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The Black Dahlia
Universal Pictures
Directed by Brian DePalma
Starring Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, and Hilary Swank
Rated R

If there’s a defining metaphor in the works of novelist James Ellroy, it’s the specialized prostitutes that populate his L.A. Confidential. Recruited because of their resemblance to 1940s screen goddesses, the women were an attempt to give men a chance to live the fantasy, even as they submitted to their basest urges. That’s Ellroy’s world: a Hollywood where the glossy surface illusion hides all the ugliest parts of human nature.

This is why there may be no worse choice to direct a James Ellroy adaptation than Brian DePalma. Over a 40-year career behind the camera, DePalma has built a reputation as the master of a slick image. Even in the lamest of vehicles — Snake Eyes, anyone? — there would always come a moment in a DePalma film where you’d be distracted at least momentarily by a virtuoso camera maneuver or a thrilling set piece. Everything else might be complete crap, but hey, how about that eye candy?

So here’s DePalma, taking on the lurid underworld of Ellroy’s fiction and turning it into a flourishy exercise in high-camp pseudo-noir. Like Ellroy’s novel, the events are based on a true-life 1947 Los Angeles murder case, involving the discovery of the mutilated corpse of a beautiful woman. Warrant cops Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) happen to be on the scene when the body of Elizabeth Short — quickly dubbed “The Black Dahlia” in the press — is discovered, and are temporarily reassigned to homicide. Bleichert soon realizes that Blanchard’s obsession with victimized young women — like Kay (Scarlett Johansson), with whom he lives in an unconsummated romance — could complicate their investigation. And once he realizes that Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) — the daughter of a millionaire construction tycoon — could be involved in the case, things get even more complicated.

For at least a little while, it looks as though Josh Friedman’s radically-condensed adapted screenplay is going to hit all the important notes. The film opens with the staged boxing match between Bleichert and Blanchard that drums up publicity for a voter bond measure for police funding, hitting on the politicized world of law enforcement. Aspiring actress Elizabeth (Mia Kirshner) appears as cops watch her in screen test reels and a stag film, a heartbreaking image of yet another wounded girl with a crushed dream. In fits and starts, there’s a bubbling undercurrent of messy, creepy reality.

DePalma, however, isn’t about to let anyone forget that this is his movie. The first discovery of the body is part of an extended, showy crane shot, quickly followed by a deep-focus composition of the two cops in a doorway. Bleichart’s introduction to the Linscott family becomes, for no apparent reason, a single take from Bleichert’s point of view. A confrontation in an abandoned building becomes a tense life-or-death struggle. It’s sometimes entertaining, sometimes viscerally effective. But does it have anything to do with the story he’s supposed to be telling?

Sadly, it kinda does, because nearly everything that’s remotely interesting about The Black Dahlia ultimately comes from its stylized moments. Swank takes her femme fatale performance over the top, back under, and then over the top again, creating a character of only vaguely recognizable humanity. The film’s funniest scene is also one of its looniest: a dinner at the Linscott mansion that involves a rant by the doped-up matriarch (Fiona Shaw) and ends, fittingly and hilariously, with the sound of a cuckoo clock. Hartnett’s still not a deft enough actor to convey the complexity of lost innocence as Bleichert descends into hell, but he’s never really asked to. Mostly, he just has to stand there while everything around him gets weirder and weirder.

In a way, you can’t really blame DePalma for at least trying not to be bored. Fundamentally, James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia could not be less about figuring out who actually killed Elizabeth Short; this is, after all, a notoriously unsolved true crime we’re dealing with. Yet for its last hour, this screenplay plods forward on plot-machine autopilot, as though nothing matters but the procedural details of cracking the case. Every bit of subtext gets stripped away, leaving a conclusion full of shrieking confessions and unsatisfying resolution. That’s the irony of The Black Dahlia: In an effort not to leave a tedious mess in his wake, DePalma shakes the audience awake by re-applying all the Hollywood artifice James Ellroy spent his career trying to strip away.