A deliriously disreputable misfire 

The last time one of James Ellroy's seedy California crime-fiction opuses was brought to the big screen, 1997's L.A. Confidential, the result was one of the sturdiest Hollywood entertainments in many years. That film was directed by Curtis Hanson (8Mile, Wonder Boys), one of the finest movie technicians around but not the kind of auteur known for leaving a personal imprint.

The latest Ellroy adaptation, The Black Dahlia (the novel is the first of an "L.A. Quartet" that includes L.A. Confidential), is a different matter altogether, matching the pulpy Ellroy with a director who would seem to fit his stylistic temperament -- Brian De Palma (Carrie, Scarface) -- especially considering the subject matter: a fictionalization of Los Angeles' most notorious unsolved murder, the 1947 killing of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, whose body was found -- bisected, disemboweled, and drained of blood -- in a South Central vacant lot.

But, instead, The Black Dahlia is a fascinating misfire. The movie is one-third conventional Ellroy adaptation(à la L.A. Confidential), one-third De Palma personal cinema freak-out, and one-third film-noir cliché. And though there are some fascinating scenes, performances, and moments here, the movie's parts never cohere.

The film-noir stuff is a drag because Ellroy's always been dismissive of the lone private-dick shtick and because it seems beneath such intense material. As far as the Ellroy/De Palma clash, some elements of the film bring the book to life: an opening boxing match between young cops and future partners Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), the richly conceived squad-room scenes, the fashion-forward décor of the house shared by Blanchard and his damaged consort Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson).

But the film's clunky compression of the investigatory detail in Ellroy's novel makes the movie's mystery aspect nearly incoherent and makes the fictional solution of the actually unsolved case that Ellroy conceives seem ridiculous (which it almost was in the book).

De Palma also fails to capture the emotional obsessiveness not only of Ellroy's book but also of the case itself. Characters say the right things but the movie doesn't feel it, despite the intense performance of Mia Kirshner, who plays Short in a few screen tests and one stag reel. The utter sadness and metaphoric richness of the Black Dahlia story -- the innocent who comes to Hollywood dreaming of stardom and is devoured -- is beyond this movie's grasp.

Where The Black Dahlia does work is as a potential midnight movie. The director goes too far in replacing the book's biggest subplot (Blanchard's disappearance in Mexico) with a more concise invented scene that's just an excuse for a familiar stylistic set piece, complete with Vertigo reference and gratuitous gore. But other gambits fare better: The first, incidental glimpse of Short's abandoned body is brilliant. And the ghoulish dinner scene where Bleichert meets the family of a Dahlia-obsessed femme fatale (a captivatingly weird Hilary Swank) is delirious macabre comedy. Given all the parties involved, The Black Dahlia is a disappointment but a memorable one.

Speaking of...


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

    • The Florida Project

      Orlando grifters live on the edge in director Sean Baker’s follow up to Tangerine.
    • Blade Runner 2049

      A science fiction masterpiece with an Elvis cameo


Tiger Blue

#25 Memphis 42, Houston 38

Music Blog

Butthole Surfers and Bad Seeds Salute the Man in Black

Music Blog

Soulsville USA Festival Lights Up McLemore Ave.

We Saw You

Emo and you

Intermission Impossible

Let GCT's Honky Tonk Angels Sing for You

Beyond the Arc

Five Notes on Grizzlies/Pelicans

Film/TV/Etc. Blog

Sooth the Pain With All The Rage Documentary at Crosstown Arts

Intermission Impossible

Lipstick Smear: Let Theatre Memphis' "Stage Kiss" slip you some tongue


More by Chris Herrington

  • Last Words

    In "Enough Said," James Gandolfini makes his last lead film role his best.
    • Sep 26, 2013
  • Masters of Sound

    New albums from two of Memphis’ most distinctive stylists.
    • Sep 19, 2013
  • Hayes Carll at the Hi-Tone

    • Sep 19, 2013
  • More »

Readers also liked…

  • Where To Invade Next

    • Mar 1, 2016
  • I Am Not Your Negro

    Raoul Peck’s documentary brings James Baldwin’s words to an America that needs to listen.
    • Feb 24, 2017
  • Time Warp Drive-In 2016

    Scorsese leads off another season of retro movies under the stars.
    • Mar 17, 2016
© 1996-2017

Contemporary Media
460 Tennessee Street, 2nd Floor | Memphis, TN 38103
Visit our other sites: Memphis Magazine | Memphis Parent | Inside Memphis Business
Powered by Foundation