The Black Dahlia

Ready for a shocker? I read a book.

The Black Dahlia is a 1986 book written by James Ellroy.  It’s a semi-fictional re-imagining of the most notorious unsolved murder in the history of Hollywood.  The book was optioned for a film release almost immediately, but it took nearly twenty years to see completion.  It was released in 2006 to mediocre reviews.

After reading the book in late February, I decided to finally watch The Black Dahlia.  I really, really wanted to like this movie.  I loved the book, and held out hope that the movie was simply misunderstood, or just too cerebral and heavy for the average audience.

So how did it work out?

Poorly at best.

The movie is a mess.  It does everything and nothing.  The movie starts at a frantic pace.  Trying to cover 100 pages of exposition in 10 minutes without leaving anything out, characters and flashbacks and random scenes are thrown at the audience with little more to tie it together than the wooden narration of Josh Hartnett.

Speaking of the performances, Josh Hartnett bombed as the Dwight “Bucky” Bleichart.  His character is supposed to gradually descend into being driven crazy by the murder he’s investigating.  Hartnett brings no soul, no nuance, nothing to the role.  This becomes especially evident when rather than gradually going mad, he just randomly clicks into angry mode most of the way through the movie.  Similarly, Scarlett Johansson does little besides stand around and look pretty.  Even the characters that are acted reasonably well (like Aaron Eckhart as Lee Blanchard) are given so little development that they can’t leave an impression.

But back to the plot.  The book has dozens of characters and subplots, but all of them revolve in some way around the titular murder.  For those of you who don’t know, The Black Dahlia was a name given to a girl who was found dead and mutilated at the corner of 39th and Norton in Hollywood.  Close to 200 police officers and detectives were assigned to the case, as the LAPD wanted to do a show of force with such a gruesome murder.

Just about every subplot in the novel ties back to the investigation in some way.   In the movie though, everything feels disjointed.  The investigation feels like an afterthought, and we don’t see it’s affect on Bucky enough for his descent into madness to make any sense.  The other subplots and characters don’t compliment or add depth to the story, they just distract from the main plot.  When Bucky discovers a key clue in the case, the viewer probably forgot that there was a murder, because the last 30 minutes of the movie contained barely a mention of the Dahlia.

That being said, certain things are done well by the movie.  The look and feel of the movie suits the story perfectly.  Also, there is a set piece where one characters death (which is shrouded in mystery for much of the book) actually happens directly in front of the main character.  While this is a big change from the novel, I feel that staging it the way they did gave the death more dramatic weight (and saved the film about 40 minutes worth of subplot).  Plus, the set piece was De Palma direction at its best.

Despite certain saving graces, the pacing, acting and direction of this movie are a train wreck.  As much as I wanted to like this movie, I’ll go ahead and recommend the book.

43 out of 100

For Attebiz Movie Reviews, I’m the J-Man.

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