The Black Dahlia (2006)

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Review #249 of 365
Film: The Black Dahlia (2006) [R] 119 minutes
WIP™ Scale: $13.75
Where Viewed: United Artists Denver Pavilions Stadium 15, Denver, CO
When 1st Seen: 17 September 2006
Time: 10:20 p.m.

Directed by: Brian De Palma (The Untouchables)
Written by: Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds)
Based On: James Ellroy's novel The Black Dahlia
Featured Cast (Where I Remember Him/Her From):
Josh Hartnett (Lucky Number Slevin) • Scarlett Johansson (Scoop) • Aaron Eckhart (Thank You for Not Smoking) • Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) • Mia Kirshner ("The L Word") • Fiona Shaw (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) • John Kavanagh (Alexander)
Soundtrack: order the CD of Mark Isham soundtrack below

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It was a dark night. The kind that even a neon lamp has trouble piercing. Scooter Thompson, not known for his stealthy approach, leapt from his pearlescent white car onto the damp pavement met by the chill of a frosty wind blowing in from the west. This was not a Santa Ana wind. After giving the ticket clerk some grubby cash he acquired as change from a greasy waiter at the all-night diner, he scored some hot popcorn from the doll behind the counter who seemed to want to give him the treat but the boss was watching over her like a peregrin falcon from his perch. Theatre 6 was cramped, not the usual giant auditorium they had in the old days when the screen seemed the size of the side of cruise ship. The trailers were running, and the audience was halfway between a psych ward of catatonic lunatics and a bunch of pencil pushing accountants just let loose after tax day. He took an seat precisely two in from the aisle. Just enough room for a quick exit but not too close to be bumped by every idiot Joe fumbling his way down to the John halfway through the picture. Stretching out a bit, popcorn on the floor, frosty Coca-Cola® in the cup holder, he loosened his neck tie, unbuttoned and rolled up his sleeves, and lastly put his brown derby on the seat next to him. The seat popped back up crushing in the top. "Damn," he said, forgetting for the time being he was in the middle of a movie house surrounded by folks there just to have a good time and see the latest Josh Hartnett picture. The derby would have to rest on the floor. But all hell would break loose if any lug head stepped on it in the dark.

The trailers ended, and the screen lit up again. This time it was a scene of riotous LA from shortly after WWII. Josh Hartnett himself was doing the voice over narration of the action of himself on screen playing Officer Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert a wanna-be pro boxer masquerading as an LAPD cop. Things aren't explained all that well, but LA is being torn apart by hoodlums and crime lords trafficking in drugs and booze. It's not the LA we know today with sprawl malls and superhighways, it's just starting to grow up. There's still "LAND" after the "HOLLYWOOD" on the no infamous sign. Bleichert is roaming the streets like all good cops and watching people fight and getting involved only when it looks like guys are actually going to kill each other. A swift turn down an alley however brings him nearly face to face with another boxer cop, Sgt. Leland "Lee" Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). This cat was famous for his work, but Bleichert knew that he knew he was also a boxer. And that's the story of how the two B-Brothers came to be a pair later known as "Fire" and "Ice" when the LAPD held a charity boxing match between the two boxer cops to increase community awareness of the these fine officers in order to get a bond initiative passed to raise the budget for police salaries and equipment. When the measure passed, the two became heroes on the force, and when they were partnered up to catch the real low lifes of LA and started bagging bad guy after crooked slum lord after little-old-lady-pistol-whippin' junkie, they because heroes of the town as well. A certain level of notoriety for a cop, mind you, isn't a good thing. Sometimes, you need to be able to just slip in places unnoticed. Hard to do when your pretty much known everywhere you go. Things are going great for Bleichert and Blanchard. The money from the boxing match allows Bucky to put his old man up in a nice nursing home. And, Dwight's girl, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson) warms up to Bucky adding him to the family. Now, mind you, this was a story written by James Ellroy the mastermind of L.A. Confidential, so it wouldn’t be Ellroy if there were not already a lot of things going on behind that scenes that we don't even know the half of yet. But, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

"…incredibly dazzling web of intrigue…the levels of deception and discovery turn the film into a veritable treasure hunt for mystery lovers."
Just as Fire and Ice are checking leads on a real bad guy child killer, they get involved in some open shoot out and bunch of bystanders end up shot dead. A few blocks away by some coincidence, a young woman has just been discovered dead in a field. Hearing the action, Bleichert and Blanchard rush over to assist and happen upon what turns out to be the transected, face slit ear to ear, disemboweled body of actress Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner). We'll learn more about this beautiful, mysterious, yet tragedy-prone 'actress' later when Bucky follows the clues that lead him to the discovery that the only films she'd been in were stag films. To say that Blanchard becomes obsessed with solving the murder would be a huge understatement. Of course, Bleichert doesn't know why or the full extent until much, much later. All he knows is that he and his partner are not homicide cops, and this was clearly a homicide. Blanchard uses his pull with Chief Green (Troy Evans) however to get the pair assigned to the case in a special, newsworthy, task force forcing Bleichert to investigate the clues along with him. In the backdrop of all this, a really bad guy that Blanchard helped get tossed in jail for 10 years after he carved his initials into the lower back of his girlfriend, Kay Lake, against her wishes is set to be paroled in just over a week causing both Blanchard and Bleichert concern that a retaliatory strike might be in the works. Following the clues leads Bleichert to discover that Elizabeth Short, enroute to her stag film career, had also met her LA doppelganger in a woman named Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank).

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After interrogating her, he finds himself invited over and then to dinner at her house when her multi-millionaire father, Emmet (John Kavanagh) discovers he's the famous boxer cop. Dinner doesn't go so well when Mrs. Linscott, Ramona (Fiona Shaw), lets everyone know how she feels about the whole thing of her daughter being dated by a common police cop and the fact that her husband, who married her for her daddy's money with a promise to name a street after her only manages with his connections to get her a nasty dead-end street on the bad side of town where prostitutes roam and the jealous younger sister, Martha (Rachel Miner) draws a sexually inappropriate caricature of him and Madeleine during dinner. He's not sure what he's gotten himself into. And, once again, he doesn't even know the half of it yet.

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Well, it wouldn't be film noir now would it, if everything were not so dark and mysterious. Meanwhile, if there's one thing James Ellroy's not known for it's a simplistic candy apple plot. This time around, he's based his story on the true events surrounding the mysterious murder of actress Elizabeth Short. He's invented all of the trappings going on around it to create this incredibly dazzling web of intrigue. There's practically no way to believe that the film's running time barely touches the two-hour mark for all that happens. Meanwhile, the levels of deception and discovery turn the film into a veritable treasure hunt for mystery lovers. At times, there's a bit of frustration as if some scenes that might have linked things together a bit better had been cut to save time; yet, in the end, it all comes together. It's not a quick fix ending, pieces start to fall into place, Bucky learns a lot more about Madeleine and Kate that he's going to spend a long time in his life wishing he never knew, logic will dictate that the hypothesized murderer is someone amongst the principle cast, but figuring out who did the deed is tricky. Herein, screenwriter Josh Friedman has done a brilliant job as has director Brian De Palma. The film satisfies far beyond L.A. Confidential and The Untouchables in many ways. Josh Hartnett is maturing excellently in transition from teen heart throb (see photo above) to very serious actor. The native Minnesotan seems to blend a puppy dog's loyalty and eyes with a pit bull's tenacity and physicality. Even with gently curving fingers cuddling the curves of Hillary Swank, he looks well matched against Aaron Eckhart—no physical slouch himself—in the boxing ring and in the mensroom where he finally defeats him in hand-to-hand combat. Josh Hartnett was outstanding in this year's Lucky Number Slevin, but you haven't seen anything close to what he's capable of doing until you see him now as Bucky Bleichert. Aaron Eckhart, meanwhile, is an actor that has sort of busted out of nowhere. Really, his career has been building over time, but his stand out role in Thank You for Smoking this year, and now this role should make people stop and take notice. He has an incredible versatility and an amazing ability to play bad guys who think they are good guys and convince you to believe that they really are good guys even though all logic and fact would prove otherwise. And then there are the three mysterious leading ladies. Hilary Swank proves herself again won of Hollywood's most desirable up and coming fem fatales. She can be a rough and tumble boxer herself and then put on an evening gown and literally melt "Ice". You can picture her absolutely being able to seduce every single person on the planet with just a glance and pucker of her pouty lips. This role is not a real starring role for her in the sense that it's an ensemble cast for everyone except Hartnett. Still, she's a luminous presence in every scene she's in. It wouldn't be too hard, also, to picture a best supporting actress nomination nod for Mia Kirsher who plays, the Black Dahlia, herself. We meet and see her on screen only in the black and white footage of the stag film that Bleichert watches after confiscating the films for his police investigation. He watches these reels over and over as if these will help him get into the mind that killed her. All the while though, it's clear, part of him is falling for her. And, who could resist her baby-doll eyes, her vulnerability commingled with a killer confidence. She knows how to use her sex appeal to get what she wants. Even though her scenes are limited, they are a mesmerizing way to show us what kind of woman she was. Projecting through this purely sexual being are the hopes and dreams of every young woman drawn to the shine of the Hollywood star. Finally, there's Scarlett Johansson who takes the seemingly straightforward Kay Lake and transforms her into a character that is as complicated as they come. Her lines are such that she's got to say one thing while embedding it with quite a different meaning. Kay's been with Blanchard since he rescued her from a tortuous relationship with a hardened criminal who used to feel he owned her; yet, clearly, she's electrified by Bucky Bleichert. There's one scene where the trio is at the cinema seeing a scary movie, Kay in the middle, and she grabs and hold both their hands. Johannson makes it work. Fiona Shaw and John Kavanagh who portray Maeleine Linscott's parents are crucial to the story, and Fiona Shaw's over-the-top performance as Ramona will be emulated for decades to come. Her drawn and puckered cheeks, her nearly vaudevillian style comedic timing, her wicked stares and soulless glances, for a role of onscreen time of fewer than ten minutes, stood out like a lightning bolt cracking a tree branch in the front yard not some five miles away.

If The Black Dahlia has and serious flaws they are difficult to find. Some minor ones are in the editing again where it seems some connectivity was lost. You cannot glance away from the screen for a second or have the overhead lights in the theater mysteriously pop on near the climax and get 100% of what's going on. You've got to really pay attention, and you've got to be willing to extrapolate quickly from the clues. You won't get everything handed to you on a sliver platter, and the film will assume that you've figured this out. A few of Bleichert's flashbacks will help from time to time as you piece things together, but you cannot always rely on these alone. In other words, you've got to watch intently. It's not difficult because the film draws you right in, but other films and television shows have created a false sense of security that one can go to the restroom, get a snack, etc. when that won't work here. Hopefully, most people won't think this is really a flaw but, rather, something that makes the film more powerful and enjoyable. The only other little thing, that might be argued, is that this is really not in some ways the story of The Black Dahlia murder. Really, it's the story of Bucky Bleichert which was ok by me.

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Josh HartnettScarlett JohanssonAaron Eckhart
Hilary SwankMia KirshnerFiona ShawJohn Kavanagh
Other Projects Featuring The Black Dahlia (2006) Director
Brian De Palma
Other Projects Featuring The Black Dahlia (2006) Writers
Josh Friedman & James Ellroy
CD Soundtrack
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The Black Dahlia (2006) Review-lite [150-word cap]
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The actor who played the Mother Linscott was superb. Of course, the ending must have been completely fictional as the The Black Dahlia murder case was never solved. Also, I missed seeing the name of Aggie Underwood, who covered this case in the newspapers.