The Black Dahlia (2006)
The Black Dahlia (2006)

Genre: Crime Drama and Mystery Running Time: 2 hrs. 1 min.

Release Date: September 15th, 2006 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Brian De Palma Actors: Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw




hen a novel is treated for the screen, a vast amount of material generally needs to be cut. In Brian De Palma’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s book “The Black Dahlia” (with a screenplay by Josh Friedman), it seems that not enough was ignored or excised, as audiences are presented with such a complexly interconnected storyline and extraneous side stories that at times it seems as if De Palma himself doesn’t know where it’s all supposed to be going. He’s managed to turn a two-hour movie about a substantial, significant, unusually gruesome real-life mystery into something of a bore.

The film begins with a narrated introduction about two rival detectives who must eventually work together to solve the ghastly murder of a young actress, Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), in 1940s Los Angeles. Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) is a weathered sergeant with a troubled past who allows the death of Short, dubbed as the Black Dahlia, to invade his personal and professional life, which inadvertently expands a rift between him and his girlfriend, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johannson). Meanwhile, Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), the younger and more resourceful of the duo, unravels a conspiracy that will lead him to the depths of depravity and introduce him to a seedy underworld of menacing gangsters, psychotic butchers, and deceitful lovers.

De Palma’s picture spends time following the intricate murders of several people, not just the literally tortured starlet. It also examines the tragic effects on everyone involved in each instance – the victims, the conspirers, the investigators, and their loved ones. As a result, each new revelation will surely test patiences. The less audiences know about the morbid demise of the real Elizabeth Short, the more Ellroy’s fictionalized account and conspiracy theories may entertain. But anyone expecting an in-depth biopic on the famously unsolved slaying will be disappointed to discover that Short’s undoing is merely a backdrop for the complications that ensue between the detectives and their related cases. When the credits finally start to roll, conceding a disclaimer that explains that while the Dahlia’s death was real, everything else is a work of fiction, the dramatic journey becomes mightily cheapened.

Hartnett definitely makes for an interesting rookie cop, with the film playing out at first like a solid film noir ought to. Sticking with that style, Bleichert’s narration draws the viewer into his perspective to vicariously piece the puzzle together (as well as for a touch of the hard-boiled routine), but as the connections between every character (including a few obnoxiously bizarre villains) grows more knotty, confusion and listlessness set in. With a surplus of roles (including Hilary Swank, Fiona Shaw, and Mike Starr), there’s a clear vibe that a body count is supposed to heighten the suspense and enliven the mystery, even though the central murder is the most fascinating and the least detailed.

The fantastic recreation of Los Angeles in the ‘40s is a marvel of set designs, while the cinematography and costuming are excellent as usual. But those technical aspects only remind of superior period pieces (like “L.A. Confidential,” “Miller’s Crossing,” or De Palma’s own “The Untouchables”), failing to flourish the lagging plot or the excess of characters or the absence of dependable suspense. It’s clear that a hint of “Chinatown” is also somewhere in “The Black Dahlia,” particularly with the roundabout sleuthing, the concealed involvements and corruption, and even the violence. But despite boasting a very unambiguous solution to the primary murder, this endeavor will likely leave audiences with far more questions than answers about Ellroy’s hypothesis on one of the most notorious of all unsolved crimes.

– The Massie Twins

  • 5/10