The Black Dahlia
Disjointed murder in the first degree
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
"For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ." Shakespeare's Hamlet
Murders are messy on the screen and in real life; screenplays about them can be chaotic and disjointed also. Such is the case with Black Dahlia, a film noir from Brian De Palma, a past master of the macabre and the complicated (Blow Out, Body Double). It has all the trappings of a first-rate detective novel (James Ellroy) made into a 1940's thriller with appropriately moody music of the soulful trumpet (Mark Isham), lush production design (Dante Ferretti), and equally impressive costuming (Jenny Beavan), all set in a timelessly seedy Los Angeles.
There's also the conflicted, sometimes dark hero detective (Josh Hartnett) and the sexy, dangerous femme fatale (Hilary Swank), accompanied by the questionably good voluptuary sex bomb (Scarlett Johansson). As if these noir troublemakers were not enough, writer Josh Friedman seemingly adapts Ellroy's every subplot, every story thread, as if each had to be accounted for in the best CSI tradition.
The original novel was based on aspiring actress Elizabeth Short's unsolved grizzly murder in 1947. After a considerably convoluted exposition, with plot lines rarely intersecting in a unified way, the film has the nerve to offer one of the most extensive denouements in film history, could be a half hour, with lengthy explanation of how all those ends tied together. Needless to say, anti climaxes abound in this last segment, leaving not only more confusion about the plot but also a desire to get back to The Big Sleep without sleeping, a state Black Dahlia threatened several times.
Hartnett's detective says, "Nothing stays buried forever. Nothing." I say this weak noir wannabe should stay buried until a bright 22nd century scholar sees its cultural and aesthetic significance. Until then, it's a jumble of plot points resolved in the end by tedious narration. Even Scarlett Johansson's pulchritude couldn't win me, and that's murder in the first degree.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE 90.5's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm and on demand anytime. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com