Wednesday, January 12, 2011

THE BLACK DAHLIA (Regency 2006) Universal Home Entertainment

Self-righteously appointed with the wannabe 'bad boy' visual style of Curtis Hansen's L.A. Confidential (1997), and with a pedigree of another gripping James Ellroy novel, itself vaguely based on the real life grizzly murder of a troubled young woman, director Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia (2006) lacks the tenacity of a densely packed film noir thriller. Ellroy actually wrote the book as a cathartic release and personal closure in response to his own mother's unsolved murder mystery.

And while the novel exhibits Ellroy's usual dark snap and gripping emotional depth, the film adaptation rarely sports either. It also greatly suffers from the central miscasting of baby faced Josh Hartnett to play rough n' tumble police detective Dwight 'Bucky' Bleichert. Hartnett's take on the character veers more toward the sullen than the morose and, as such, his cop is a panged outsider with deep seeded aggressions that never go beyond some vaguely latent homo-erotic stage; in the company of stereotypical 'manly' men, though never quite one himself.

By all accounts the real 'Black Dahlia', Elizabeth Short, had been a comely, if slightly naive, young woman prone to exaggerations about her own past. On Jan. 15, 1947 Short's body was discovered by a passerby in a vacant lot in the Leimert District of Los Angeles; sawed in half, drained of blood, slit from mouth to ear and posed with her arms over her head. The press had a field day with wild and unsubstantiated speculations as to how Short met her untimely end - prodded by carefully timed anonymous contact with the killer, who taunted police by parcelling off Short's personal belongings to the Los Angeles Examiner to keep public interest alive in the case.

The screenplay by Josh Friedman begins in earnest - adopting the conventional first personal narration of a classic film noir; in this case, that of LAPD police officer Dwight Bleichert (Hartnett), presently in preparation for a boxing showdown with fellow officer, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). Bleichart explains how their unlikely partnership began during a riot in downtown L.A. where Bleichert intervened in an alley brawl between Blanchard and several drunken combatants. In gratitude, Lee introduced Dwight to Police Capt. John Tierney (Angus MacInnes) and the D.A. who has a yen for would be 'fighters' and is looking to promote able bodied hotheads within the police force to the detective squad.

The fight is, of course, fixed; a publicity stunt in which Lee inadvertently causes Dwight to lose his two front teeth. It also gets him promoted to detective - a salary increase that affords Dwight the opportunity to place his ailing father in the proper care of a posh nursing home. Recognizing Dwight as a stand-up guy, Lee's girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson) takes an immediate liking to him; an emotional attachment that Dwight quashes because he also respects and admires Lee as a friend.

At a New Years Eve party, Lee is informed by Morrie Friedman (Anthony Russell) that Bobby De Witt (Richard Brake), a convict Lee helped send to the penitentiary is being released in a few days after serving ten years. But there is precious little time to be concerned over De Witt - especially since Lee and Dwight are currently on the heels of a child rapist. As Lee and Dwight stake out the rapist's possible hideaway the action shifts to an abandon field directly behind the building where the badly dismembered remains of the Black Dahlia (Mia Kirshner) are first discovered by a woman taking her baby for a buggy ride. After a shootout between Lee, Dwight and in inhabitants of the building, Lee and Dwight join the investigation of the Black Dahlia out back. If this is Friedman's idea of running parallel narratives, its choppy at best, becoming even more badly conceived and executed by De Palma as the narrative further unravels.

Solving the Black Dahlia murder becomes an obsession for Lee who, chronically bent on Benzedrine, isolates himself from both Dwight and Kay, taking refuge in Dwight's old apartment and transforming it into a macabre shrine to the victim; Elizabeth Short. Lee's increasingly violent streak threatens to push his own sanity over the edge.

Meanwhile, Dwight learns from nightclub owner, Morrie Friedman that Bobby De Witt was the prime suspect in an armed bank robbery; the case that launched Lee's career as a detective. He also discovers from old case files that Kay was originally one of De Witt's prostitutes; a suspicion confirmed when Dwight catches sight of Kay half naked in the bathroom with De Witt's initials carved into her flesh. The money from the robbery was never recovered and later, presumably as one of the film's 'shocking' revelations, it turns up buried under the tiles of the kitchen sink in the apartment Lee shares with Kay.

Dwight becomes involved with a Black Dahlia look alike, Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank); a bisexual femme fatale he first meets at a lesbian club. Madeleine confesses to knowing Elizabeth but informs Lee that the publicity generated from this revelation would cripple her father, Emmett's (John Kavanaugh) real estate business. Instead, in what is surely the film's most bizarre moment yet to come, Madeleine invites Dwight to dinner with her family. Madeleine's mother, Ramona (Fiona Shaw) is a neurotic seething with rage, while Madeleine's sister, Martha (Rachel Miner) is a nymphomaniac who offers Dwight a sketch of him mounting Madeleine as her parting gift.

Dwight and Madeleine do indeed meet in lustful embrace shortly thereafter, a rendezvous at a seedy motel where Madeleine reveals that she and Elizabeth were lesbian lovers just for kicks. Dwight is repulsed by this revelation and leaves Madeleine. A stag film confiscated by Dwight from Elizabeth's roommate, Lorna Mertz (Jemima Rooper) leaves Lee incensed and the D.A. demotes him.

Acting on a tip from Morrie, Dwight learns that Lee has gone back to the lesbian club after hours to confront Bobby De Witt. Arriving on the scene, a darkened lobby with a winding staircase, Dwight roughs up De Witt. But before he can gain valuable information, De Witt is gunned down by Lee standing over them at the top of the stairs.

Dwight sees an ominous shadow of two hands holding a raised garrotte behind Lee and attempts to warn Lee. Regrettably, it's too late. As the stranger strangles Lee another darkened figure emerges from the shadows, slitting Lee's throat and sending both Lee and his assailant over the side rail. They plummet several stories to the lobby below, landing with a bone crushing thud on an art deco marble fountain. Morrie Friedman arrives and informs Dwight that the crimes must be covered up at all cost. The bodies of De Witt, Lee and his assassin are incinerated in the club's basement furnace.

After learning that Kay and Lee were in on De Witt's heist, framing De Witt to keep the bank robbery money for themselves, Lee dumps Kay for Madeleine once again - this time at her family's palatial home while mum, dad and sis are away. To his astonishment, amongst the family photos is a picture of the man who garrotted Lee. Dwight recalls that Emmett had acquired a lot of old film sets that he used to build cheap housing near the Hollywoodland sign. Driving to that location, Dwight discovers the same set used in Elizabeth's stag film; abandoned and blood soaked.

Believing he understands who killed Elizabeth, Dwight confronts Emmett and Madeleine at the Linscott mansion, only to learn from a deranged Ramona that she was the one who murdered Elizabeth in a psychotic, jealous frenzy. It seems Emmett lent the director of the stag movie one of his homes to shoot it. But Emmett's friend, George Tilden (Billy Finley) - the man who garrotted Lee - became obsessed with Elizabeth. Emmett, in effect, paid for Elizabeth to sexually service him.

This in turn sent Ramona into an all consuming rage because she had been George's lover with Martha as the tangible result of their affair. Learning the truth, Emmett had George's face disfigured - presumably to repulse his wife from any further carrying on. So, one night at the abandoned housing development, Ramona returned this 'favour' by bludgeoning Elizabeth to death with a baseball bat before slitting her from ear to ear and dismembering her body. Having confessed to Dwight, Madeleine and Emmett to the most heinous crime in Hollywood's history, Ramona removes a gun from her bodice, inserts it into her own mouth and pulls the trigger.

Dwight now realizes that Lee was blackmailing Emmett. Emmett sent George to the Morrie's club to murder Lee with Madeleine as his knife totting accomplice. Dwight follows Madeleine with her latest sexual conquest - a pudgy merchant marine - to the same seedy motel they had sex at earlier. Scaring off Madeleine's 'date' - Dwight confronts her with the news that she killed Lee and to his amazement she admits as much. Lee shoots her dead and returns to Kay's house, telling her that he realizes she cares for him. A fleeting vision of the Dahlia's dismembered remains floods Dwight's consciousness on last time, but Kay understands Dwight's torment - ushering him back into her arms.

The Black Dahlia is convoluted - if ultra stylish - conjecture at best. Christopher Tandon's art direction and Vilmos Zsigmond's slick and evocative cinematography are pluses to be sure, evoking the haunted tapestry of a typical 40s film noir if it were short in both widescreen and colour. But the action set before these marvellous set pieces simply doesn't hold up under closer scrutiny. Once again, Josh Friedman's script seems chiefly the culprit - veering wildly between all of Ellroy's narrative threads in a clumsy patchwork that doesn't come together until the final reel - simplistically so, and, long after the audience has lost interest in who killed Elizabeth Short.

It should also be noted that the murder of the real Black Dahlia has never been solved - hence the film itself is just a glossy work of fiction with little fact attached. That would be sufficient enough if the movie worked as pure entertainment. Tragically, it does not and that, unfortunately, is where De Palma's usually coherent direction mercilessly lags. There's a great deal of style exuded herein but painfully at the expense of substance. Put bluntly, The Black Dahlia is no L.A. Confidential!

Universal Home Video's Blu-Ray release is, however, most welcomed, delivering a tight and dramatic visual presentation that perfectly recaptures the resplendent style of Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography. The sepia tint applied throughout the film has been lovingly reproduced in 1080p with a remarkable amount of subtle tonality. On the DVD the image merely appeared muddy with a slightly orange copper tint.

On Blu-Ray, the slightest difference in that sepia patina is evident as are an abundance of fine details. The image is razor sharp without being digitally harsh. The audio is a newly channelled 7.1 mix that is aggressive and nuanced. Extras are limited to three featurettes; on the making of the film, the real life crime file and the 'De Palma touch'.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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