When James Ellroy's book 'LA Confidential' came to cinemas in 1997, all concerns about whether director Curtis Hanson could do justice to Ellroy's epic proved unfounded. Hanson and co-writer Brian Helgeland took the book's massive plot, condensed it for the screen, gave the film a great energy and urgency and won an Oscar for their screenplay work. 'LA Confidential' raised the bar for crime films; age will serve it very well and it is one of the finest films of the 1990s.
So the news that Brian De Palma, director of 'Scarface', 'The Untouchables' and 'Carlito's Way', was to film Ellroy's earlier book 'The Black Dahlia' was the subject of much excitement among fans. That sense of anticipation only increased with the casting of Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank and Aaron Eckhart in roles that seemed perfect for them. And even though the news that Josh Hartnett would play the lead role set some alarm bells ringing, it was offset by Ellroy's praise of the actor. "In every scene, in every voiceover, his performance out-acts every performance in 'LA Confidential'", said Ellroy at the Los Angeles Film Festival. "Hartnett reads the lines... exactly the way I wrote it with near-perfect inflection every time."
While there should be few arguments that Hartnett does a good job here, he's one of the only bright points in a film that looks beautiful but is a massive letdown.
When the body of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) is found cut in half on Los Angeles, volatile police officer Lee Blanchard (Eckhart) gets himself and his partner Dwight 'Bucky' Bleichert (Hartnett) assigned to the case. Blanchard becomes obsessed with Short's death and in a matter of days his relationships with his girlfriend Kay (Johansson) and Bleichert hit the rocks. Bleichert tries to keep some perspective but that goes haywire when he enters the world of Madeleine Linscott (Swank), a socialite who looks uncannily like the dead woman and had some contact with her before she died. And as Bleichert and Blanchard get increasingly swallowed up by Short's story, their sanity and lives are put at risk.
The first warning sign that 'The Black Dahlia' isn't going to be the film you wished for comes in the early stages when some characters rush through lines of dialogue as if there's a giant stopwatch hanging beside the camera. And the feeling that De Palma and scriptwriter Josh Friedman have rushed a storyline that, while not as sprawling as 'LA Confidential', is still very complex, only increases with each scene. This is a two-hour film that needed to be a three-hour one. It feels like a run-of-the-mill crime drama; you never become fully trapped in the plot and the tone never achieves the darkness that it needed to.
With the film so speeded up, the interaction between the characters inevitably suffers and the relationships here don't convince: the lust/love triangle between Hartnett, Johansson and Swank's characters lacks psychological power while the Bleichert-Blanchard dynamic doesn't have the edge that came across so well in the book.
Even with those shortcomings, 'The Black Dahlia' remains watchable but what can never be forgiven is an ending that's so farcical that it will be for many the most memorable thing about the film. In the key scene where the whodunit is explained, De Palma doesn't give the audience the chance to get their breath - firing off the revelations in an almost throwaway fashion. What looks careless becomes ridiculously over-the-top through the misplaced performance of Fiona Shaw as Madeleine Linscott's alcoholic mother, robbing the denouement of gasps but providing plenty of laughs.
It's hard too see how many Ellroy fans could be happy with this. You'd pick the book up again and again to read - with De Palma's film once should be enough for anyone.