While a lot of focus will be placed on how The Black Dahlia fares as a James Ellroy adaptation, I would posit that the film functions less on that front and more as Brian De Palma's love letter to classic Hollywood cinema.
Yes, all the general Ellroy elements are there. There are the manly cops, one with a moral stance that borders on willful naivetť (Bucky Bleichert, as played by Josh Hartnett) and one who throws his punches first and asks questions only if he has to (Lee Blanchard, played by Aaron Eckhart). Scarlett Johansson is Kay Lake, the blonde with a troubled past who ties both men up in knots, and Hilary Swank is Madeleine Linscott, the dark beauty who knows more than she's telling. There are corrupt cops, corrupt society types, and their gutter-ravaged counterparts, as well as multiple plot lines that are seemingly separate but then converge. The complexity of the dirty dealings in 1940s Los Angeles can make your head spin, and there are times when I definitely had to stop and ask, "Wait, who did what?" That's part of the charm, though, and given De Palma's own love of vertiginous plots and his tendency to keep his audience guessing, it's also probably what made him a good fit for Ellroy.
The Black Dahlia uses a real-life murder as its springboard. In 1947, wannabe actress Elizabeth Short (played by Mia Kirshner from "The L Word") was killed and mutilated and dumped in a field in L.A. Her killer was never found. In his 1987 novel, Ellroy used the crime to create a dark thriller that used the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, and in particular the motion picture business, as its backdrop. Screenwriter Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds) took that element of the novel and ran with it, getting into the nitty gritty of the less attractive offshoots of the entertainment world. De Palma takes it one step further by shooting his film in an old Hollywood style. His use of dissolves, his composition of actors, even the way he works with composer Mark Isham's music cues, suggest that he boned up on his film noir before shooting on The Black Dahlia began.
This, of course, is nothing new for De Palma. In the '70s, he did a similar upgrade of B-grade horror films, and movies like Sisters and Blow Out contained many a loving homage to the shockers that influenced him. Here he takes his admiration for old-school crime pictures and goes even further than he did in The Untouchables, working with Ellroy's knife-sharp jazz style to throw a lurid coat of paint over the noir of yesteryear. There are frequent references to many genre touchstones, including The Blue Dahlia with Alan Ladd and Black Angel with Dan Duryea. Yet, given the garish colors and the heavy-handed melodrama that pervade The Black Dahlia, the movie feels influenced by Douglas Sirk just as much as it does Fritz Lang or Anthony Mann. In opening up the twisted heart of noir, De Palma is showing us there was far more evil inside than his predecessors were allowed to show, but he also gives the film more of an emotional swing. Josh Hartnett is perfectly cast as the dim detective struggling with the single note he thinks defines him as "the good guy." Bucky takes it on the chin more than once because of his feelings for a woman, and even falls into the classic hardboiled trap of having a little too much faith in his partner. Hartnett's blank eyes convey the right amount of dopey so that when Bucky realizes what a patsy he's been, his stepping over the tough guy line is appropriately convincing.
Though Friedman and De Palma understand the feel of an Ellroy novel and do a good job of paring the story down to make it fit into a two-hour motion picture, The Black Dahlia suffers next to the previous Ellroy success story. De Palma's film doesn't sing the way Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential did. Part of it is that Hanson cooked up Ellroy's square-jawed, no-nonsense storytelling while leaving out the pork, something the more bombastic De Palma can't always resist. While his invocation of the golden age of Hollywood largely works in his favor, it can sometimes be his downfall. The Black Dahlia drags in the middle, usually from a scene playing too long or because De Palma endeavors too hard to maintain the straight-laced acting style. The backstory between Kay and Blanchard could have been laid out a lot faster, as could the opening montage of Blanchard and Bucky's past history as boxers. The movie often felt like it paused so that the actors could chew on the explanatory dialogue while the audience was longing to get back into the grisly joyride.
Even so, The Black Dahlia has style to spare, and even when the story starts to get bogged down, there is always something pretty to look at, even if it's just Scarlett Johansson's gorgeous blonde hair. When the mystery picks up again in the final half hour, everything is right with De Palma's world, and the director rolls his credits on a high note. There is satisfaction in the big reveal, and though there is no straightforward win-or-lose solution in a world this morally ambiguous, justice is done just the same. It makes for a nice payoff for hardboiled fans looking for their fix of femme fatales, detectives that know how to take a punch, and dark, dark shadows.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.