Officer Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Hartnett) and Sgt. Leland “Lee” Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) meet in the early 40s, as each is trying to protect a small neighborhood in Los Angeles from riots between returning servicemen and zoot suiters. Then, someone in the department learns that each has a background in boxing; Los Angeles is set to vote on a bond measure that will increase the pay for all police officers and the fight will be good publicity. Bucky bets against himself, to earn some money to put his aging German immigrant father in a nice nursing home, but puts up a good fight before losing. The fight generates the required publicity, the bond passes, and each of the men is promoted to the Warrants division of the Detective Squad. Soon, Bucky meets Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), Lee’s girlfriend, who likes to attend his fights, sketch the action and say titillating things to both men. Soon, the three are sharing a lot of time together and Kay clutches both of their hands during a scary moment in a silent film. As the two men stake out a warrant, a man opens fire and a shootout begins. Throughout, there is some question about an old arrest Lee was involved in; the convict was Kay’s former pimp and a bank robbery was pinned on him. Bucky meets Madeline Linscott (Hilary Swank), a woman who comes from a rich family, and they begin a hot and torrid affair. Oh, and a young struggling actress named Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirschner) is murdered in a particularly gruesome fashion and becomes known as “The Black Dahlia”.
“The Black Dahlia”, directed by Brian DePalma, written by Josh Friedman, and based on a James Ellroy book, is a completely fictionalized account of what might have happened. Yet, everyone involved seems to go to great pains to skirt the most interesting part of the film, the mystery of the Black Dahlia, and we get lengthy bits about boxing, the love affair between Kay and Lee, Bucky’s attraction to Lee, Bucky’s relationship with Madeline, an old bank robbery, and much, much more. And only one of these story threads is even remotely related to the mystery of “The Black Dahlia”. I am a big fan of learning a lot about a character’s background, but it has to have some bearing on or connect to the main story. In “The Black Dahlia”, no one seems to know what the main story is.
Like any attempt at Film Noir, “The Black Dahlia” has a voice over and in this case, the voice over is provided by Hartnett, who plays the main character, a police office named “Bucky”. Throughout the voice over, Hartnett mumbles this and that, trying to evoke a certain mood, but he is incapable of doing so. Film Noir voice over requires a voice evoking experience, hard knocks, a challenged life. Hartnett is too young and inexperienced to pull this off.
Then, there is his acting. Hartnett is one of those actors who have basically one facial expression. Through any and all situations, the same face. It doesn’t matter whether he is unhappy, overjoyed, morose, at death’s door, whatever the situation he always seems glum. It is really incomprehensible to me why he continues to work in multimillion dollar films. There are many pretty women who have had shorter careers because they are unable to act as well. Yet Hartnett continues to get work.
Because he is unable to change his facial expression, Bucky becomes a cardboard character and we simply don’t care for him as he tries to work through this complicated mystery.
Aaron Eckhart fares a little better. As Lee, he has the looks and the acting ability to make us believe in his character. But the character seems to be a retread of the same troubled sole Russell Crowe played so well in “L.A. Confidential”, which is also based on a book by James Ellroy. But as acceptable as Eckhart is, his character is marred by problems. He is obsessed with a case, but it isn’t really the Black Dahlia. He has a haunted past, but it isn’t connected with the Black Dahlia. Lee also seems to be providing comic relief at points, joking around and mugging for the camera as he realizes Bucky and Kay are growing closer.
Scarlett Johannson’s Kay Lake is in the same boat as Josh Hartnett’s Bucky. They are both too young and can’t exude enough life experience for these roles. Sure they both look great, but this role is the type of thing Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Tierney, Lauren Bacall and other great actresses would take on and sink their teeth into. Johansson just isn’t in their league, at least not yet. Her performance is more evocative of a teenager in a high school play, trying to get their mouth used to all of the big people words and speech patterns. At the middle of a love triangle, she is clearly doing her best to appear sexually attractive, but her expression almost never changes. When she is upset, her face is blank. When she is trying to sexually tease Bucky, her face is blank. Not a very interesting performance.
Hillary Swank appears in her most sexual role to date. Perhaps after playing transgenders and women who want to be championship boxers, she was ready for a change. She certainly appears glamorous and fares the best of all the actors, but during the last few moments of the film, her character just completely falls apart. I can’t really reveal why, because to do so would spoil any surprises the film holds for those of you who choose to not heed my advice.
“The Black Dahlia” contains a couple of signature Brian DePalma set pieces. Yet, even these seem like retreads from his more interesting, better films. But the last few minutes of the film are so ludicrous it completely disintegrates any technical expertise these exhibit. This is the type of film where everyone even remotely connected to Bucky is involved in one of the two mysteries he is involved in. Yet throughout, he seems to have no idea. When he finally starts to realize this, he confronts them and demands “Tell me the truth” at which point, they break down and begin a long confession. Occasionally, DePalma decides to show us a bit of a flashback, to break the monotony of a long monologue. But that happens only occasionally, and usually to help explain the more incredulous connections.
“The Black Dahlia” would be, perhaps, an acceptable film, but the last twenty minutes completely erase any good will the film may have generated. Attempting to wrap the story up, and provide some resolution to the mystery of the Black Dahlia, DePalma and Friedman create a patchwork of unbelievable and bad performances, clues that didn’t exist and outlandish story ideas. What happens when you combine all of this? You have a mess.
“The Black Dahlia” is a big disappointment. Go and see “Hollywoodland” instead.