The Black Dahlia is a neo-Noir film Directed by Brian De Palma and based on the book of the same name by James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential). The film was a critical and commercial failure on its release in 2005 and I first saw it on DVD in about 2007 but on a really small TV in my girlfriend’s university flat. We both fell asleep so didn’t remember much about it. There were two reasons why I wanted to see the movie again. The first was that it was featured in a fantastic Sight & Sound article about post 2000 Noir and the second was Scarlett Johansson. Any excuse to watch one of her films. Having seen it properly now I’ve come to the conclusion that I probably didn’t need to see it again and there’s a reason I didn’t remember much of it. The Black Dahlia is overly confusing and the time I spent trying to piece things together took me away from the plot and the excellent period world that the film created.
Placed shortly after the Second World War in Los Angeles the movie is set around a real life murder case but everything else is fictional. Former boxers turned cops Dwight 'Bucky' Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) take part in a fixed fight which earns everyone in the Department an 8% pay rise. They soon end up as partners and following the grizzly murder of a young wannabe starlet (Mia Kershner) Blanchard begins to obsess about catching the killer, leaving the rest of their work and his girl (Scarlett Johansson) on the outside looking in.
The Black Dahlia is very consciously a Noir piece. The movie is set at the height of Noir cinema and features a voiceover from Josh Hartnett. At times the voiceover reminded me of a hardboiled detective novel but also a little of Sin City. The gruff musings of the central character help to give some direction to the film which is otherwise quite confusing and convoluted. Following the Noir theme there is not one but three femme fetale characters. Scarlett Johansson begins the movie as a saucy, seductive and well dressed woman who goes on to seduce both central characters. Her blonde hair and deep red lipstick also accentuate her golden age looks. The central murder is of an under-age girl, seeking fame who is generally only seen alive in screen test footage. She too has the seductiveness of a typical Noir female and Hillary Swank puts to bed for once and all the ‘Hot or Not’ question as a seductive and dangerous vixen.
In addition to the Noir tropes, the production and set design puts the plot firmly in a believable 1940s Los Angeles which is both beautiful and realistic. I recognised several of the locations and buildings from films of the time and even a bridge from some of Chaplin’s early movies. The set dressing and costumes were all fantastic and the cinematography was perfectly suited to the era. The film’s only Oscar nomination came incidentally in that category. One of my favourite things about The Black Dahlia is the score. Of all of the excellent Noir tropes it is the score which most resembles the films it is impersonating. All the way through I was reminded of the likes of Shadow of a Doubt, White Heat and numerous others. The music here is one of the most impressive homage scores I’ve heard.
My main problem with The Black Dahlia is the confusing plot. I don’t expect a murder mystery to be a simple linear A-C via B and there are occasional twists and surprises but I felt that the plot was muddled and bogged down in confusing dialogue which detracted from the rest of the film. I kept forgetting who people were or where they fitted and characters seemed to come and go inexplicably. Too much is left unexplained and the three way central relationship is given no explanation whatsoever. There is no satisfaction when the final reveal arrives because I was still trying to piece together how we’d got there. It’s a shame because with a more focussed script there was no reason that the movie couldn’t have reached the heights of L.A Confidential. Unlike that film though, the performances are also a mixed bag. Josh Hartnett often feels out of his depth and Aaron Eckhart’s fury and destruction is left pretty much unexplained. As a central duo there is some chemistry but little to hold them together. Scarlett Johansson flutters around in a bit of a daze and ranges from good to really bad but Hillary Swank is very well cast while Mia Kershner steals the show despite only being on screen for maybe ten minutes.
Overall The Black Dahlia is a bit of a mess. There is potential for something much better but casting, acting and plot detract from a fantastically recreated Noir world. Brian De Palma obviously has a lot of love for the period and setting but never gets to grips with bringing it altogether and the film suffers from uncertainty and flabbiness from which it doesn’t recover before its final act. The film is like a photo of a tasty looking meal. It looks great but you’re not going to get anything else out of it.
- The film was originally going to be a three hour black and white movie Directed by David Fincher. Fincher also considered making it as a TV miniseries.
- Gwen Stefani was considered for the role of Kay which luckily went to Johansson instead.
- The initial cut ran for three hours but was trimmed to just under two for the film's theatrical release.