I’ve been impressed by the critical reaction to The Black Dahlia, which appears to have started out bad and only grown worse, with each reviewer trying to out-hate the others. For instance, the reviewer at Film Threat describes Scarlett Johansson’s performance as being “the cinematic equivalent of nails on a feces-covered blackboard”, which I’m not even entirely sure means anything.
Other reviews have been along the same lines — it’s “a steaming pile of gruesome camp”, it’s “florid, sprawling and self-satisfied”, it’s “like watching kids rehearse a drama in their parents’ clothes”. Everybody hates The Black Dahlia. And they’re right to, because it’s genuinely a bad film. But…I didn’t think it was as bad as everyone else did. I didn’t hate it — but I didn’t much like it either. While its faults are myriad, it does have the occasional enjoyable moment.
The Black Dahlia is a fictional detective story based around a non-fictional event, the unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947, whose body was found cut in half and severely mutilated. The story is seen through the eyes of Detective Dwight ‘Bucky’ Bleichert, played by Josh Hartnett (who you may have seen recently as ‘The Man’ in Sin City). Bleichert is partnered with Leland ‘Lee’ Blanchard, who ends up being driven to madness by the case, though this descent happens largely off-camera. Blanchard is married to Kay Lake — Scarlett Johansson, who looks absolutely perfect as a ’40s icon but is also at her most wooden — and there’s some fumbled attempts at a love triangle between the three but it never really convinces.
The main problem I had with this film; it just didn’t make sense. It makes no sense. I consider myself to be reasonably savvy on occasion, but throughout its two hours I was repeatedly asking myself questions — who’s that? Why are they there? Who’s she? Why’s she doing that? When the film ended, I knew whodunnit, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you why.
How sick are you?
But as I said, there are some good points. The film looks great, all sepia tones and fedoras, and although the leads are all fairly uncharismatic there’s some high-quality support from Hilary Swank and Mia Krishner (who plays Short, only seen during black and white screen tests) — though the film does harp on about how the two women are supposed to look like the spitting image of one another, when they don’t; not even a little bit.
There’s some enjoyable direction as well. The stand-out shot that you’ll hear everyone talk about is when Short’s body is first discovered. We witness from a distance the reaction of the woman who finds her, but then the camera retreats, and in a single shot backs away over a rooftop and pans back around to show us Bleichert and Blanchard in the middle of a stake-out that swiftly turns into a shoot-out. It’s beautifully done, and there’s a number of shots throughout the film where I could sit back and just admire De Palma at work.
There’s also a few incredibly wince-worthy moments; early on in the film, Bleichert gets his two front teeth knocked out in a boxing match; a killer has his head smashed open after falling from a great height onto a fountain…it’s all good, clean, family fun.
But…yeah, it really isn’t a good film. It’s nonsensical, the lead actors are all overwhelmed and unconvincing, the film doesn’t appear to know whether it wants to focus on the Dahlia murder, Bleichert, Blanchard or all three; it meanders all over the place instead. Despite this, I enjoyed watching it to the end, because I’m a sucker for good looks; regardless of its flaws, this is a very good-looking film. Besides, I had a cold, and sitting quietly and soaking up all that sepia was cheering me up.
Finally, I want to give a special mention to Fiona Shaw. Shaw, who is probably best known now for playing the role of Aunt Petunia in the Harry Potter films, turns in — it has to be said — the worst film performance of the year. A stark contrast to the cold woodenness of Johansson and Hartnett, she plays the part of Ramona Linscott in an astonishingly over-the-top fashion. Part drunken socialite, part fucking mental, I have honestly never cringed as much as I did when I watched her here. Truly, spectacularly awful.