With the films out now that I could be writing about – Vice, Roma, The Favourite – surely you are asking yourself why I am talking about this one.
Some movies need to be saved.
Time will be good to the titles listed above (one need not gaze into a crystal ball to tell you that), but the years have done nothing to help Brian De Palma’s 2006 neo-noir thriller. Released to disparaging reviews upon its release, the film has been put down as one of De Palma’s late-game misfires, and though The Black Dahlia cannot compete on the same playing field (let alone be in the same arena) as the director’s other thrillers like Blow Out or Dressed to Kill, it is still an engaging and evocative film.
Based on the novel by James Ellroy which itself is inspired by the real-life unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia flaunts its gritty hardboiled whodunit tropes: Josh Harnett and Aaron Eckhart play homicide detectives willing to sacrifice it all – even their sanity – to solve the case; Scarlett Johansson plays the woman they both love; and Hilary Swank is the alluring femme fatale who knows more than she lets on. Despite her very limited screen time, the finest performance in the film may very well come from Mia Kirshner as the doomed Elizabeth, whose Hollywood screentest scenes are the kind of haunting images films of this ilk wish they could create.
Elevated in no small measure by its excellent production design and De Palma’s characteristic, assertive cinematography, The Black Dahlia is – at the very least – a triumph of style over substance. Rest assured, the film is not peak De Palma, but it is hardly the cinematic train wreck which so many hyperbolic reviews have made it out to be.
These 300 words may not have changed your mind, but at least I have done my part to save an unjustly maligned film from one of the all-time great directors.
Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia was originally a three-hour epic which would have faithfully adapted James Ellroy’s sprawling crime novel. Ellroy himself praised the finished product, but in the face of studio intervention, De Palma cut the film down to two hours. It was this heavily truncated version which reached movies screens in 2006 and has garnered a lackluster reputation ever since. Rumors persist that that lost footage is still out there somewhere, just waiting to be restored.
I, for one, would be thrilled if it was.