Featured Stories

The Big Movie: 'The Black Dahlia' (R)

Weekend!Movies: Film about unsolved L.A. murder is DOA

There will be many, many comparisons between 'The Black Dahlia' and 'L.A. Confidential,' both being adaptations of novels by James Ellroy.

In these comparisons, 'L.A. Confidential' will win, hands down, every time. For while Curtis Hanson's effortlessly cool earlier film captured the rhythms and nuances of Ellroy's prose, Brian De Palma merely stabs at it in the vain hope that something - anything - will work.

The problem with De Palma, as a colleague said to me recently, is that he almost dares you to laugh at his movies. The director of 'Scarface' and 'The Untouchables' has a vision of cinema as grand opera, his characters often flying so over the top that they verge on parody.

For every one of his brilliantly conceived flights of cinematic fancy - five-minute-long scenes shot in one take, homages to Eisenstein and Hitchcock - there are at least three or four scenes in every movie that are directed as if De Palma just didn't give a damn what ended up on screen.

Here, we have a typically convoluted Ellroy story of dirty cops, damaged dames, crooked politicians and murder, adapted for the screen in such a way that every detail is whisked on and off the stage far too quickly to give the audience a chance to catch up.

Two cops, ex-boxers both, are set up to fight as a publicity stunt and then, afterward, they become partners. Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) is the sensitive one, and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) is the brash one - their twosome turned into a triangle by Lee's live-in lover, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson).

Lee becomes obsessed with the Black Dahlia murder case and takes too much speed. Bucky's investigation leads him to L.A.'s lesbian bars, where he meets bisexual Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), a supposed dead ringer for the murdered girl.

Bucky's entanglement with Madeleine leads, naturally, to more murder, more secrets and the final revelation as to who killed the Black Dahlia.

For those interested in learning more about the infamous unsolved 1947 murder, this won't be especially enlightening. While the notorious crime colors and drives the story, it isn't the focus - sadly, there isn't much focus here at all.

De Palma's slam-bang approach to Ellroy's novel is to stage everything in as artificial a manner possible. Subplots are so vague as to be incomprehensible, and the garish look and pace of the film suggest that De Palma's entire knowledge of the noir genre comes from one drunken viewing of 'Chinatown.'

It is, in a word, a mess. De Palma even cheats viewers who admire his famously indulgent use of the camera, shooting most of the picture in tedious, static two-camera conversations, offering just one impressive set piece (involving a garroting that leads to a gory second-floor plunge) and one ridiculous scene where suddenly, for no good reason, we see everything from Bucky's point of view, with the other characters speaking directly into the camera.

It's hard to tell what De Palma wanted to achieve with this film. Whatever it was, what ended up on the screen is a confused, ugly mess.

- Dawn Taylor

Cinemagic, Century Eastport, Pioneer Place, Broadway, Lloyd Center, Hilltop, Evergreen Parkway, Movies on TV, Division Street, Stark Street