Directed by Brian De Palma from the novel by neo-noirist James Ellroy, The Black Dahlia is a true-crime policier unfolding in late-'40s Los Angeles somewhere between the neighborhoods of Chinatown and Mulholland Drive.
The premise involves one of LA's most notorious unsolved homicides. In early 1947, the naked corpse of a 22-year-old aspiring actress was found dumped in a South Central lot. She had been cut in half at the waist and surgically disemboweled; her blood was drained, her legs were splayed, and her face was carved into a jack o' lantern grin. The gruesome details were suppressed, but the mysterious victim (nicknamed in the press for her dark hair and matching wardrobe) entered local mythology as Hollywood's ultimate lost soul. Many confessed to the crime. The cops, the tabs and assorted cultists cast a wide net: Celebrity suspects included Woody Guthrie and Orson Welles.
In City of Quartz, historian Mike Davis calls the Black Dahlia murder "the crucial symbolic commencement of the postwar era a local 'name of the rose' concealing a larger metaphysical mystery." (Like a blood sacrifice on the altar of Hollywood.) Subject of a mid-'70s made-for-TV movie starring Lucie Arnaz, the Dahlia figured in John Gregory Dunne's True Confessions and the movie adapted from it, before "demon dog" Ellroy packed the case with his own not-inconsiderable obsessions. Hewing closely to the first half of Ellroy's novel, the movie Black Dahlia is less the tale of the eponymous victim or even the investigation into her death than that of the posthumous spell the dead woman cast on two cops, Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart).
Pugilists both, sweet-tempered Bucky and brash Lee meet in the midst of a wartime zoot-suit riot and again, for a bit of election-year LAPD promotion, in the boxing ring. They become partners and then an uneasy threesome once Lee introduces Bucky to his girlfriend, Kay (dame du jour Scarlett Johansson), a lush-lipped dish who waves her cigarette holder as though flagging down a ride. Lee and Kay share many secrets. When, in an unlikely date, the trio goes to see the 1928 silent horror flick The Man Who Laughs, De Palma lets his camera linger on Kay's agonized response to the protagonist's scarred face. She, we soon discover, has herself been branded.
Steeped in sexual pathology, replete with mutilation, doubling, fetishes and porn, Ellroy's Dahlia scenario would seem to be De Palma's meat. The movie, however, is anything but overheated and largely impersonal. De Palma's interest is strictly pyrotechnical. He choreographs his cops through a convoluted shoot-out on the streets of South Central, enabling the cosmic coincidence where they stumble upon the just-discovered Dahlia crime scene. (The subsequent overhead view of the Dahlia autopsy is a rote De Palma touch.)
Competence trumps craziness if not the limits of the screenplay, written by War of the World's co-scripter Josh Friedman. Although the action set pieces are impressive, the exposition is sluggish. For all the posh dollies, high angles and Venetian-blind crisscross patterns, The Black Dahlia movie rarely achieves the rhapsodic (let alone the delirious). In the designated music video, Bucky finds himself investigating the Dahlia's connections in some La-La Lesbian Land. He's the only male, save for the band, in a deluxe supper club where k.d. lang sings "Love for Sale" as several dozen chorines gather in mock orgy formation on a grand staircase to nowhere.
A strangely Dahlia-esque brunette is haunting the joint. Bucky pursues her, discovering that Madeleine (a glamorously unrecognizable Hilary Swank, giving the movie's sparkiest performance) is a swinger from a very rich, powerful and freaky Los Angeles family. Dinner with the folks is nearly as grotesque as the family gathering in Eraserhead. Madeleine's father, she tells Bucky once they've bedded down in an appropriately tawdry motor court, built a firetrap housing development out of movie sets discarded by Mack Sennett. Thus do celluloid fantasies insinuate themselves into life.
More obviously, the action is punctuated by suggestive screen tests featuring Mia Kirshner's bland Dahlia, as well as flashbacks to The Man Who Laughs. Although, from a narrative point of view, these interludes are as inexplicable as Bucky's failure to be bounced from the force for rampant indiscretions, they are necessary to establish the Dahlia as the unquiet corpse of every would-be starlet whose heart was ground for dog food. The movie's own heart of darkness is a deserted movie set, complete with torture death chamber, beneath the Hollywood sign. Its pièce de résistance is a stag film featuring the Dahlia and a jailbait buddy. The cops watch this one at headquarters. Lee goes hysterical and splits; his Dahlia obsession leads, in another De Palma set piece, to his downfall. Bucky's fate is more ambiguous. Caught between branded blonde and moneyed brunette, sharing criminal secrets with both, he needs to figure out which is the witch.
Describing the Dahlia's tawdry vehicle, Bucky allows that it's "pretty spooky stuff." Would that were true for the entire picture. The movies have everything to do with the Dahlia's desire and the mania this imaginary creature inspires. De Palma is not, however, remaking Vertigo; although he casts himself as the Dahlia's unseen director, that obsession seems no longer his. There are moments when The Black Dahlia projects a spectral world, but its ghosts in broad daylight are elusive at best.