‘The Black Dahlia’ (2006)

The Black Dahlia I first read James Ellroy’s ‘The Black Dahlia’ about 15 years ago, when I has coming off of a major jag for the American sculptor Bruce Conner . One of Conner’s signature pieces is a Rauschenberg-like tribute to Elizabeth Short , a tatty bit of costume jewelery, dried flowers and nylons.

Having never read an Ellroy novel before, I was fully absorbed by the antiheroics of his characters and the perversions of postwar Hollywood, such that when 1997′s L.A. Confidential came out, I’d read one or tree more Ellroy novels and I was ready to see a hard-bitten and gritty film. I wasn’t disappointed.

Flash-forward 8 or 9 years and it is announced that Brian DePalma is going to direct Dahlia – this only after David Fincher has dropped out a year before. DePalma’s fine legacy of thrillers including ‘Scarface’ (1983), ‘Carrie’ (1976), ‘Dressed to Kill’ (1980), ‘Blow Out’ (1981) and the thematically relevant ‘Body Double’ (1984) should have made him a suitable interpreter of this noir material , that, IIRC ran as a character-study of two L.A. detectives and a murder case that consumed their personal and professional lives. Again, my memory of the book’s particulars are a little hazy, but I am MOST certain that what I saw in the theater was not Ellroy’s novel.

Sure, I was encouraged even after I heard that David Fincher was leaving the project and DePalma was to take over – we might not get the Seven -like grit, but me may still get the horror and the character study. But then, news of the cast started to roll in – Scarlett Johansson, Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart and Hilary Swank. Only one actress named, Mia Kirchner, seemed capable of the gravitas that a proper adaptation might require and she was playing the victim, Elizabeth Short in flashbacks. Already, this was not the hard-bitten cast of Confidential , no tough-guys embodied by Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce and no Fatale of Kim Basinger’s calibre.

Sadly, this Dahlia is not the same as the one in the binders as 3 out of the 4 leads have been badly miscast. Hartnett is the epitome of the good-looking ’90′s television actor, Swank and Johansson are his female counterpats; as Basinger did in Confidential , at least one of the actresses ought to have lit up the screen – unfortunately Kirchner’s dead girl seems to be the only one with a pulse. Writer Josh Friedman has decimated a story that once had suspense and character development into a by-the-numbers piece about class warfare. Ellroy should get a refund. This postwar Hollywood is supposed to represent something of a dystopia, a land of broken dreams, star-fuckers and look-alike hookers. Pretty-boy Hartnett is out of his depth and Johannsen is far to sane and hygienic as a woman rescued from a suffocating relationship with her pimp.

Save for a very few well choreographed boxing scenes, Dahlia is nothing more than L.A. Confidential as interpreted by the WB or Fox prime-time soap reperatory company. I had hoped for so much more; I had hoped to see two working-class cops pushed to their limits by the political pressure of a hot-button case, but sadly, this was not that film.

And perhaps I should have known it was all for naught when Nu Image Films appeared in the credits as one of the production companies – Nu Image is of course one of the handful of studios that provides weekly spectacles to the SciFi Channel at a rate of $1 million dollars per. When on considers that the recently canceled Stargate:SG-1 was running at a cost of $2 million dollars per episode. If Nu Image can’t farm a script with $1 million dollars, why should their contributions be any meritorious with a once-great director and a $50 million dollar budget?

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Also see:
Sean Piccoli, ‘ Messy crime thriller is no L.A. Confidential
Peter Howell, ‘ Black Dahlia wilts from a surfeit of incident and a shortage of credibility
Jeanne Kaplan, ‘ Weak. Wait for the Video.
Carol Cling, ‘Black’ Hole: A lot of Grade-A talent disappears in Hollywood whodunit ‘Dahlia’
Michael Booth, ‘Black Dahlia’ lacks a Bogie or Basinger
Doris Toumarkine, ‘A stunning reminder that a film is not necessarily the sum of very promising parts’ .

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