The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia

Film review by: Witney Seibold

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            If this world is destined for another “Showgirls,” it will surely come from Brian De Palma. De Palma has that sort of clunky cinematic flair and overbloated cheesy love of trash that made the 1997 Paul Verhoeven film such a magical experience. In the last decade, he’s made “Femme Fatale” (a film which I love), “Mission to Mars” (which no one loved), and “Snake Eyes” (with its wacky spilt-screen nonsense). He’s about to put out a film on American soldiers in Iraq, which makes me a little fearful. Only when one aims high can true schlock be made. De Palma comes close to true schlock with “The Black Dahlia,” but doesn’t quite push it far enough into the realm of cheese. It comes so close, though, that one can smell it. Especially when k.d. lang appears on screen for a moment to sing a huge, well-choreographed number in a lesbian nightclub.

 

            For those of you unfamiliar with the true-life SoCal murder case: The Black Dahlia was the nickname given to aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, found in a field in 1946 with a smile carved into her face, and her body sliced in half. Police eventually turned up film footage of her, some of it was innocent audition reels, some of it was not appropriate for people under 18.

 

            The film follows the two police officers sent to investigate the crime, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), all business, and Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), a police neophyte and boxing enthusiast. The investigation leads them on a wacky spiral into high-end lesbian nightclubs (it’s unlikely that a gay club in the 1940s would have so much money as to stage elaborate dance numbers as mentioned above), low end stag-film production companies, and the smoky glare of the lissome bisexual Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank). Madeleine, it turns out, had once had an affair with the deceased. “I wanted to be with someone who looked like me,” she says cryptically. Although Swank looks nothing like Mia Kirshner, the actress who plays Short in the audition footage. The investigation eventually leads back to the bright-eyed Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), who is none other than Lee’s live-in girlfriend. Kay and Bucky have a flirtation, and it’s stated that Kay only lives with Lee because Lee once saved her life.

 

            There are also numerous other twists and turns and lies and nervous breakdowns, but by the time we get to the big reveal(s) at the end, it’s hard to tell exactly who did what and why. De Palma, like a foolhardy trail guide, leads us down a twisty path, never once looking back to see if we’re anywhere closeby. Before we know it, we’re lost in the woods, and we can hear his voice from up ahead somewhere, cheering about how much fun it is to go hiking.

 

            All the acting is very good, although a bit odd. Each of the actors affects a strange 1940s style to their line delivery which makes them sound like they’re trying to be in a movie. I couldn’t tell if the actors are trying to make their characters sound like cinematic wannabes, or if they’re just chewing bits of scenery here and there. I suspect it’s the latter. Johansson especially seems to have studied Kim Novak’s head movements very closely. Hartnett is fine as the newbie cop, and Eckhart give another fine performance as a man who loses his wits in the vast void of obsession. Swank, on the other hand, seems enormously out-of-place as a femme fatale. She pulls it off, but you can see her straining to. Perhaps in Johansson’s and Swank’s roles had been reversed things would have turned out a bit better.

 

            Kirshner gives the film’s best performance, though. She gives Short a smart flair, and a real believable naïveté. When she’s slinking around on camera in the phony audition reels (being ordered around by an offscreen voice, played by De Palma himself), you can see her need to simultaneously seduce, prove herself, and be taken seriously. When she says, even in the most compromising position, that she wants to be a real Hollywood actress, we believe her.

             To add a bit of surreality to the film, I saw it at an early morning show with digital subtitles projected on the screen. It actually added to the bloaty designs, protracted ‘40s acting, and twisty De Palma cheesiness.Even better would have been to see it dubbed in Portuguese with English and Greek subtitles simultaneously on the screen. That would have been awesome.

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Published in: on October 17, 2007 at 9:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

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