The Black Dahlia
by James Ellroy
"The Black Dahlia"
Is it possible for the style of a movie to distract you from comprehending it? That's not quite my case here, but the sheer noirish saturation of this film in all its visual triumph is a profound element that could account for some loss of comprehension. Or, it could be accounted for by the sheer number of characters who play relatively submerged parts in the drama but vitally crucial ones in the mystery. You don't want to miss a word or a name but, if I'm any example, you're likely to.
Maybe it's the pacing. Director Brian de Palma does seem to be determined to set some kind of track record for the testosterone fueled pacing that is as much a challenge to taking it all in properly as it is energetic.
To begin with, two detectives in the LAPD of the 1940's become partners because of their backgrounds in the boxing world. Concerned over a bond issue that affects the police department, their bosses create a highly publicized ring matchup between the two in order to give Los Angeles voters a reason to vote yes and assume the tax burden. In true Hollywood-hero style, Leland "Lee" Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) is dubbed "Fire," with Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) playing the ring role of "Ice."
It's fixed from the start, with Lee the chosen hero. Both men understand and agree to the predetermined outcome, but not without Bucky showing what he can really do by nearly knocking his future partner to the matte for an 8 count and nearly upsetting a few political hardnoses who probably had bets in place.
On the private side, Lee introduces his new partner to his girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson) and a triangular, apparently platonic relationship is formed that all three find perfectly all right... until it isn't.
Of the two cops, Lee is the loose cannon, seemingly impelled by some inner aggression even as he demonstrates the kind of absolute loyalty that commands gratitude and respect from his friends and colleagues. In a surveillance, he tends to be trigger happy but the reasons for all this anger and not too well masked animosity toward the criminal breed is a mystery unto itself. All Bucky knows is that his partner poses an uneasy danger.
This explodes into reality when Lee shoots a suspect who shows up at a seamy hideout they've been watching, setting off a shootout that ends with the entire gang either arrested or dead. Actually, only one arrested.
Fire and Ice get the case and quickly identify the corpse as Betty Short (Mia Kirshner), a striving actress who may have fallen into the porno trade and the private interests of a "benefactor" who may be more victimizing than beneficial. We see the film product of this mystery man's camerawork and manipulative dialogue from behind the camera as Bucky plays the lengthy interviews the strange man conducted with his striving, off beat, and vulnerable subject. The man's off screen dialogue is not that of a real director--rather of a private citizen getting his rocks off with a desperate girl. (The voice for this was, in fact, furnished by director de Palma).
Mixing into this primary case is the imminent release from prison of a criminal Lee captured some years ago who not only left his mark on Kay, but would be likely, in Lee's increasingly paranoid conviction, to be planning to look her up again. With this fear chewing on his mind, Lee appears to be going off a deep edge as Bucky's investigation into Betty Short's life leads to a lesbian connection and to the very rich Madeleine Linscott (hotly defined by Ms Hilary Swank).
Ms. Linscott, her very rich daddy and somewhat demented mother become major figures in the case as she brings her now favorite homicide investigator into the family fold with seduction in mind. Detective Bucky Bleichert is, after all, a very hunky guy. And, things, as difficult as they are to pull together, aren't exactly as presented.
Josh Hartnett has movie star written all over him, with his Gary Cooper solidity, and this role probably demonstrates the quality to its most pronounced degree to date, although it was in evidence as far back as 2001's "Pearl Harbor." Of the two detectives, Hartnett is the heart of the story as he sensitively pursues the strands of multiple complexities in an admirable, if not quite commanding steadiness.
Hartnett's forerunners in similar Dashiell Hammett type circumstances -- guys like Humphrey Bogart, Jack Nicholson and Robert Mitchum -- create a very stylishly tough standard to live up to. But, the boy has presence... and, potential. Females in the audience are not likely to want to take their eyes off of him and his superb wardrobe gives the guys something to admire.
Aaron Eckhardt is powerful and creates a psychological imbalance that works to good credit in providing and increasing the tensions.
As for keeping one's eyes off, I could look at Swank's face for the balance of the millenium, and she does fine justice to her role as rich vixen. In the case of Johansson, a lady for whom I might say the same for her visual properties, the role is an enigma and all her attributes of acting skill and screen command could barely do more than suggest emotion deriving from unexplained sources. Don't blame her for a lack of substance.
Though the story purports to be linear, it doesn't come off that way. There are more false leads here than in a trail of fool's gold, and it's hard to know where our primary interests and the payoffs for our expectations should lie or eventually be found. The returning criminal element mucks up the trail good and, despite its payoff, it's difficult to know what the creation of this creature was meant to do as a function in the story. A clue to that is probably to be found in James Ellroy's book, on which the movie is somewhat raggedly based.
But the visual style is masterful and is the triumph of this period resurrection. One contributor who got all the qualities right from his perspective is cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond ("The Deer Hunter") and what he brings to the mystery is a suffusion of noir atmosphere. It is nothing less than a major reason to see the film. It's also a major probability for a Best Cinematography nomination come Oscar time. You heard it here.
The visual department is highly indebted as well to Dante Ferretti's production design, largely using the resources of Bulgarian locations, and Jenny Beavan's costume work that would certainly stand for impeccable taste anywhere on the planet. Mark Isham's score is an indispensable partner in the creation of suspense, style and mood.
It's too ragged a film translation from the book and the headlines, far from fully satisfying, but a tour de force of style and mood.
~~ Jules Brenner