The Black Dahlia

on September 15, 2006 by Richard Mowe
Set in Hollywood's more glamorous past, Brian De Palma's return to form, based on James Ellroy's novel, concerns the murder of aspiring and ambitious starlet Betty Ann Short in a distinct nod to Raymond Chandler's story and screenplay for the 1946 film “The Blue Dahlia.” The discovery of her body triggers a whole series of events that rapidly spin out of control.

Trying to make some sense of it all are Los Angeles homicide cops Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and his buddy Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), both former boxers. As they delve into the mystery, they hit increasingly murky depths. They find themselves caught in a love triangle that also involves the dead woman, Scarlett Johansson as a blonde with a colorful past and a sex-hungry femme fatale (played by Hilary Swank). Mix in assorted corrupt cops, blackmailers, drug addicts, hoodlums and women with dark secrets, and De Palma has the perfect recipe for a madcap rollercoaster ride that never allows the viewer time to sit still and take stock.

This probably is just as well because a few moments of reflection might provide the opportunity to pick holes in it all and allow the confusion to start gnawing waves of irritation. As it is the twists and turns are delivered at a fast and furious pace, sprinkled with some hugely enjoyable performances from of Hartnett, Johansson and Swank and an over-the-top sub-Lady Macbeth number by English classical actress Fiona Shaw.

De Palma, recovering from the lackluster “Femme Fatale” four years ago, may have missed providing adequate character motivation in places and also skimped on narrative coherence, but at the end of the day that doesn't matter. It's the ride that counts even if it's bumpy along the way.

The visuals are stunning thanks to the meticulous research of designer Dante Ferretti, who built 25 interiors as well as part of Chinatown, the streets of LA and the infamous crime scene all in studios in Bulgaria. He re-created the police department, historic apartments, the Red Arrow Motel and such nightspots as the Brown Derby and the Laverne Club, yet the whole look seems totally authentic. Starring Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr and Fiona Shaw. Directed by Brian De Palma. Written by Josh Friedman. Produced by Art Linson, Avi Lerner, Moshe Diamant and Rudy Cohen. A Universal release. Thriller. Rated R for strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content and language. Running time: 116 min

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