Written by Josh Friedman
Directed by Brian De Palma
Running Time: 2:01
for strong violence, some grisly images,
sexual content and language.
The Black Dahlia was a visually stunning, well-directed film that had a confusing and muddled story and ultimately left me feeling nothing.
In 1947 a young woman named Elizabeth Short was found murdered, her body cut in half. Two members of the Los Angeles police department, Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert and Leland "Lee" Blanchard are part of the team chosen to solve her murder. They also have other cases they're working on, which in one way or another are all connected. Lee lives with Kay, a woman he saved from a guy who was pimping her out years ago. That guy is set to be released from prison. At the same time, during his investigation of the Short murder, Bucky falls for Madeleine, the daughter of a wealthy real estate mogul. Lee is slowly driven crazy trying to solve Short's killing and it's up to Bucky and Kay to try and save him. But someone else is lurking in the shadows, trying to stop anyone from figuring out who killed the woman the press call, The Black Dahlia.
I had been looking forward to The Black Dahlia for a long time. You have a true crime story about an unsolved murder case, a book written by James Ellroy and a movie directed by Brian De Palma. Together that sounds like a pretty promising combination. But from the start, I had a hard time figuring out if this movie was an actual noir-ish mystery, or a dead-on parody of one. I honestly couldn't decide if I should be laughing or taking everything seriously. The characters were all people I've seen before and the scenery looked like it was fake. In the opening of the film, there is a massive fight going on in the middle of the street. It looked like it was on a sound stage or a Broadway stage. That was the first time I thought maybe this movie isn't supposed to be taken seriously.
Then came a completely brilliant and hysterical scene that I'm still not sure was meant to be funny. Madeleine invites Bucky out to dinner, but when her father finds out Bucky is a former boxer, he invites him in to eat with the family. They have a random conversation until Madeleine's drunk/medicated mother (played by Fiona Shaw) launches into a tirade that might have been the funniest thing I've heard all year. And yet it occurs in the middle of this supposedly serious movie about a woman who was cut in half. Is it possible that scene was meant to be taken seriously? Because it wasn't only me that was laughing. Any time Shaw appeared on screen, she was good for a laugh, but maybe she was supposed to be someone we felt sorry for. Whatever it was, her character was the only one I enjoyed.
As we left the theater, my friend commented that there were too many story lines and he didn't care about any of them. And I have to agree. The movie tries to do a good job of setting up a myriad of stories and having them all interconnect in some way. And while it did get confusing, by the end I think I figured it all out (with the help of some on screen narraration.) But I didn't really care. All of the characters were held at an arms length. We were never really able to get close to anyone, since everyone seemed to have a secret they didn't want the world to know about. The only character they tried to show some insight into was Bucky when they showed him with his elderly father. Otherwise, for such a fine cast, no one ever jumped out as someone we were supposed to care about. Even Elizabeth Short was, pun intended, shortchanged. The movie title is based on her, yet her story was mostly in the background as we jumped back and forth between other mysteries. I never felt like I got to know her and therefore while I was disgusted by how she died, I didn't feel much else.
All that being said, I thought the movie looked wonderful. De Palma movies these days can be hit or miss based on the story, but his visuals and direction are always top notch. Had the story been streamlined and stronger, this could have been a terrific film because it looked so good. If taken as a serious genre film, you really felt like you were watching a movie from the 50s. If taken as a parody, it was as dead on as you're ever going to see. Unfortunately, it sort of fell in between both ideals and therefore most of what De Palma was trying to achieve got lost in translation.
THE BOTTOM LINE
So overall, I was disappointed by The Black Dahlia. I had been hoping for a really strong crime story, but instead was treated to a multi-story line soap opera filled with characters I didn't care one way or another about. The cast was strong, the visuals and direction were good, but the story brought everything down.
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