A Sheep in Noir Clothing

Brian DePalma’s “The Black Dahlia” is an homage to Los Angeles film noir. The return of noir is a thankful refuge from the teen horror flicks featuring B-list singers-turned-actresses, and the flat action movies of the summer. Autumn weather makes one feel smoky, mysterious, and a little naughty — perfect for this season’s noir films.

“The Black Dahlia,” adapted from James Ellroy’s wordy novel bearing the same name, is based on the true of story of Elizabeth Short (played by Mia Kirshner), an aspiring actress found disemboweled and sawed in half. Ellroy also wrote “LA Confidential,” which translated to film much more successfully.

The essentials of a successful noir are there: sexuality, mystery, and an ever-present L.A. mischievousness, but DePalma does little with them. One would expect that the director of “Scarface” would be able to contribute to the revered canon with refreshing insight but “Black Dahlia” falls short of expectations with a muddled storyline, often covered by excessive violence and racy sexuality.

Although sexuality and gratuitous bloodshed parallel the recipe for successful noir films, “Dahlia,” fails to measure up to the great noirs of the past. Think Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” with its disturbing reverse-oedipal subplot and the final scene, including the lovely Faye Dunaway shot through the eye. Unlike “Chinatown,” “Dahlia” is basic at best in its attempts. It immerses itself in lesbian relationships and fetishism without managing to make a point as to the purpose of these subplots. One leaves “Black Dahlia” feeling confused, a little aroused, but hardly entertained.

To the DePalma’s credit, his casting is substantial. Scarlett Johansson, the one remaining teen queen actress who has managed a career not overshadowed by partying, gives an honest attempt at playing Kay Lake — the prostitute turned loving, concerned girlfriend of LAPD detective Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). She’s definitely talented but the role seems beyond her grasp. Though Johansson seems a little out of her element, the first time she appears on screen one is stunned by her beauty and deep, husky voice. In a few years, she may be able to successfully play the curvaceous, sexy, yet attainable heroine roles created for her.

Hilary Swank, as the monied seductress, Madeleine Linscott, carries the weight of the movie as the classic femme fatale. It’s refreshing to see Swank dolled up and dangerous. Her fierce sexuality and unforgiving secrecy make you want more of her and her character’s storyline: a rich girl with a pedophiliac father and an alcoholic mother (Fiona Shaw, doing her best impression of Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard”).

Josh Hartnett, however, falls flat as Officer Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert, a good cop about to get his hands dirty. His character is basically uninspired and unbelievable.

Overall, it’s best to wait for “Dahlia” to hit video. It offers enough sex and violence to entertain you at home but is hardly worth pricey movie theater fees.

Quiana Chambers

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