The excessive narrative convolutions of James Ellroy’s 1987 novel The Black Dahlia were compensated for by the hardboiled author’s prose – as brutally concise and muscular as a punch to the face – and its ability to convey fanatically obsessive, out-of-control passions. For his big-screen adaptation, Brian De Palma attempts the same trick via cinematic means, employing his unparalleled directorial talents to both mask his story’s over-complications and generate an air of frenzied compulsion, but the endeavor, alas, is a futile one. In theory a marriage made in heaven, De Palma’s version of Ellroy’s work is a similarly fictionalized take on the infamous 1947 Hollywood murder of wannabe starlet Elizabeth Short (Mira Kirschner). Centering on officer Bucky Bleichert’s (Josh Hartnett) attempts to solve the case while navigating a romantic triangle between himself, partner Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Lee’s girl Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), it’s a triumph of formalistic technique and expressionistic style, delivering a barrage of perspective shifts, loaded signifiers, and sumptuous camerawork. Whether it’s the extended shot that reveals Short’s desecrated body (severed in half, her mouth cut into a The Man Who Laughed smile), a Vertigo-ish murder sequence full of dizzying spiral imagery (which speaks to the film’s theme of no-progress circularity), or the POV tracking shot that introduces the hideous Linscott clan, De Palma’s technical artistry is in full bloom, drenching – with the aid of Vilmos Zsigmond’s desaturated cinematography – the noir proceedings in a coat of menacing luxuriousness.
Yet while this visual and compositional beauty imbues specific moments with dark, malevolent flair – and while Ellroy’s fiction provides De Palma with plenty of opportunities to revisit his trademark interests in doppelgangers and romantic/carnal infatuations – The Black Dahlia is, surprisingly, a rather lifeless affair. Much of the blame can be attributed to screenwriter Josh Friedman, who in attempting to retain most of Ellroy’s plot twists and turns, leaves almost no room for the fiery feelings that defined the book. Heedlessly cramming in characters, storylines and period details, his script becomes so overstuffed that it fails to spend time properly establishing any of its most vital elements, with Bucky’s (and, to a lesser extent, Lee’s) consuming fixation with Short under-dramatized, the central three-way relationship between Bucky, Lee and Kay left thin and undeveloped, and the climactic revelations mostly drained of their impact thanks to the film’s prior inability to generate an emotional response toward its elaborate set-up. Faced with such structural shortcomings, De Palma’s inventiveness comes off as impressive but largely in vain, incapable of delivering the zealous heat or sweaty mania demanded by his romantically hopeless noir material. Splendid in instances but listless as a whole, it’s a schematic literary translation that – when compounded by performances either affected (Johansson), phony (Hilary Swank, laughably un-sexy as Bucky’s slumming high-class lover), or just blank (Hartnett) – nails the tale’s particulars but not its soul.