Retro Review: The Black Dahlia

It has been nearly twenty years since Brian De Palma directed the landmark film of his career. That film garnered Sean Connery an Oscar, solidified up-incomer Kevin Costner as a leading man and thrilled us with Robert DeNiro’s portrayal of Al Capone.

Who can forget that beautifully executed “baby carriage” scene? The film I am obviously talking about is 1987’s “The Untouchables”. De Palma had also directed landmark films like “Scarface” and “Carrie” before that film but for me it was the pinnacle of his career.

In the years that followed “The Untouchables”, De Palma hit some bumps in his career with the box-office stinker “Casualties of War” and the huge bomb “Bonfire of Vanities”. In 1993, he rebounded with the mobster drama, “Carlito’s Way” where he re-teamed with Al Pacino.

In 1996, De Palma exploded back into the public eye with the box-office juggernaut “Mission: Impossible”. For me, that film has always been a staple in De Palma’s career because it shows two sides of the director.

There are some high-energy and brilliant scenes in that film and then there are some really dull and often draining scenes. The film is the perfect De Palma film because the director goes for broke when he makes films. It is easier brilliant or to put it plainly, crap. He rarely dabbles in grays.

This brings us to his latest film, “The Black Dahlia” which is an out-of-joint mystery thriller based on most notorious unsolved murder in California history. The film stars Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart as two L.A. detectives who basically stumble upon the case after their high-profile escapades on warrants. The duo have prize-fighter backgrounds and are media darlings.

The mystery surrounds the death of a struggling starlet named Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) who was savagely murdered by being slashed from ear to ear and disemboweled. The corpse was hardly a representation of the life that had been inside it.

The more duo became obsessed with the case the more they watched as their friendship disintegrated. The film gives us a conclusion to the case but the actual murder is still left unsolved.

As I sat there and watched “The Black Dahlia” all I could think about was Detective Joe Friday on the TV series “Dragnet”. The narration, stuffy characters and constant smoking reminded me of that series. Then there are these scenes, performances and situations where De Palma loses his mind and we get a sort of “Dragnet” on crack cocaine, if you will.

I really loved the performance of Josh Hartnett who seemed to the strongest of all the cast members. Hilary Swank is over-the-top awful. Scarlett Johansson is beautiful, vulnerable but at times hardly believable. And Aaron Eckhart is well just a waste.

There are a lot of really awful moments like the dinner scene with Hilary Swank’s parents and of course the lesbian bar scene with KD Lang.

The sets, costumes and cinematography were all brilliant. The film looked and felt like it should be a classic like “The Untouchables” but looks can be deceiving and I was very deceived.

Critics in Europe talked as if they were disturbed or distracted by a love scene in the film but in the cut I saw there was hardly a love scene to be scene.

People would kiss, fall on the bed and then it would fade to the next morning.

I am still baffled by why this version of the film is rated R since it is relatively tame to some films. I am wondering if this film suffered from an immense amount of cuts by the MPAA.

If you have to see this film, wait for the unrated or director’s cut on DVD. I just hate it when a director’s vision of a film is compromised and destroyed by some studio or MPAA who is afraid of offending some “born again” in Salt Lake City. Wake up, we all aren’t prudes!!

To conclude, “The Black Dahlia” deceived me into thinking this was the return of De Palma to greatness. I was a fool and this film proved me one.

2 out of 5

De Palma’s Filmography (the ones I have seen)

2006 – Black Dahlia – 2 stars
2002 – Femme Fatale – 1 star
2000 – Mission to Mars – 1 star
2000 – Mission: Impossible – 3.5 stars
1998 – Snake Eyes – 2.5 stars
1993 – Carlito’s Way – 4 stars
1992 – Raising Cain – 2.5 stars
1990 – Bonfire of the Vanities – 1.5 stars
1989 – Casualties of War – 2 stars
1987 – The Untouchables – 5 stars
1986 – Wise Guys – 2 stars
1984 – Body Double – 3 stars
1983 – Scarface – 4.5 stars
1981 – Blow Out – 3 stars
1980 – Dressed to Kill – 3.5 stars
1976 – Carrie – 3.5 stars

So Says the Soothsayer.

One thought on “Retro Review: The Black Dahlia

  1. The Black Dahlia angle — I’m a die-hard true crime buff who’s been trying to (quietly) solve that murder for years — pulled me in, and then DePalma just ruined all my expectations with this poorly-cast, schlocky melodrama. Much as I love Hilary Swank, playing a *femme fatale* is NOT her forte, and Scarlett Johansson cannot do period pieces. At all. Everything else, from the cinematography to the score, was just overdone and overblown and disappointing.

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