The Movie Binge

Review: The Black Dahlia


There’s a well-established sub-genre of crime pictures in which the writer sutures the fallen universe of film noir to the mythic origins of Los Angeles and the Industry that put it on the map. The metaphorical valences certainly make this tempting – light and dark, angels and devils, innocence and corruption, and image and reality (not to mention the naughty excitement that comes with writing about how sinister and deviant your business, the film business, is), but for all the classic pictures that manage to pull it off properly (Chinatown, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) there are too many that don’t quite manage to join the two parts, and end up as a hollow, absurd parody of these films.

Such is The Black Dahlia, and the first question to be answered is how anyone could mess up a film with such grimy and archetypal material. The story of the The Black Dahlia murder is the story of a young actress whose creatively mutilated body was found in a field in Los Angeles. Her butcher was never caught. The story of The Black Dahlia, the film, is a policier in which one not-very-innocent cop (Josh Hartnett) teams up with an even more not-very-innocent cop (Aaron Eckhart) to try and catch the Dahlia killer. This quest for headlines or redemption or whatever leads them into an overwrought but altogether unsexy demimonde of lesbian cabarets, underage porn, classic silent film and the creeps who made ‘em. Hartnett has no personality I can discern, and while Eckhart’s character is supposed to be hopped up on bennies through most of the film that’s no excuse for his histrionics. Scarlett Johannsson, the third leg of the listless love triangle, acts as if people from the 40s acted exactly like people in movies from the 40s. She’s more part of the décor than anything else, waving around a cigarette holder like it’s the coolest old-timey device ever.

The unnecessarily convoluted plot leads Hartnett to the trampy daughter (Hillary Swank) of a prominent Los Angeles developer, providing us with the only enjoyable scene of the film, a macabre dinner party that is ruined in retrospect when it turns out that one of the sub-Lynchian creeps involved was not mere perverse window dressing but meant to represent an actual person with actual motivations. Well, actual person and actual motivations in the context of the “types” involved here – there aren’t really any characters in this story, but the writing is only one of the problems.

The film is as poorly assembled as the decrepit Hollywoodland bungalows that expository dialogue points to as the source of Swank’s father’s wealth. There’s a laughable scene where one of the main characters plummets from a balcony in cheesy slow motion, an even more laughable scene where Josh Hartnett sees the Dahlia corpse in his minds eye and we get three quick cuts to closer and closer shots of the body, and several examples where previously innocuous dialogue is resurrected for exposition purposes via voice-over. I suppose that last part’s necessary, as the story sure wasn’t clear enough to tell itself.

It’s the preposterous linkage between the developer, the murdered girl’s porno debut and a hidden clue in the décor of Paul Leni’s silent classic The Man Who Laughs that requires the most explication, and if that contrivance is what’s necessary to pair up the Biz and the murder then perhaps we’d have been better off as audience if the writers’ ambitions were a little less grand and a little more serviceable. What we get instead is a silly little noir that probably reads much better on the page than it plays onscreen.