The Black Dahlia

Movie Review #773: The last thirty minutes are downright disturbing, and that’s possibility its greatest achievement.

By Alexander Diminiano

Crime, Drama, Mystery
Rated R (contains graphic violence, disturbing content, sexual content, profanity)
121 minutes

Hydrocephalus [/ˌhīdrōˈsefələs/]: NOUN (MEDICINE) a condition in which fluid accumulates in the brain, typically in young children, enlarging the head and sometimes causing brain damage
– The Oxford English Dictionary

Can I just say that I cannot stand watching any story that centers on a kidnapping, and insists that we watch every sadistic little thing that happens before, during, and after the fact? I’m fine with a movie that merely features a kidnapping, but the moment I have to watch the victim being dragged into the abuser’s house and made into a ritual, that’s the moment I’m dying to turn away.

“The Black Dahlia” is about a woman who is famous under that very moniker. Her real name being Elizabeth Short, she was kidnapped and murdered, not to mention subjected to countless other inhuman acts before and after her death, in 1947. Her remains perhaps the most mysterious murder case in Los Angeles, and the crime still has yet to be solved. We don’t discover this immediately, but the entire movie provides buildup to that last thirty minutes, when we do discover every little [CENSORED]-up detail about the murder and the kidnapping. The climax is quite effectively disturbing, and thought I stand this having my own personal aversion to such a film, I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be a disturbing experience for someone who doesn’t usually mind.

Lo, the climax in “The Black Dahlia” is not only the most disturbing reach of the movie, it’s its only effective point at all. Brian De Palma so obviously wished he was the one who had helmed the brilliant 1995 crime classic “L.A. Confidential”. He took the earlier novel that brought author James Ellroy to fame and made a movie out of it, which I don’t blame him for. The problem all along is precisely the fact that De Palma is just too hell-bet on making another “L.A. Confidential” that he doesn’t seem to have a sense of where he’s taking his own movie. “The Black Dahlia”, for that exact reason, feels very incoherent and needless to say, it doesn’t even come close to the classic it so ardently imitates.

There’s not really anything much better one could say about the screenplay, either. While the story itself is even more interesting than that of “L.A. Confidential”, the dialogue is cheesy, often very forced, and weakly written for the 1940’s setting. Events play out as if they’re pendulumming between the guise of a cop show and that of a soap opera. I have trouble comparing “The Black Dahlia” to anything but television because of its utterly non-cinematic nature. If it is at all “L.A. Confidential”, it’s “L.A. Confidential” with hydrocephalus (defined before the first paragraph of this review). Yes, I am comparing the two quite a bit, but I can’t imagine there’s anything De Palma wanted more than for his movie to earn comparisons to the masterpiece he modeled it after. Not that my comparison makes his film seem like a masterpiece, but at least the man’s getting what he wanted.

When I note “The Black Dahlia” as “L.A. Confidential” with hydrocephalus, I am admitting that there is a brain in this movie. Josh Friedman’s script works here and there, but it’s a severe weak point in his otherwise solid career.  Foreshadowing is overdone, and unbearable obviousness wreaks havoc on the writing.  Even the characters are shockingly superficial.  Scarlett Johansson gives a fine performance as she tries hard to breathe life into her ordinary character.  But really all she can do is try.  Whereas her character was intended as a femme fatale, her role in the film only speaks to her being an ordinary bitch.

I understand that Brian De Palma enjoys violence in his movies, and that he enjoys showing it even more.  You can’t really prepare for “The Black Dahlia”.  You’d have a hard time going into it expecting just what it offers in terms of gore.  Understand that the mise-en-scène used in “The Black Dahlia” narrows down to a theory not unlike Murphy’s law: If there can be violence, there will be violence.  (And keep in mind that when it rains, it pours.)  Fair warning that if you do choose to watch “The Black Dahlia”, you are in for grisly shots of severed limbs, maimed corpses, slashed throats, and bashed-in heads when you least expect to see them.  If you’d prefer to watch a graphically violent period piece that’s actually tolerable, I’d recommend going for De Palma’s Prohibition Era gangster movie “The Untouchables”. ✴


9 thoughts on “The Black Dahlia

  1. It was such as letdown. I tried not to think about the book but it’s one of those instances where not only was the book better but it actually told a far more entrancing story. One of which was far more psychological as well as being far more graphic. This film didn’t have any of that as it had too many twists and turns as well as too much camp that really didn’t make any sense.

    • The movie’s camp really, really got on my nerves. I agree with you there. And, essentially, with everything else you’ve said here. Haven’t read the book, and I’m much less planning on it after seeing the movie. I’m not saying it’s outright a bad book, just not quite as interested by now.

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