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Cinema Junkie by Beth Accomando

Black Dahlia

The brutal murder of Elizabeth Short is one of the most infamous unsolved murders in Los Angeles criminal history. The 1940s case has inspired films and books in the past, and now it arrives on the screen once again. Brian DePalma's The Black Dahlia (opening September 15 throughoutSan Diego) adapts James Ellroy's novel of the same name.

First of all, for anyone who is seriously interested in the true case of the Black Dahlia, don't expect to find any insights or information from Brian DePalma or James Ellroy. Ellroy's book and DePalma's film are not really interested in the facts of the case. Instead, each uses the notorious crime as a starting off point for something more personal. Ellroy became obsessed with Elizabeth Short's murder, and wrote about it as a means of exorcizing his own demons about the mysterious murder of his own mother. So his book takes the facts makes them once removed from reality. Then we move further from the truth once DePalma gets his hands on the material because he's only interested in the case for its cinematic potential. If you want a Hollywood movie that's more interested in the facts, try the Robert DeNiro-Robert Duvall film True Confessions, which tapped into more information about the actual case.

Now I point this out not as criticism of the film but rather so that people don't go to the film with false expectations. In a sense, the sensational murder is the hook that both DePalma and Ellroy use to reel us in but then each abandons the facts of the real event to pursue their own interests. For DePalma, who's known as a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, the murder is almost the MacGuffin in the film. Hitchcock's MacGuffins were things or devices that drove the plot but which ultimately proved inconsequential. In a way, that's what happens with the murder in The Black Dahlia.

The film The Black Dahlia begins by focusing on two cops, Lee (Aaron Eckhart) and Bucky (Josh Hartnett). Lee is a smooth and ambitious operator; he's got his sights set beyond the police force and maybe to politics. He pegs Bucky as someone who can help him climb the ladder, even though Bucky doesn't see himself as someone who's about to rise through the ranks. Lee arranges for the two of them to meet in a boxing match billed as "Mr. Fire versus Mr. Ice." The event is designed as a publicity stunt to help the police department pass a bond measure. This leads to the two of them getting promoted to detectives and getting more high profile cases.

Outside of work, Lee and Bucky also hang out and form a platonic triangle with Lee's girlfriend Kaye (Scarlett Johansson looking simply luscious in her fine period clothes). While on a stakeout, Lee and Bucky coincidentally end up at the same location where Elizabeth Short's mutilated body is found. Lee immediately wants in on the case. Initially we think it's for the publicity value but later we discover he may have more personal reasons. Bucky reluctantly gets drawn into the mystery, which ends up revealing deceit, corruption, and dark personal secrets.

The Black Dahlia , as brought to the screen by Brian DePalma, proves to be more a story about Hollywood than about Elizabeth Short's murder. It's a film about artifice, about people who are not what they seem, about the facades that they put up to hide their real selves, and about the gloss Hollywood puts on its own gritty reality. There's a fitting irony to the fact that DePalma shot most of this Hollywood tale on sets constructed in Bulgaria. So Hollywood--an industry built on illusion--isn't even allowed to play itself but rather has to be created in a foreign country. Thus the dream factory is made even more of an illusion. Although the film is being touted as a film noir in the press materials, it really doesn't tap into that expressionistic visual style. Instead, DePalma seems more interested in creating a mix of gloss and lurid trashiness to capture the contrasts he sees in his Hollywood setting--the contrast between dreamy aspirations and unpleasant reality.

The first half of the film flows smoothly and compels us with the triangular dynamics of the main characters, and the shocking brutality of the murder. But as the relationship of the three main characters is pushed to the side to pursue the leads in the Black Dahlia case, the film grows muddled and disjointed. By the time we reach the long drawn out conclusion, DePalma has put himself in the position of having to spend 30 minutes explaining to use who did what to whom and why. The last portion of the film is all plot exposition and the film grinds to an unsatisfying halt.

I have to confess at this point, however, that Brian DePalma is one of my guilty pleasures. Even though this film, as with most of his films, inevitably falls apart, I still find it imminently watchable. DePalma has a visual flair that just makes his films worth seeing on the big screen. They are bigger than life and just aren't as fun on DVD. Plus, you don't go to a DePalma film because you expect to see a depiction of the real world. You go because you know he's going to kick it up a notch and deliver something over-the-top. Think Scarface. The Black Dahlia is no exception. Partnering again with brilliant cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, DePalma delivers a film that's gorgeous to look at, in a weird Grand Guignol sort of way. He treats his trio of stars as part of the scenery, and has cast them because they look right for the roles. DePalma seems more interested in placing them in scenes than in trying to elicit genuine emotions from them. But then his actors have always been more like props than flesh and blood human beings.

As with most of his films, The Black Dahlia boasts some stunning visual set pieces where DePalma gets to display his operatic flair. The first instance occurs when Lee and Bucky are on a stakeout. While they sit in a car in front of a building, the camera moves over the top of the building to reveal a screaming woman who has just discovered the severed body of Elizabeth Short in a field. The camera leaves the woman and the crime scene to rejoin the stakeout. The single shot is spectacular and it deliberately provokes us. It teases us with the murder only to pull away. Of course we eventually do return to the scene but DePalma delays that satisfaction. Then toward the end of the film, DePalma stages an elaborate murder that echoes the violent set pieces he has staged in films such as The Untouchables and Scarface. While other action directors rely on rapid cuts and pounding music, DePalma chooses to slow everything down so you can savor every move and contemplate what's going on.

There's also a cartoonish set piece involving a rich family whose daughter (horribly played by Hilary Swank with a bizarre accent that strives only to be snobby) may be involved in the case. Fiona Shaw, rivaling Al Pacino's Scarface excesses, is so over-the-top as the drunk and dissatisfied mother, that she provides a hilarious sideshow to the rest of the film.

The Black Dahlia (rated R for language, sexual content and violence) begins stunningly and then falters badly. Yet even when he's bad, DePalma is still more interesting than most directors. The Black Dahlia reveals that he still knows how to shoot a movie with style to burn. Now if he could just learn to care for his characters and develop them in more depth, then maybe he could create something that I wouldn't have to feel so guilty about enjoying.

Companion viewing: True Confessions, L.A. Confidential, Chinatown , The Blue Dahlia