Saturday, 24 February 2007

The Black Dahlia (2006)

The Black Dahlia

Josh Hartnett seems to get a lot of flack for being too bland, too dull, too boring to play the role of Hollywood leading man. It seems not too many people are interested in seeing a male version of Gwyneth Paltrow perform, and most of the films he's starred in appear to have under-performed as a result.

The Black Dahlia seems to be another of those films, although this time around the role plays to Hartnett's strengths (there's no emotion required for his role as film noir detective Bucky Bleichert) rather than his weaknesses, and my guess is that it's the overly-elaborate and extremely confusing plot that appear to have resulted in poor critical reviews and lack of bums on seats when the film was theatrically released. Undoubtedly this is the fault of the original source material. Sometimes books should just be left as books!

The Black Dahlia screencap

Set in late 40's Hollywood, The Black Dahlia is the usual fictionalised, but based on a true story, account of the brutal murder of a Hollywood wannabe-actress. Unfortunately, before we get to the main story, with all its twists and turns, the setting up of the partnership of Hartnett's cop with his more emotional colleague, Lee Blanchard (played by Aaron Eckhart) has to take place. This revolves around several other sub-plots, making things very confusing as to what the real story is to be, right from the get-go.

The two partners are ex-boxers who fight each other to help promote their police department and become friends. Things get messy when Blanchard's girlfriend shows romantic interest in Blanchard's new best friend, who also has feelings for her. Add in a brutally murdered Hollywood starlet, and a back story that reveals Blanchard's younger sister was brutally murdered when he was younger, and you have the settings for a violent, emotional roller-coaster ride that you know isn't going to end happily for everyone involved.

The Black Dahlia screencap

Despite many problems with the script, there's a lot to like about the movie. Most importantly, the film noir feeling is captured beautifully by Brian de Palma, although as the screencaps on this page hopefully show, the full colour pictures shown on the DVD sleeve are a total misrepresentation of the sepia-toned, colour-drained picture that you're going to see. I've complained before about this ridiculous obsession with desaturating all colour from a film to give it a 'period' or 'mood' feel, but here it's taken to ridiculous extremes.

The cast are generally impressive too. Hartnett is perhaps the weakest link - he's fairly convincing in the title role, but is really too young for the character he plays. Fortunately he is supported by such a strong set of actors, you can forgive the makers this slight mis-step in casting.

Aaron Eckhart more than delivers in his role as the impetuous Blanchard, and is particularly impressive given the rather clichéd period lines he has to deliver. He's well matched by Scarlett Johansson as the woman with a dark past but now turned good, torn between two men she loves equally. Hilary Swank surprises in a femme fatale role that show she really should be given more in the way of sexy, glamorous roles. So if there's a problem with the film, it's certainly not with the cast.

The Black Dahlia screencap

Brian de Palma is a veteran film-maker and has the experience to turn out a good movie. Unfortunately, what he produces here is an extremely pedestrian one. Too often the camera-work complicates what is already a confusing scene, where it should be used to illuminate and make up for the shortcomings of the over-elaborate plot. There are some nice touches here and there, but the cutting and rapid-fire explanations all-too-often leave the viewer totally confused. By mid-picture you start to wonder if you really know likes who, who's done what to who in the past, and who's likely to be the main protagonist for good or evil in the story. Even the relationship between the two detectives gets muddied and seems so inconsistent at different points of the story I started to wonder if I was watching a cut of the movie which had accidentally edited the scenes out of sequence.

While most of the blame for this being a fairly average film rather than a good one lies with the script, I can't help feeling that a better director (or, rather, a different director) would have done a better job of removing or covering up those failures, or at the very least making the plot more understandable. Certainly he, or she, could have made the film feel more like entertainment and less like the hard work we're presented with here.

The Black Dahlia screencap

Colour issues aside, the transfer is nothing to complain about. Alas, the extra's are a little on the thin side: there's no director's commentary, or any other commentary for that matter, and the three featurettes included are nothing but lightweight puff pieces.

If you like film noir, or complex novels that form the basis for many a film noir, and can concentrate hard for the full 120 minute running time, then there's a lot to enjoy here. But one wishes De Palma and his writers had stripped out some of the exposition, and sub-plots to give a more coherent and less confusing story. I suspect the rewind button is going to be much used by those renting or purchasing this DVD, trying to work out who all the different characters are, what their relationship to each other is, and which conversations give the clues that you need to follow the trail to the film's conclusion. If you can cope with all that, then The Black Dahlia is certainly worth a rental, but I doubt it's a film you're going to want to watch and re-watch once you've grasped the complexities of the plot.

The Black Dahlia screencap

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