The Black Dahlia
Directed by Brian De Palma

Written by Josh Friedman from the novel by James Ellroy

Starring Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank


The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma, the most operatic of directors ("Carrie," "Scarface," "Mission: Impossible"), has taken on James Ellroy's noir novel about Hollywood's most notorious unsolved murder, a 1947 scandal in which a would-be actress named Elizabeth Short was found eviscerated, cut neatly into two pieces, and slashed so as to extend her mouth from ear to ear. It came to be called the Black Dahlia murder.

With Mr. De Palma as director the film becomes an odd coupling of two diametrically opposed concepts: it starts with a classic, bleak story about low-rent cops, part-time hookers and a stumbling upon the secrets of a wealthy Los Angeles family, and then overlays the director's madly rococo style, in which every scene is designed to be a little masterpiece of moviemaking. (The great Vilmos Zsigmond is the cinematographer, who almost singlehandedly manages to stitch the two together.) Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart are the detective partners, Bucky and Lee, former professional boxers nicknamed Fire and Ice, who even stage a bout as a fund-raiser for an election campaign to raise policemen's salaries. They share a strange, platonic relationship with Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), nominally Lee's girlfriend but perhaps something both more and less.

As they are staking out some bad guys and killing three of them in a firefight, De Palma makes the connection with Short's death by means of a virtuoso crane shot that lifts us from street level with Bucky and Lee, over a four-story building where crows on the roof - a symbol of death throughout the film - are cawing mercilessly, and down to a vacant lot on the next street, where a woman pushing a carriage has discovered what turns out to be Short's two body parts. Yes, it's an homage to the famous crane shot in Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown," but it works as well here as there.

As the detectives try to track down Short's lovers and friends, there is a brilliant sequence in which Bucky finds himself questioning patrons of a lesbian night club, where a tuxedoed singer (an uncredited k.d. lang) does a great version of "Love For Sale." It's also where he meets wealthy libertine Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank in the best performance in the film). As De Palma and his screenwriter Josh Friedman try to hold it all together, with reminders of everything from "The Big Sleep" to "Sunset Boulevard" to "Chinatown," the film starts biting off bigger and bigger pieces of exposition; people don't have conversations, they explain the intricacies of the plot to each other.

No doubt someone with personality, like Bogart or Nicholson, could carry off the lead role here, but Josh Hartnett, who must narrate the film as well, is too flat, too boyishly innocent, too shallow an actor to do it, and the film devolves into a tedious series of revelations. One other bright acting spot is Mia Kirshner as the vulnerable victim Elizabeth Short, seen only in black-and-white flashbacks to her audition in a screen test and in a segment of a lesbian porn film. But neither she nor Swank can rescue the film from an overly complicated screenplay and a director who doesn't know when enough is enough.