It's natural to have high expectations for "The Black Dahlia," which radiates prestige and boasts the kind of dazzling set pieces that are director Brian De Palma's specialty. James Ellroy's source novel is considered one of his finest, and 1997's Oscar-winning "L.A. Confidential" was also adapted from one of Ellroy's crime-fiction classics.
Failing to meet those expectations doesn't make De Palma's film bad, but it lacks the visceral punch of "L.A. Confidential," posing as a lurid approximation of vintage film noir that ultimately falls prey to De Palma's operatic overtures.
Known as The Black Dahlia for her taste in black fashion, 22-year-old aspiring actress Elizabeth Short found fame only in death, as the victim in Los Angeles' most notorious unsolved murder case. Her bisected body was found on Jan. 15, 1947, its organs removed, blood drained, mouth slit from ear to ear in a hideous grin. Her killer was never found, and Ellroy's novel builds its speculative plot around two L.A. cops whose lives unravel in the course of their investigation.
Former boxers Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett, simmering nicely) were known as "Fire & Ice" as rivals in the ring. Now they're newly partnered detectives, sharing a platonic passion for Kay Lake (Scarlett Johannson), the former girlfriend of a killer Lee sent to jail.
Jacked on Benzedrine and obsessed with Short's murder, Lee goes into a psychological tailspin (relegating Eckhart's fine performance to the sidelines) while Bucky enters the treacherous orbit of Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), a bisexual socialite with a freak-show family, including a mother driven batty by intimate knowledge of L.A. corruption. (Played deliberately over-the-top by Fiona Shaw, she's a case of over-indulged comic relief.)
As adapted by Josh Friedman (who wrote Spielberg's "War of the Worlds"), "The Black Dahlia" boasts a few clever inventions. By showing "Betty" Short in screen-test flashbacks (played with sad vulnerability by Mia Kirshner, with De Palma voicing her off-screen director), she becomes the movie's tragic heart and soul, immortalized for all the wrong reasons. De Palma strengthens her presence by maintaining discreet distance from her murder.
Less effective as a mystery clue, though visually intriguing, is the decision to translate Ellroy's literary reference to Victor Hugo's "The Man Who Laughs" into a cinematic one, although why characters like Kay, Bucky and Lee would attend a screening of Paul Leni's 1928 silent version of "The Man Who Laughs" is anyone's guess. It's a convenient connection that's awkwardly employed, like Bucky's visit to a lesbian nightclub where a tuxedoed k.d. lang croons like a transplanted anachronism.
Even more awkward are the crucial performances of Johansson and Swank, actresses of proven skill who seem reduced here to hollow play-acting, dolled up in Oscar-worthy costumes and lit by the great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond for maximum vamp appeal.
Despite these and other weaknesses, "The Black Dahlia" remains curiously fascinating. When you consider that much of the film was shot in Bulgaria, its evocation of late-'40s Los Angeles is consistently impressive, with a Mark Isham score that sets the proper mood.
Jeff Shannon: firstname.lastname@example.org