It's been four years since Brian De Palma made a movie, by far the longest break in his 45-year career. He hasn't changed much in the interim. "The Black Dahlia" is every inch a Brian De Palma Movie, ambitiously well-made, sometimes laughably trashy, always interesting, and occasionally so odd you just have to chuckle, shake your head and say, "Oh, De Palma...."
Mr. Wishes-He-Were-Hitchcock ("Scarface," "Carrie," "The Untouchables") loves his blondes and his femmes fatales ("Femme Fatale" was even the name of his last film), and "The Black Dahlia" has 'em in spades. Set in Los Angeles just after World War II, the film is based on a pulpy James Ellroy novel, which itself was based on a real story about a grisly unsolved murder. It's full-fledged film noir, not just in the hard-boiled dialogue and twisty plot, but in the way it's shot, rife with shadows, angles, alleyways and rooftops.
The obligatory cynical-voiced narrator is police detective Dwight Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), a stand-up guy whose partner and friend Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) is a little off-kilter and prone to obsessive behavior. They're looking for one particular low-life when Lee gets them moved to another case, investigating the murder of a struggling actress named Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), whose body was found disemboweled and cut in half in an empty field. I mean, who WOULDN'T want to work that case?!
Lee soon becomes unhealthily focused on solving the crime, with leads pointing to the girl's alleged forays into pornography and bisexuality (two of De Palma's favorite topics). That's in the background, though -- indeed, Lee seems to wander out of the film altogether for a while. In the foreground, there is Dwight's budding fondness for Lee's girlfriend, Kay (Scarlett Johansson). The three have always been chummy, but now it begins to go further.
Enter Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank). Daughter of one of Hollywood's wealthiest, WASP-iest movie moguls, she's also a part-time lesbian and full-time mystery girl. She had a connection to Elizabeth Short and soon has a connection to Dwight, too, insofar as they start sleeping together. Evidently Dwight never heard the rule about not sleeping with witnesses, or never saw any of the movies where doing so turned out badly.
Oh, but it gets convoluted from there, in the delicious way that film noirs do, with more murders and suspects and clues and red herrings. De Palma shoots it all in his usual gleeful and technically proficient style, though without quite as much showboating as usual. He executes a magnificent crane shot around a run-down building behind which Elizabeth's body is found, but the shot isn't one of the three-minute things he used to do so many of. The scene in which Dwight meets Madeleine's family is shot from Dwight's point of view, the camera standing in for him -- but again, this lasts only a moment. De Palma is doing all his old tricks, in other words, and in great abundance. He's just not doing them as thoroughly as he once did.
And so the film is enjoyable enough, yet never quite comes together as a whole. Without the visual curlicues -- I didn't mention a hauntingly composed shot of a shadowy figure observing a murder -- I suspect my attention would have dwindled several times over the course of the rambling narrative. I admire the way the characters are photographed and the way they move around the sets more than I care about them as people.
The performances are serviceable to the plot, which is to say the actors aren't showy or grand; they just do what they're supposed to. I cite as the sole exception Fiona Shaw, who wins the Christopher Walken Award for Craziest One- or Two-Scene Performance as Madeleine's hilariously alcoholic elitist snob mother. She's the quintessential Brian De Palma character: excessive to the point of being grotesque, so much so that you can't help but smile and think that's what De Palma was going for all along.