"THE BLACK DAHLIA" (2006) Review
Judging from the reactions among moviegoers, it seemed quite obvious that director Brian DePalma’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1987 novel had disappointed them. The ironic thing is that I do not share their feelings.
A good number of people – including a relative of mine – have told me that they had expected "THE BLACK DAHLIA" to be a docudrama of the infamous 1947 murder case. Others had expected the movie to be an epic-style crime drama similar to the 1997 Academy Award winning film, "L.A. CONFIDENTIAL" - another Ellroy adaptation. ”THE BLACK DAHLIA” proved to be neither for many fans. For me, it turned out to be an entertaining and solid film noir that I enjoyed.
Told from the point-of-view of Los Angeles Police detective Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Harnett), ”THE BLACK DAHLIA” told the story of how the January 1947 murder of Hollywood star wannabe, Elizabeth Short aka “The Black Dahlia” (Mia Kershner) affected Bleichert’s life and the lives of others close to him – especially his partner, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). The story began over three years before Short’s murder when Bleichert saved Blanchard’s life during the Zoot Riots in 1943. After World War II, the pair (who also happened to be celebrated local boxers) participated in an inter-departmental boxing match to help raise support for a political bond issue that will increase pay for the LAPD, but with a slight tax increase. Although Bleichert lost the match, both he and Blanchard are rewarded by Assistant District Attorney Ellis Loew (Patrick Fischler) with promotions and transfers to the Warrants Department and the pair became partners. Bleichert not only became partners and friends with Blanchard, he also became acquainted with Blanchard’s live-in girlfriend, a former prostitute and artist named Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). Although Bleichert fell in love with Kay, he kept his feelings to himself, due to his relationship with Blanchard. Thanks to Blanchard’s penchant for publicity, the two partners eventually participated in the murder investigation of Elizabeth Short (nicknamed the Black Dahlia). The case not only led the pair to a rich young playgirl named Madeleine Linscott (Hillary Swank) and her family, but also into a world of prostitution, pornography, lesbian nightclubs and the dark underbelly of Hollywood life.
Written by James Ellroy and originally published in 1987, ”The Black Dahlia” became the first of four novels about the Los Angeles Police Department in the post-World War II era (”L.A. Confidential” was the third in the quartet). In my opinion, it was the best in Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet. I believe that it translated quite well to the movie screen, thanks to DePalma’s direction and Josh Friedman’s screenplay. Like the movie ”L.A. CONFIDENTIAL”, ”THE BLACK DAHLIA” turned out to be superior to its literary version. Not only did DePalma and Friedman’s screenplay recapture the ambiance of the novel’s characters and 1940s Los Angeles setting, the plot turned out to be an improvement over the novel. Especially over the latter’s chaotic finale. Despite the improvement, ”THE BLACK DAHLIA” never achieved the epic style and quality of ”L.A. CONFIDENTIAL”. If I must be frank, I really do not care. Movies like the 1997 Oscar winner are rare occurrences of near perfect quality. Just because ”THE BLACK DAHLIA” was another film adaptation of an Ellroy novel, did not mean that I had expected it to become another ”L.A. CONFIDENTIAL”.
Mark Isham’s score for the film did not turn out to be that memorable to me. All I can say is that I am grateful that he did not attempt a remake of Jerry Goldsmith’s scores for ”L.A. CONFIDENTIAL” and ”CHINATOWN”. On the other hand, I was very impressed with Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography for the film. One sequence stood out for me – namely the overhead shot that featured the discovery of Elizabeth Short’s dead body in the Leimert Park neighborhood in Los Angeles. Ironically, part of the movie was shot in Sofia, Bulgaria substituting as 1946-47 Los Angeles. Production Designer Dante Ferretti and Art Director Christopher Tandon did a solid job in disguising Sofia as Los Angeles. But there were a few times when the City of Angels seemed like it was located on the East Coast. And I could spot a few palm trees that definitely looked false. However, I really loved the set designs for Kay’s home and the lesbian nightclub where Bleichert first met Madeline. I loved Jenny Beavan’s costume designs for the film. She did an excellent job of recapturing the clothing styles of the mid-to-late 1940s and designing clothes for particular characters.
One of the movie’s best strengths turned out to be its very interesting characters and the cast of actors that portrayed them. Characters that included the ambitious and sometimes malevolent ADA Ellis Loew, portrayed with great intensity by Patrick Fischler; Rose McGowan’s bitchy and shallow Hollywood landlady/movie extra; Elizabeth Short’s frank and crude father Cleo Short (Kevin Dunn); Mike Starr’s solid portrayal of Bleichert and Blanchard’s immediate supervisor Russ Millard; and Lorna Mertz, the young Hollywood prostitute portrayed memorably by Jemima Rooper. John Kavanagh and Fiona Shaw portrayed Madeline Linscott’s parents – a Scottish-born real estate magnate and his alcoholic California society wife. Kavanagh was charming and fun in a slightly corrupt manner, but Shaw hammed it up in grand style as the alcoholic Ramona Linscott. I doubt that a lesser actress could have pulled off such a performance.
Not only were the supporting characters memorable, so were the leading characters, thanks to the performances of the actors and actresses that portrayed them. I was very impressed by Mia Kershner’s portrayal of the doomed Elizabeth Short. She managed to skillfully conveyed Short’s desperation and eagerness to become a Hollywood movie star in flashbacks shown in the form of black-and-white audition clips and a pornographic film clip. At first, I found Scarlett Johansson as slightly too young for the role of Kay Lake, the former prostitute and artist that both Bleichert and Blanchard loved. She seemed a bit out of her depth, especially when she used a cigarette holder to convey her character’s sophistication. Fortunately, Johansson had ditched the cigarette holder and Kay’s so-called sophistication and portrayed the character as a warm and pragmatic woman, who turned out to be more emotionally mature than the other characters. I found Aaron Eckhart’s performance as the passionate, yet calculating Lee Blanchard great fun to watch. He seemed funny, sharp, verbose, passionate and rather manic all at once. There were times when his character’s growing obsession toward the Black Dahlia case seemed to border on histrionics. But in the end, Eckhart managed to keep it all together. Another performance I truly enjoyed was Hillary Swank’s portrayal of the sensual, rich playgirl Madeline Linscott. Just by watching Swank on screen, I got the impression that the actress had enjoyed herself playing Madeline. I know I had a ball watching her reveal the charming, yet dark facets of this interesting character.
Ellroy’s novel had been written in the first person – from the viewpoint of LAPD detective, Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert. Which meant that the entire movie had to focus around the actor who portrayed Bleichert. I once heard a rumor that Josh Harnett became interested in the role before casting for the movie actually began. In the end, many critics had either dismissed Hartnett’s performance or judged him incapable of portraying a complex character. Personally, I found their opinions hard – even impossible – to accept. For me, Harnett did not merely give a first-rate performance. He ”was” Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert. One must understand that Bleichert was a difficult role for any actor – especially a non-showy role that also had to keep the story together. Throughout the movie, Harnett, DePalma’s direction and Friedman’s script managed to convey the many complexities of Bleichert’s personality without being overtly dramatic about it. After all, Dwight was basically a quiet and subtle character. Harnett portrayed the character’s growing obsession with both the Black Dahlia case and Madeline Linscott without the manic and abrupt manner that seemed to mark Blanchard’s obsession. You know what? I really wish I could say more about Harnett’s performance. But what else can I say? He perfectly hit every nuance of Bleichert’s personality. I personally believe that Dwight Bleichert might be his best role to date.
I wish I could explain or even understand why ”THE BLACK DAHLIA” had flopped at the box office. Some have complained that the film had failed to match the epic qualities of ”L.A. CONFIDENTIAL”. Others have complained that it failed as a docudrama that would solve the true life murder of Elizabeth Short. And there have been complaints that Brian DePalma’s editing of a film that was originally three hours ruined it. I had never expected the movie to become another ”L.A. CONFIDENTIAL” (which did a mediocre job at the box office) – a rare case of near Hollywood perfection. I really do not see how a three hour running time would have helped ”THE BLACK DAHLIA”. It was a complex story, but not as much as the 1997 film. Hell, the novel was more straightforward than the literary L.A. Confidential”. And since the Hollywood publicity machine had made it clear that the movie was a direct adaptation of the novel, I found the argument that ”THE BLACK DAHLIA” should have been a docudrama that would solve Short’s murder rather ludicrous. Since I had read the novel back in the late 90s, I simply found myself wondering how DePalma would translate it to the movie screen.
In the end, I found myself more than satisfied with ”THE BLACK DAHLIA”. It possessed a first-rate cast led by a superb performance from Josh Harnett. Screenwriter Josh Friedman’s screenplay turned out to be a solid job that slightly improved Ellroy’s novel – especially the finale. And director Brian DePalma did an excellent job of putting it all together. I highly recommend it – if one does not harbor any high expectations.