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September 13-19, 2006

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'The Black Dahlia'

Beware the Bubbly: Kay (Scarlett Johansson) knows more than she tells her husband, Lee (Aaron Eckhart), in Brian De Palma's 'The Black Dahlia.'

Flower of Evil

Brian De Palma adds voyeurism to 'The Black Dahlia,' James Ellroy's hardboiled tale of murder

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

BRIAN DE PALMA'S The Black Dahlia is one of the best American films to show up in multiplexes this year, and it's already in trouble. Based on a novel by James Ellroy, it comes from the same cycle of books as L.A. Confidential, and comparisons between the two films will be inevitable—and unfavorable. For one thing, Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential (1997) benefited from an incredibly literate script, perhaps one of the greatest scripts ever written. It tells its story well for more than two hours (a impressive length for Best Picture consideration) and even suggests some swirling darkness below the bright surface.

The Black Dahlia delves into a much more visceral place, slashing through logic and proceeding from a purely physical, lascivious standpoint. Rather than aspiring to art, it's content to be "only" a movie. It is intended to be watched—to be spied upon—from a place in the dark. Its cast (Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson) has a good deal less experience and prestige than L.A. Confidential's (Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger), and like Bresson, De Palma uses them as models rather than for showboating performances. Their position within the ever-shifting widescreen frame (shot by the great Vilmos Zsigmond of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Deliverance and The Deer Hunter fame) is more important than their line readings.

In the story, set in the 1940s, two ex-boxers, Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), join the LAPD. Lee is married to Kay (Scarlett Johansson), and the three remain the best of friends, in spite of Kay's shady past and the special interest she takes in Bucky. The partners are assigned to catch a violent hillbilly who mugs old ladies, but they become increasingly entangled in a lurid murder case; the body of a beautiful would-be starlet is found cut in half and with her mouth sliced into a gruesome grin (as in the silent-era classic The Man Who Laughs). Hilary Swank co-stars as a high-profile society daughter who may have some association with the victim.

Ellroy wrote his novel based on a real case, but imbued it with images and emotions surrounding his own mother's unsolved murder a decade later. Working with solid source material, De Palma balances both the emotional depravity and Ellroy's complex plot machinations up until the final moments. The director takes it one step further, adding in his own pet theme of voyeurism and his own take on sexual obsession. In this version, we actually see the Black Dahlia (a.k.a. Elizabeth Short) in a series of audition films made prior to her death. Mia Kirshner plays her, flirting with the camera—and subsequently with the audience—with alluring shades of vulnerability and bravado. De Palma does not wish to reassure our intelligence while going for the gut. When Lee and Bucky first discover the dead, grinning Dahlia, De Palma plants the camera below, from her wormy perspective, drawing the weak, tempted souls down into her depraved world. Most viewers will resist this more sensational film and side with the safely thoughtful one, but for those who succumb, The Black Dahlia is a remarkable achievement.

Movie Times The Black Dahlia (R; 121 min.), directed by Brian De Palma, written by Josh Friedman, based on a novel by James Ellroy, photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond and starring Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson and Aaron Eckhart, opens Sept. 15.

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