Could be some spoilers here, okay?
As you well know from my little review of HOLLYWOODLAND a few blog entries back, I do love those Tinseltown noir movies. I love the rainy streets and seedy bars. I love the wisecracking P.I.s and depraved interviews with society's monsters. That's why I had such high hopes for THE BLACK DAHLIA's page-to-screen transition. And that's why I feel so let down.
First, the positives about this film: love the time period, of course. Love Mia Kirshner's performance as Elizabeth Short. And I love any movie--including L.A. CONFIDENTIAL--that uses the term "shitbird." It is the most hilarious word to lose meaning in our lexicon ever.
Then, the negatives, which would include...the rest of the movie. Oh, my, the rest of the movie.
I haven't read James Ellroy's book, though it's been topping one of my TBR piles for about three years now. (That would be the dark mystery pile. Yes, I am that detail-oriented.) I don't know how the movie script compares with the book, but I'm thinking that the entire main storyline had to be more interesting in novel form. Much to my surprise, I found out that the prime plotline involves two L.A. detectives, Bucky and Lee. There's a lot of intricate stuff going on including shady cops and bank heists and also the requisite femme fatale, Kay Lake. (And THE BLACK DAHLIA actually has more than one bad mamma-jamma. Believe me.) I'm sorry to report that Bucky, Lee, and Kay are the most trying part of the film. It stunned me that a story titled in reference to Elizabeth Short, whose murder is probably one of our country's top five most intriguing mysteries of all time, doesn't actually dwell on her demise as much as you'd expect. Much of the action is devoted to the main love triangle and Bucky and Lee's own not-quite-love story. But the film is at its very best when Mia Kirshner is on screen: she brings an almost palpable tragedy to Elizabeth's cryptic life, and as a dead character, she's more alive than any of the breathing ones.
There is the bonus of a wacky dinner at the Linscott household though. They're the Addams Family-on-gothic-crack and I quite enjoyed that part.
Now, I love a lot of Brian De Palma's movies. CARRIE is a masterpiece, and DRESSED TO KILL contains some of the creepiest moments ever committed to film. BODY DOUBLE is so clever and exhaustively compelling that it has a place in my movie collection, too. And THE UNTOUCHABLES? Love, love, love. At times, I felt that THE BLACK DAHLIA was sort of a cross between THE UNTOUCHABLES and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL in tone, but where THE UNTOUCHABLES worked, THE BLACK DAHLIA drowns. THE UNTOUCHABLES has the same semi-operatic vibe, a touch of overkill in the acting and the music. But take, for instance, the BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN/train station scene from THE UNTOUCHABLES and compare it to the similar Bucky-goes-after-BD-on-the-stairs scene (I'm trying to keep this pretty spoiler-free, but if you've seen the film, you know what I'm talking about.). It has the same grand feel, the same use of slow motion, but in THE UNTOUCHABLES, the over-the-top presentation utilized suspense and a certain doomed beauty. In THE BLACK DAHLIA, it's just over the top.
And...boy, so many other things to comment on. What was going on with Hilary Swank's character? Here we have a woman who is supposed to be Elizabeth Short's lookalike, and every time someone mentions this, it takes me out of the movie because there is no resemblance beyond dark hair. Elizabeth Short and Mia Kirshner share a particular striking feature--their ice-blue eyes--and casting someone with that *one* little similarity would've made so much difference. Also, there's the ending. Alas, the ending. All of a sudden, the audience finds themselves in a Hammer picture. There were so many "Whaaaat the...?" moments in the finale that my audience actually started to grumble. No joke.
That said, I still think Brian De Palma is an artist to always watch. I truly believe his next movie will be brilliant. I was just disappointed here, but I'm still going to go to his films....