L.A. Circumstantial

The Black Dahlia

Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, and Hilary Swank star in a film written by Josh Friedman, based on the novel by James Ellroy, and directed by Brian De Palma.

Reviewed by Josef Woodard

Elizabeth Short, the lovely brunette who in her short life dreamt about movie fame and, by extension, immortality, achieved her goal in the most unexpected way. With her gruesome murder, and especially the specter of her nude, bisected body in a vacant Los Angeles lot in 1947, she became a victim, an obsession, and a metaphor for what’s wrong with Hollywood and the world in general. She never knew what hit us.

What makes The Black Dahlia so compelling, first as James Ellroy’s masterful 1987 book and now as a reasonably powerful film adaptation from Brian De Palma, is its disorienting cocktail of the real and the unreal. Fiction wraps freely around fact here, and the case becomes the turbine in the middle of a complex plot involving two L.A. cops — Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett). Both are in love with a femme fatale (Scarlett Johansson) but also cavorting with a more fatal femme (Hilary Swank, whose bad girl antics make the screen shiver). The plot keeps getting thicker and bloodier. Ellroy’s novel paints the human condition bleakly — everyone’s a sinner here — while seducing us with sinister, maze-like storytelling. But Short, who resided in Santa Barbara and Lompoc for a time, was real, and so was Ellroy’s own mother, whose unsolved L.A. murder in the late ’50s seeded Ellroy’s brilliance as a crime novelist and courter of humanity’s darker corners. (In the story, we also learn that the death of Blanchard’s sister presumably fed his justice jonesin’).

De Palma injects intelligence and splashes of pulp fiction, and has fun wallowing in ’40s L.A. ambience (in Bulgaria, of course), while obviously using Chinatown as a role model. (For one, Mark Isham’s music is a watered-down riff on Jerry Goldsmith’s Chinatown score). Overall, De Palma exploits Ellroy’s inherent cinematic possibilities, though not on par with Curtis Hanson’s work on L.A. Confidential.

Still, undercurrents of melancholy and ravaged innocence keep bubbling up amid the grisly moments and multiple layers of moral queasiness. The premise is far-fetched and sordid enough that we’re able to detach, viewing it as the stuff of crime fiction abstraction. But nagging questions and timeless allegories prevail, like Bleichert’s haunting vision of Short’s body on the lawn. Elizabeth, we never knew thee, but you’re part of who we are now.

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