the black dahlia


Directed by: Brian De Palma

Written by: Josh Friedman

For a Hollywood would-be blockbuster that only vaguely mentions lesbianism in its convoluted plot, this film has lesbian street cred to spare. First up, it stars Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank who won legions of lesbian fans playing Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry. Then there's the murder victim Elizabeth Short, played by Mia Kirshner who needs no introduction to the multitudes of fans of The L Word. Her friend Lorna Murtz is played all-too-briefly by Jemima Rooper of Hex fame. Hilary Swank's deranged mother is played by British character actress and out lesbian Fiona Shaw. Finally, there's the song stylings of none other than the delectable kd lang, wearing a tux and looking gorgeous in her lesbian-club cameo.

So yeah, I did kind of enjoy this for the eye-candy alone.

As with all noir films, by necessity style plays an important part in this movie. In this case I would say the mise-en-scene rises to the level of a main character, so important is it to the way the film hums along. Brian De Palma is well known for favouring style over substance, Mission:Impossible suffered the same fate. The problem is, in The Black Dahlia this unexpected upstart of a character steals the show and never gives any of the other characters a look-in.

Fortunately, Los Angeles in the 1920s is a pretty seductive leading lady. She leads us down her winding streets and back alleys with mystery and aplomb, barely stopping for breath as she lures viewers into the mystery. Unfortunately, the plot tries desperately to keep up and hits dead end after dead end, or winds back mysteriously upon itself in unfathomable ways.

I gave up trying to guess along with the detective because it become obvious pretty early that nothing in the film was really going to add up and help you unravel the murder. This is no The Usual Suspects with no wasted moments and where everything you see is a vital clue. It meanders for the first forty minutes and then attempts to wrap it all up in last ten.

I can't talk about the story too much because damned if I want to ruin the small tendrils of surprise that the film actually offers you. I can't even really go into much detail about the scanty bits of lesbianism in the plot. They are there though, you'll just have to trust me, but none of the lesbian or bisexual women come out of the plot unscathed. This is definitely not the film to watch to convince anyone how great it is to be gay.

In terms of the acting, there was nothing really outstanding going on. I find Scarlett Johansson's breathy voice and overt sexuality to be annoying usually, but it was appropriate in this kind of film, more so than in her modern day films. She's managed to distinguish this performance from other period pieces she's done like A Good Woman and The Other Boleyn Girl, but doesn't even begin to touch Kim Basinger's performance in LA Confidential in a similar supporting role.

In fact, all of the actors in this piece should have been forced to watch LA Confidential first, which is a masterclass in modern noir acting. Josh Hartnett is just too bland to carry this film, and the character is written as a confusing mix of dump and smart cop, so you never know which one he is at any given moment. Hartnett's cameo as the hitman in Sin City was exquisite and understated. The Black Dahlia could have been brilliant too had he managed to sustain that kind of performance through a whole film.

Aaron Eckhart is dependable and looks fantastic in a suit, but this film does not allow him to display any of the larrikin charm he oozes in Thank You For Smoking. As for Hilary Swank's non-descript performance, I think she misread the script. It may have said "brood", but I think she read "bored".

The stand-out was, suprisingly, the Black Dahlia herself. Mia Kirshner is only seen in the black and white film-within-the-film excerpts which show Betty's screen tests and stag films, but she nails the emotions of the character in a way I never would have expected. This role displays talents far and above anything that she's ever displayed on The L Word, (which goes to show just how much the writing is involved in how much many people despise Jenny Schecter).

Kirshner took this small role and milked it for all it was worth. She plays a very similar part as Jennifer Connelly played in Mulholland Falls (they each die before the film starts in brutal murders and are seen only in flashback), but where Connelly displayed misguided strength, Kirshner shows hopeless fragility. If I remember nothing else from this film, I will remember the one short scene when a director asks Betty if she can play sad, and Betty stares at the camera with an aching loneliness on her face and whispers "Yes, I think I can do that." Magical.

If the rest of the film had been so gloriously well-played and directed, this could've been a contender. In fact there are a lot of could've beens here, including that the film was originally slated to be directed by David Fincher (The Panic Room), a man who excels in claustrophobic, atmospheric pieces. With Fincher at the helm this undoubtedly would have been a very different film, but far less pretty. As it stands the star rating I'm giving it is mainly for the good looks, but not the brains.

As an aside, one reviewer on had this to say about the movie: "The Black Dahlia is about the new American dream: to sleep with Scarlett Johansson." Hmmm. Indeed.

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Last updated: 20 March 2008