Movie Review

The Black Dahlia

Inspired by the most notorious unsolved murder in California history.
The Black Dahlia Movie Poster

US Release Date: 09-15-2006

Directed by: Brian De Palma


  • Josh Hartnett
  • Bucky Bleichert
  • Scarlett Johansson
  • Kay Lake
  • Aaron Eckhart
  • Lee Blanchard
  • Hilary Swank
  • Madeleine Linscott
  • Mia Kirshner
  • Elizabeth Short
  • Mike Starr
  • Russ Millard
  • Fiona Shaw
  • Ramona Linscott
  • Patrick Fischler
  • Ellis Loew
  • Angus MacInnes
  • Capt. John Tierney
Average Stars:
Reviewed on: September 18th, 2006
Scarlett Johansson and Josh Hartnett in Black Dahlia.

Scarlett Johansson and Josh Hartnett in Black Dahlia.

Anyone who's read James Ellroy's crime novels knows that he's fond of complicated, intertwined stories that feature a myriad of characters. Translating any of his novels into a movie must be a daunting task. Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson did it brilliantly with 1997's L.A. Confidential and won an Oscar for their troubles. This time around, with The Black Dahlia, it is Josh Friedman who gets the writing credit, and while he does a decent job of condensing the story, he, unfortunately, also needlessly embellishes the plot and the movie suffers for it.

The movie's central mystery is the murder of Elizabeth Short, aka The Black Dahlia, in 1947 Los Angeles. Although there really was an Elizabeth Short and her dead body was found in the same condition as shown in the movie, almost every other facet of her story has been fictionalized. The film goes to great pains to emphasis this with a closing caption that states that the movie was based upon the James Ellroy novel and not the actual murder case.

Josh Hartnett stars as former boxer turned Police Officer, Bucky Bleichert. After an exhibition boxing match with fellow police pugilist, Lee Blanchard, makes him a local celebrity, Bucky is given a promotion and a new partner, the aforementioned Lee Blanchard. Lee is living with a young femme fatale, Kay Lake, played by the always gorgeous Johannson. The three of them become friends, with Bucky and Kay seemingly harboring feelings for each other that they keep secret from Lee.

It is the murder of Elizabeth Short that throws a wrench into Bucky's personal and professional life. Lee, whose younger sister was murdered years ago, becomes obsessed with the case and endangers his career in the pursuit of her killer. Meanwhile, with Lee out of the house more often, Bucky finds himself drawn even stronger to Kay. Things are further complicated when Bucky learns that Short had a brief lesbian affair with socialite Madeleine Linscott (Swank). In an effort to keep her and her family's name out of the paper, Madeleine sleeps with Bucky and they begin a torrid affair.

I'd like to say that the movie then races toward its climax, but I'd be lying. Where the book pulled you from one chapter to the next, making it difficult to put down, the movie gets lost somewhere in the middle and drags a little too much. And when the final revelation is played so over the top hysterical, as to almost be unintentionally funny.

Like the recent Hollywoodland, which shares a similar locale, theme and close to the same time period, this movie truly stands out in the look and its cast. Visually, the movie is great. Director Brian De Palma puts you right on the hard, grimy streets of 1940's L.A. And universally the cast is quite good. Johansson could have stepped right out of black and white picture of the period and Swank, who's never looked so good as here, vamps it up admirably. They, along with Mia Kirshner, as the dead Short, who appears in films throughout the movie, far overshadow the male leads. Hartnett's monotone narration isn't really needed, but apart from this he handles himself adequately. And Eckhart is underused as Lee and his character remains the largest enigma. It is his storyline that is truncated the most in the translation from page to screen.

I wonder how I would have viewed this movie if I hadn't read the book? Although it's hard to truly know, I don't think my opinion would have changed much. Irregardless, the movie drags in the middle and the ending is disappointing. Not that the movie is a total failure. It's worth a look, I was just expecting more.

Reviewed on: September 21st, 2006
Josh Hartnett in Black Dahlia.

Josh Hartnett in Black Dahlia.

Having loved L.A. Confidential, the movie and the book, I had high hopes for The Black Dahlia. I have never read the book, so I can make no comparisons to it. What I can compare it to is other noir films. Eckhart and Hartnett are no Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey and they are nowhere on the same page as Humphrey Bogart. While I'm on that subject, Johansen is nowhere near Lauren Bacall. Johansen holds her cigarettes as if they are a prop and not something to smoke. Early on she has a scene with Hartnett where the dialogue could be considered flirtatious. Whereas Bacall would have spoken the lines slowly with her smoky voice, Johansen rattles them off with little inuendo. Swank plays the femme fatale role and comes off better than anyone in the cast. At first I thought she was overacting, but then I realized that it was her character that was a bad actress.

Scott mentioned that Hollywoodland shares a similar setting. In fact, this movie could have easily been titled Hollywoodland, as the famous sign plays so prominently into the plot. Like Hollywoodland, The Black Dahlia suffers in the editing department. It takes far to long to get to the main thrust of the plot. Okay, so they box and it gets pubilicty and there's politics and a new job. So what? Start with them getting the job and the stake out for Nash. I don't care how they got their job.

The Black Dahlia does what a mystery is supposed to do, it had me guessing. The cast of characters, and their motives, seem to change by the scene. Even Hartnett's holier-than-thou Bucky doesn't stay consistant. The worst offender is Swank's vamp. Her character makes little sense. Her father is incredibly rich yet she sometimes acts like a common hooker who takes soldiers to motel rooms, that is, when she is not hanging out in lesbian nightclubs.

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