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Hollywood Murder?: Brian De Palma guillotines tragic story of ‘The Black Dahlia’

Jennifer Dawn Hopkins | Friday, September 29, 2006

The story of the Black Dahlia is the stuff Hollywood dreams are made of. Brian De Palma’s telling of the tale, however, is the stuff Hollywood nightmares are made of.

The story of Elizabeth Short, a pinup girl found gruesomely murdered and bisected, provides more than adequate potential to be transformed into an artsy masterpiece that would unite the lovers of film noir and CSI alike. The star-studded cast promised talent, or – at the very least – two solid hours of pleasing eye-candy. The failure of the film to deliver on all fronts is, then, almost as shrouded in mystery as the murder itself.

The viewers who anticipate seeing the events of Elizabeth Short’s grisly murder unfold will leave the theater knowing less than before. The plot follows the personal story of every possible character, branching off in so many directions the viewer is lost in a maze of story lines that tries entirely too hard to be full of intrigue. Any identifiable point of the film is lost and the viewer is left wondering who – or even what – the film was about in the first place.

The film begins reminiscent of a bad black and white detective story and is never able to climb out of that clichéd mindset. The dialogue is uncomfortable and tries to cram in 1940s colloquialisms at the expense of any explanation of character background or motivation. Detective Bucky Bleichert’s (Josh Hartnett)’s attempts to explain relevant background information through voiceover are unhelpful. There is no performance to fall back on, no standout actor that delivers a believable, deep and meaningful character. Even Scarlett Johansson’s sex appeal seems forced – a feat once considered utterly impossible.

The one interesting character is the only non-living character in the film. Elizabeth Short (Mia Krishner) is the only one that seems motivated in her actions, which include getting herself killed. Detective Lee Blanchard’s (Aaron Eckhart) obsession with the Black Dahlia, on the other hand, is sudden and unmotivated, causing a character so internally contrasting that it is no loss to the story when he, and his unnecessary drama, die in an equally unnecessarily bloody scene.

Near the end of the film, De Palma seems to remember that the film is supposed to be about the most notorious murder in California, and attempts to makeup for the previous lack of grisly details with some uncomfortably long adult video clips and a murder flashback that makes even the most seasoned Nip/Tuck veterans look away in disgust. In the last five minutes of the film – and with the help of the trusty montage – De Palma tries to tie all of the loose ends into a neat package that gives closure to this most notorious of cases.

By solving the crime, De Palma essentially takes away the heart of the mystery surrounding the case, an act that would be excusable if the solution was remotely motivated or even interesting. Instead, we are presented with a suspect out of left field, an unconvincing and – if possible – more confusing explanation that somehow motivates Bucky to right the rest of the wrongs in the world, most of which have nothing at all to do with any aspect of the Black Dahlia case.

“The Black Dahlia” attempts to cover far too many plotlines in far too little detail, and De Palma fails to convey the notoriety of the case that has stunned California for generations.