Now available on video and DVD, Brian DePalma's The Black Dahlia is a disappointment, not only for his fans but for moviegoers generally. Working with James Ellroy's best-selling novel, the director has chosen to create an homage to the film noir pictures of the ‘40's and ‘50's, rather than a coherent thriller. Instead of suspense, the viewer experiences puzzlement, since large portions of the backstory have been elided or insufficiently developed. The result is two hours of pretty dull, sometimes inadvertently comic, viewing time.
The plot is a hash. At the opening, beat policeman Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (a.k.a. "Mr Ice") gets ready for a boxing match with Sgt. Lee Blanchard ("Mr. Fire"), the fight to raise money for charity and elevate the profile of the police in post-WWII L.A. Then the story relates how these two unlikely heros, played by Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart, got together and, subsequently, how they become partners. Sucessfully finding and arresting felons, they also befriend each other off duty, Lee introducing Bucky to his live-in girlfriend, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). There's supposed to be sexual tension between Bucky and Kay, but we never believe it, DePalma's repeated efforts notwithstanding.
Another sexual tension arises after the two men are assigned to solve the vicious murder of a notorious young woman, Elizabeth Short (played by Mia Kirshner), nicknamed ‘The Black Dahlia.' As they dig into her history, Lee becomes increasingly obsessed with solving the murder; Bucky becomes obsessed with one Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), a rich woman who bears some resemblance to Elizabeth and has, it turns out, slept with her at least once. (Since almost everyone in the movie dissembles or outright lies, it's hard to tell if that's the extent of their affair.) Various other connections between Betty and Madeleine surface, though not much becomes clear, even at the end.
DePalma throws the cinematic book at the viewer throughout the exposition, using every technique in it to establish the desired film noir atmosphere. Old-fashioned editing techniques, hard-bitten dialogue, a steady rain falling seemingly every night"all these signal us we're supposed to associate the current effort with those classics. Unhappily, Josh Friedman's screenplay lacks the clean story line of, say, The Maltese Falcon, and none of the actors can hold a candle to Mitchum, Bogart, Bacall, Lake (Veronica, not Kay), et al. At crucial points, the action evokes laughter"the kiss of death (you should excuse the expression) for this genre. The stylized lighting, careful period sets, hovering score, and general air of corruption don't, by themselves, make for an appealing movie, interesting though they may be for film buffs.
The Black Dahlia is appropriately rated "R" for violence and language, a tad of nudity, and lots of sexual suggestiveness. (Characters don't just go to bed; they have to tear each other's clothes off, which looks phonier than restraint might and is certainly less erotic. And, oh yeah, they smoke after sex.) The advertising mentions "some grisly images," and the film delivers, though even they don't juice up the torpid action. Skip this one, as so many others have.