through the lesbian underground of mid-1940's Los Angeles that brings him to Madeline Linscott (Hilary Swank), the rich daughter of a corrupt businessman who bears more than a passing resemblance to Elizabeth and who may or may not have had some past associations with her.

In recent years, many filmmakers have offered their own takes on film noir–the most notable being “L.A. Confidential,” Curtis Hanson’s 1997 adaptation of another James Ellroy book–but in “The Black Dahlia,” De Palma offers a unique approach to the genre that sets it apart from other such films. Instead of giving the material a realistic feel of the kind seen in such films as “L.A. Confidential” or “Chinatown,” De Palma instead offers a frankly stylized vision that goes to great lengths to recreate the look and feel of the old classics to such a degree that it feels less like an homage to the genre and more like an authentic example. (The only drawback is that while the film has been gorgeously shot by longtime De Palma collaborator Vilmos Zsigmond, it has been shot in color even though it is a story that fairly screams out to be told in black-and-white.) Beyond simply working as a thing of ravishing beauty, this approach allows the scenes in which we are allowed to see and hear the things that could only be hinted at in the days of the Production Code (a bloody tooth landing on a scorecard during a boxing match and the exact details of a stag film that Elizabeth shot that becomes a key clue) to have more of an immediate impact than they might have otherwise.

At the same time, De Palma never lets the look of the film get in the way of the other ingredients. While it has necessarily been slimmed down to fit within the confines of a two-hour movie, the story is a complex and twisty gem that manages to play fair with viewers without dumbing the material down. (Yes, this is one of those movies where you actually have to pay attention to the screen instead of yammering on your cell phone.) Even the scenes in the film that might have stymied other directors–such as a bit where Bucky finds himself having dinner with Madeline’s decidedly odd family and the climax in which everything is more or less explained in a torrent of exposition–come off well here because De Palma has found intriguing ways of approaching them. (The dinner scene in particular is a little masterpiece of weirdo black comedy that also serves as a sly homage to one of the all-time noir greats, Howard Hawks’s “The Big Sleep.”)

The performances, while just as stylized as everything else in the film, are among the better ones that have been seen in De Palma’s filmography. Some have criticized the mere presence of Josh Hartnett and while he may look a little too baby-faced for the part of Bucky, he does a good job of playing an essentially decent guy in an environment where such a quality is considered a liability instead of an asset. Eckhart is also strong in his portrayal of a man helplessly trapped in the grips of a obsession that he cannot possibly overcome and Johansson and Swank both contribute memorably sexy turns as the women in the lives of Bucky and Lee. I also liked the brief, spiky appearances from Fiona Shaw (as Madeline’s addled mother) and Rose McGowan (as another would-be starlet) but the best performance in the film comes from Mia Kirshner as the girl whose corpse sets everything in motion. This is especially remarkable because we only see her alive in a few brief clips of a screen test that she shot before she died (in an in-joke, the man playing the director whose voice we hear cajoling her throughout the test is none other than De Palma himself) but in those images, she not only delivers a very good performance as a very bad actress but allows us to get an actual sense of what the real Short might have been like beyond the familiar photographs and headlines.

“The Black Dahlia” is a great film and if it does anything, I hope that it will remind other just what a powerful director Brian De Palma can be when he is firing on all cylinders. Although it may lack the manic invention of such masterworks as “Blow Out” or “Femme Fatale,” the craftsmanship and attention to narrative detail may come as a shock to those short-sighted critics and audiences who have unfairly dismissed him over the years as a hack who has the visual skills but who couldn’t tell a simple story to save his life. Here, he tells a staggeringly complex story in a straightforward manner that will have even the most dedicated naysayers grudgingly admit at a certain point that they guy can indeed tell a story without any of his violent, go-for-baroque set-pieces. (Of course, sly devil that De Palma is, it is at that very point that he springs on them one of the best violent, go-for-baroque set-pieces of his entire career.) In the hands of an ordinary filmmaker, “The Black Dahlia” might have been an intriguing film noir fantasy that probably would have faded from mind fairly quickly. Thanks to De Palma, it has been transformed into a grisly work of art as gruesomely haunting as the murder it chronicles.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15241&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/15/06 00:26:58
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User Comments

9/16/17 morris campbell decent no more no less 3 stars
3/01/14 matthew thompson dalldorf Quite possible the most underrated movie of the last decade. 5 stars
2/03/11 jan laclede I didn't understand it. 2 stars
2/09/10 art AN EXCELLENT MURDER-MYSTERY!,it was a HUNDRED times better than HOLLYwoodland! 5 stars
1/24/10 Chad Dillon Cooper Lame lame and more lame. 1 stars
12/31/09 Dane Youssef Breathtakingly beautiful to look at, fine cast, spinning plot. But chokes at the end. 3 stars
1/16/09 Aesop Brian DePalma should be sentenced to watch this over and over for eternity. 1 stars
8/27/08 Shaun Wallner Bloody Boring!!! 1 stars
3/18/08 Jack Sommersby Unfathomably boring, with uninteresting characters & sluggish narrative drive. 1 stars
2/20/08 Servo A wasted opportunity. See LA Confidential for Ellroy done justice. 2 stars
10/24/07 Ivana Mann This movie spit and danced on Noir's grave.What a travesty of filmmaking! 1 stars
9/25/07 jwallace intriguing, had no idea swank was so hot! 5 stars
7/18/07 then came bronson thanks posters for sparing me from watching this movie. I had a hunch it would be bad but i 1 stars
5/29/07 Piz Tons of potential but very flat and disengaging 2 stars
5/29/07 Dave horrible movie 1 stars
4/26/07 Heather Schroeder A obsene attack on your senses - not in a good way 1 stars
3/26/07 Irene Diaz Bored me to death at times, pointless. 2 stars
3/10/07 dmitry Aside from Mia Kirshner, a total disaster and an insult to great writer's work 1 stars
2/18/07 Austin Wertman really terrible 1 stars
12/28/06 Jeff Anderson Great looking, but empty & uneven. However, Mia Kirshner is terrific as Elizabeth Short! 2 stars
12/07/06 Angel Chavez Terrible movie. If I wanted to watch a gory movie, I would have watched SAW. 1 stars
10/18/06 teegee Horrible - DePalma should have just gone for camp and parody; he's already halfway there. 1 stars
10/16/06 William Goss Dramatically inert; borderline campy; convoluted, but not compelling. Props to screwy Shaw. 2 stars
10/12/06 John I would crap on De Palma's face for making this piece of garbage 1 stars
10/06/06 Michael Coovert Just ho hum; I expected much more; did not ive up to the hype 3 stars
10/05/06 Hart I slpet through it - I WANT MY MONEY BACK... 1 stars
9/30/06 D.D. What a mess! How did it get released? 1 stars
9/29/06 RobD Terrible beyond belief. 1 stars
9/27/06 Raj I walked out! Maybe I thought it would be like 'LA Confidential'. This is another turkey! 1 stars
9/25/06 Volpone Horrible, horrible, horrible. Unbelievably bad. Don't waste your time or money. 1 stars
9/24/06 Robert laughably bad 1 stars
9/23/06 Mohobbit Bizarre,makes up a solution to an UNSOLVED case.Di Palma can make a bomb too. 2 stars
9/22/06 J.C. If there were an award for the film of the year- This one wins heads up!! 1 stars
9/22/06 Agent Sands Rather than a theory on a celebrity death like Hollywoodland, it takes full dramatic licens 4 stars
9/21/06 Greg It sucked, i walked out along with 10 other people 1 stars
9/20/06 Brian D. Kendall Stylish & very character driven. Dahlia buffs will miss horrific feel of Ellroy's book. 4 stars
9/20/06 jcjs liked as much as 'Sin City', masterpiece, 2 walked ouit, gees..some Golden Globe, Mia K. 5 stars
9/20/06 Rick Villafana If I could give it an F minus, I would 1 stars
9/18/06 lenny martin This was not a good movie, over-rated and boring to watch. 2 stars
9/18/06 -leslie.- It never quite gelled. Visually beautiful, very confusing 1 stars
9/17/06 Mike Flawed but entertainingly old-fashioned; good performances and great visual achievement 4 stars
9/17/06 JohnW Appallingly boring and simple. Don't waste your money or time. 1 stars
9/17/06 ahnold Stupid. Convoluted. Bad Acting. Walked out on it. 1 stars
9/17/06 Brian A Jumbled mess of a film. Don't bother 1 stars
9/16/06 Chris It sucked. Even the rubber autopsy dummy is sorry she was in this one! 1 stars
9/16/06 Mark Bad script and acting but it looks good 2 stars
9/16/06 Rainer absolutely a rediculous film. Perhaps the worst direction every, hysterical 1 stars
9/16/06 Jess Thought it was quite good. 4 stars
9/16/06 Charlie Stella Garbage ... pure garbage. BIG disappointment 1 stars
9/16/06 Kris Quite possibly the worst film ever made! Pathetic waste of a good cast and subject matter! 1 stars
9/16/06 Gina This movie was about the lives of 2 ex boxers now cops not the murder of Elizabeth Short. 2 stars
9/16/06 Sara I have nothing good to say about this film, it was awful 1 stars
9/16/06 bobbi if you've never read the novel, you'll like the plot, otherwise slightly boring 4 stars
9/16/06 maria teresa lewis entertaining nothing great 4 stars
9/15/06 king richard Great homage to noirs of the past. 5 stars
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  15-Sep-2006 (R)
  DVD: 26-Dec-2006



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