The film version of James Ellroy’s hard-hitting breakthrough novel retains much of the plot and most of the characters, but rather like its title character, it leaves out the guts. Ellroy depicted a world (seen through the eyes of protagonist and narrator Bucky Bleichert) in which the murder of a single woman set off a circus-sized manhunt that allowed various characters to act out their own personal psycho-dramas, pursuing the killer not to see justice done but to seek personal gain or assuage personal pain in a vain search for some kind of redemption for past misdeeds. The movie retains the surface – the actions we see and the dialogue we hear – but leaves out the underlying inner life, the disturbing sense of citywide psychosis barely hidden behind the facade of the sunny City of Angels.
Josh Hartnett plays Bucky, minus the buck-teeth that gave the novel’s character his nickname. After a promotional boxing bout with fellow officer Blanchard (Eckhart), Bucky gets a promotion to the Warrants division of the police department, where he and Blanchard soon stumble into the Black Dahlia murder case. The partnership with Blanchard leads Bucky into a love triangle with Blanchard’s live-in girlfriend Kay (Johanssen); the investigation leads Bucky into a love affair with a Dahlia look-alike (Swank). The numerous subplots (for example, Blanchard fears the immiment release of a bankrobber he put away) soon overwhelm a narrative that has been compressed down from a novel with enough material to fill a four-hour movie – or possibly a miniseries.
Lost in the twisting threads is the story of the Black Dahlia herself, the murdered Elzabeth Short (Kirshner), an aspiring actress and barfly who is seen only in brief glimpses in a screen test. To some extent, this was true of the novel as well, but Ellroy made it clear from the beginning that his book was about the emotional turmoil and the political tsunami caused by Short’s highly publicized murder. By the film’s conclusion, the solution of the murder feels almost like an after-thought – an obligatory effort to tie up the loose end dangling throughout most of the plot.
The film’s look is great, courtesy of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who captures the sheen of the story’s late 1940s setting. The once-great director Brian DePalma shows a few flashes of his old visual prowess, but mostly he fails to engage the material, which should have been rich and powerful enough to render into a masterpiece.
The talented cast do their best, but mostly they seem out of their depth, like acting students running through a training exercise for “Hard-Boiled Acting 101.” Even Oscar-winner Swank can do little with her role as a Dahlia look-alike who (at least in the book) is supposed to get under Bucky’s skin because he has barely repressed hard-on for the murder victim. The love stories generate little head, let alone any genuine romance, and the whole thing winds up feeling like an embalmed attempt to recreate a classic formula.
In the end, the best you can say for THE BLACK DAHLIA is that it is not terrible, and enough of the book survives to make a mildly interesting mystery story. But the novel was so much more – not just a crime thriller but a fictionalized slice of history (this was the first book in Ellroy’s “L.A. Quartet,” which told the story of Los Angeles through the eyes of cops and criminals.) In its determination to look into dark places where most authors and many readers would fear to tread, Ellroy created a vision of something close to Hell on Earth (including a nightmarish visit to a Mexican bar called “Satan’s,” featuring a live donkey on stage and patrons engaged in other public sex acts). In fact, THE BLACK DAHLIA – with its at times lurid depiction of sex and violence – comes close to being a horror novel, and any successful film version would have to be much more hard-hitting than this tamed down version.
Strangely, the film’s highlight turns out to be the Dahlia’s screen test, filmed in the old voyeuristic camera style that DePalma has used since GREETINGS (1969). As the wanna-be actress, Kirshner is moving and sad, pretending to talent she does not have, seeking a fame that she will earn only in death. These brief scenes are the only moments in the film that capture a genuine sense of pathos over the sordid, unhappy truth of the characters’ lives. If the film could have underlined the entire plot with this emotional charge, it would have burned the screen up in a blast of brilliance, instead of stiffening into cold rigor mortis like Elizabeth Short’s bisected body.
James Ellroy’s novel was inspired by the 1947 real-life murder of Elizabeth Short, who was dubbed “The Black Dahlia” (after the Raymond Chandler film THE BLUE DAHLIA) because she wore black dresses. The book also includes other historical incidents (like the Zoot Suite riots), so that it works as both a mystery and a historical novel.
David Fincher was originally interested in directing a four-hour, black-and-white version of the film, which would have retained more of the book’s plot (including the two side trips to Tijiuana). Reportedly, he left the project for fear that he would not be allowed to complete the film according to his wishes.