The Black Dahlia (2006)

In theory, James Ellroy's blistering novel - a blend of Los Angeles gutter history and labyrinthine whodunit, inspired by a 1947 murder case - ought to be ideal material for Brian DePalma, a hit-or-miss sometime-genius who hasn't shot a film since the delightful, perverse Femme Fatale went straight to DVD five years ago. The director's sinuous style and tendency to shocking excess are a perfect match for Ellroy's sledgehammer prose, and both men have a career-long fascination with elusive, gruesomely martyred women and deadly doubles. Furthermore, DePalma showed in The Untouchables that he was no slouch at fedora hats old-fashioned tough guys.

However, The Black Dahlia is a curate's egg, coming up short against the other big-budget Ellroy adaptation LA Confidential. Weirdly, this seems like a nostalgia movie rooted in the 1970s version of the classic noir era, indebted to Chinatown, the 1975 Farewell My Lovely or the Black Dahlia-inspired True Confessions in its languid, beige-and-pastel portrait of the past. In 1947, the murder victim was labelled 'the Black Dahlia' by the press to evoke a then-recent The Blue Dahlia (which is where the weird mispronounciation - Dah-lia, not Day-lia - comes from), but DePalma's long, convoluted film makes you long for a TV repeat of something sharp, black and white and direct, scripted by Raymond Chandler, with Veronica Lake as the dame and Alan Ladd as the tough guy.

As in LA Confidential, we are taken into the maze of mystery with contrasted cops - marginally sensitive Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and brutal speed-freak Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckart), who have personal reasons for getting involved with the case. When Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) is found chopped in half on a vacant lot, a smile carved into her cheeks, the partners take different tacks - with Blanchard going off the books as a loose cannon, and Bucky getting involved with a bisexual socialite (Hilary Swank) who is not only a Dahlia-lookalike but once trysted with the dead woman. Ellroy's plot is too complex to cram into one movie, and the film never recovers after its segue from satisfying, gritty on-the-streets cop procedural to stultifying drawing room mystery - complete with absurd 'you were the one who killed …' speeches.

It's not a dead loss: Hartnett is too lightweight for angst, but Eckhart is perfect, and Swank and Scarlett Johansson (as the girlfriend shared by the pals) not only look period-perfect in their outfits but have the proper air of ambiguous danger. DePalma can still pull an astonishing camera move with the best of them, and there are two or three eye-openingly brilliant sequences, along with a scattering of strong moments. But you can't help wishing it all came together better.

NB: longtime DePalma watchers will appreciate the appearance of William Finlay as a scarfaced geek equivalent to his role in Phantom of the Paradise, who features in a twisted subplot that relates to the film of The Man Who Laughs. Gregg Henry, another recurrent performer with the director, has a wordless role as a key spectator at an early boxing match - perhaps to get a more substantial part in 'deleted scenes'. Also typical and bizarrely endearing is a sequence in which Hartnett traipses around period lesbian bars in search of clues and finds k.d.lang singing 'Love for Sale' while scantily-clad chorus girls fall into an orgy on the stairs. And Johansson plays the climax in an angora sweater that would send Ed Wood into a swoon. Major demerits for Fiona Shaw's insane performance - but it's hard to see what else she could have done under the circumstances.

First published in this form here.

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