Give Brian De Palma credit. Tackling the fallout from California’s most grisly real-life murder would have daunted the sturdiest of directors. Even Fincher ditched it. Yet, De Palma dives headfirst into Ellroy’s doomy novelisation, emerging surprisingly unbloodied, if not a little bruised.
Not that the journey was easy. The movie languished in limbo for years, sweating on funding and then losing Fincher and Mark Wahlberg to other, less troublesome projects. What’s more, Ellroy’s rich, staccato prose and intricate, wilfully chaotic storytelling technique scared away possible suitors, no doubt also perturbed by having to work with the spectre of Curtis Hanson’s Oscar-winning LA Confidential looming over their shoulder. De Palma, though, has taken the material and transformed it into a thoroughly modern noir, albeit one that doesn’t stretch to Confidential’s instant-classic status.
Gotta admire the endeavour, mind. It’s easy to see why the material appealed to the man behind Dressed To Kill and The Untouchables and his instinct to de-murk Ellroy’s source story with big-scale scope and gliding camerawork is bang-on. Dahlia has an air of nostalgia for epic, bygone-era movie-making last seen, weirdly, with Peter Jackson’s King Kong. And yet, for all the exceptional technique and pedigree, it’s all a bit passionless. An opening boxing match has all the bloody, tooth-shattering fury of classic De Palma, but then the film quickly hits a reverential lull, as if the director is too bound to telling the story in a certain way – certainly not his own.
For a man of De Palma’s reputation, the lack of horn-locking with the censors over violence or sex feels like a bit of a cheat, as a little bit more of either would have lent the film significantly more verve. Even the back-door clubs and moonlit side streets of old-school Hollywood are a little too sterile and polished, with no real air of the danger or scuzzy adrenaline that gifts Ellroy’s work such a sordid appeal. Love him or hate him, De Palma usually stamps his bravura mark on a film through sheer force of personality. Here, apart from one or two flashes, it’d be almost impossible to guess who’s sitting in the director’s chair.
Still, even with De Palma’s fire only flickering, The Black Dahlia is a pleasure for the all-over dazzle of its star turns. With motormouth delivery and deliberately exaggerated gestures, Swank aggressively channels her inner femme fatale in a performance that teeters on camp, but somehow, thrillingly, manages to recall old Hollywood without parodying it. Meanwhile, Eckhart’s edgy twist on a shades-of-grey cop is cobra-cruel and taut as a snare-drum.
And Scarlett... Ah, Scarlett. Were she a contract girl from the MGM and Warner Bros glory days, she’d have to be nicknamed The Pout, for that bristling sex appeal. But then that would be a disservice to the multiple layers of softer sensuality she also brings to her role.
It’s Mia Kirshner (24’s foxy terrorist), though, as the doomed Dahlia revealed via haunting and erotic black and white flashbacks, who provides much of the film’s true mood. De Palma beautifully skewers the sense of foreboding as Kirshner’s eyes increasingly betray the feeling she’s not going to make it out alive.
Despite Ellroy’s public eulogies, Hartnett is the weakest link – even if that’s mainly the fault of screenwriter Josh Friedman and his failure to render the author’s more muscular original as something more complex than an off the- peg noir narrator. As Bucky endlessly bleats and ruminates on his lust for Kay and his relationship with his partner, you’ll be willing Bud White to appear and slap away the lover to reveal more of a fighter.
Clearly, though, De Palma and Friedman haven’t sensed this, as they dump most of the third act firmly on Hartnett’s shoulders – despite him being a character who, by his own admission, is given to inaction. Those feet of clay slow him and the movie down just as the action should be cranking up to a balls-out close-in on the Dahlia killer. The resulting climax, while not a whimper, hardly qualifies as a bang. Maybe somewhere on the cutting-room floor there’s a great movie. Instead, The Black Dahlia is just good. And, for Brian De Palma, good just isn’t good enough.
Hartnett's stranded, but Kirshner breaks through and Johansson's allure is undimmed. De Palma-lite still (just) deserves your Saturday night.