Let us be very clear. THE BLACK DAHLIA is a sumptuous film. Dante Ferretti's production design and Vilmos Zsigmond's photography perfectly capture post-war Los Angeles. The costume design is also brilliant. Scarlett Johanson is superbly scaffolded with setting lotion, red lipstick and pleated pants.
But this movie is a tedious experience. It is also a sad experience for anyone, who like me, loves film-noir, loves Brian de Palma, has a fondness for Aaron Eckhart and a passion for grand-scale film-making.
What makes film-noir great? Powerful men with a neat line in biting jargon playing and being played by beautiful but messed up women....Byzantine plots where everything happens and nothing is solved....the seductive glamour of the seedy LA underworld contrasting with the bland apparent glamour of the surface....transgressive sex, heavy drug use, crime and politics, always politics, but always done with style and grace. These are the factors that are, to a greater or lesser extent, present in all noir classics - from THE BIG SLEEP to L.A. CONFIDENTIAL to CHINATOWN. For me, noir is about subversion. Subversion of The American Dream, of studio mores, of the MPAA, of bland, mediocre, mass-market "entertainment"......
These are the factors that are conspicuous by their absence in this new tedious, wasteful, frustrating movie. Let's start with the characters. Now, de Palma lucks out with Aaron Eckhart. He plays a typically noir character. He's hopped up on Benzedrine and neglecting minor cases to hunt down the vicious killer of The Black Dahlia - a young wannabe actress who got sucked into lesbian porn flicks and ended up disembowled in a ditch. Mia Kershner is also touching - playing the Dahlia in flashes of old audition tapes as well as the infamous porn flick. Her portrayal of bravado and vulnerability is really quite moving. If only we had seen more of it.
But everyone else in the movie is either mis-cast or under-cast. For instance, Eckhart's partner is played by Josh Hartnett who is decorative but hardly de Niro. Compare his low-wattage, deadpan to the point of deadwood performance in THE BLACK DAHLIA with Russell Crowe in LA CONFIDENTIAL. Both play naive cops who have to lead us through a maze of corruption. Crowe is a fire-cracker - emotionally involving us in the story. Hartnett lets all these crazy events and characters slide over his waxed chest like so much baby oil. The chicks are similarly hopeless. Scarlett J is - once again - decorative but uninteresting - an amazing feat considering she plays an ex-hooker turned home-maker. Who knew she could deliver a flat sex scene. But her performance is Oscar-worthy compared to Hilary Swank's turn as a moneyed bisexual Dahlia look-a-like. I admire Swank tremendously as an actress, but her choice of accent is forced and uneven and, sadly, it is just a fact of life that she simply does not look like a femme fatale. Scarlett J would have been infinitely better in this role. And let's not get on to Fiona Shaw. Her performance as Swank's dotty mother is so completely absurd that it undermines the entire movie - especially in the denouement.
Casting aside, this is also an exceptionally badly written movie. For the first hour, it rambles along having little apparent purpose and certainly very little to with The Black Dahlia Case. I kept waiting for the big "wow" moment, when it would just kick in a gear, but that never happened. However, there was a rather incredible and quick exposition at the end of the film - entirely unsatisfying in its neatness and absurdity. If in traditional noir everything happens but nothing is solved, in THE BLACK DAHLIA nothing happens but everything is solved.
Is there any reason at all to see this movie? YES YES YES. To see k d lang's superlative performance as a nightclub singer. Just don't expect anything else.
THE BLACK DAHLIA played Tokyo and Venice 2006 and is now playing in the UK and US. It opens in Portugal and Taiwan next week and in Slovenia and Italy the week after. October sees THE BLACK DAHLIA open in Gerany, Greece, Brazil, Japan, Hong Kong, Iceland and Spain. The movie opens in France and the Netherlands in November and in Sweden in December.