by Ed Symkus & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & his is the third novel by crime and political history writer James Ellroy to be adapted into a feature film. Blood on the Moon became the disappointing Cop, and L.A. Confidential became the superb film of the same name. You win some, you lose some. But those results don't come in any specific order. The film adaptation of Ellroy's excellent book The Black Dahlia proves that, at least in this case, the third time is not the charm.
& r & The fictionalized but based-on-fact story concerns the unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, an East Coast gal who headed west in the 1940s, determined to become a star. Instead she was found by the roadside one June day in 1947, her face disfigured, her body cut in half, her organs removed. There are detectives trying to solve the case, there are a couple of beautiful women -- one a love interest, one an enigma -- there are all sorts of bizarre background characters who take their turns briefly stepping to the front. This is absolutely perfect material for director Brian De Palma, who has been dabbling with luridness and violence (think Carrie, Scarface, Snake Eyes) for most of his career.
& r & But while the first half of the film is quite good, and in the hands of screenwriter Josh Friedman (who co-wrote Spielberg's War of the Worlds), stays remarkably close to the book's structure and mood, something -- many things -- in the second hour goes terribly awry.
& r & Ellroy has always maintained that once he's paid money for film rights, filmmakers should be allowed to do whatever they want with the story. He's also never gone on record with any negative remarks about what has been done (though he has highly praised what Curtis Hanson did with L.A. Confidential). But in a recent interview, he did sort of let his feelings about the new film slip with this statement: "As always in cinematic adaptations of big complex novels, there is a process of drastic compression, melodramatization and vulgarization."
& r & Compression is unavoidable; it's a big book with an extended cast of characters and multiple levels of storytelling going on at once. Indeed, when Friedman was first handed someone else's script to work on a number of years ago (when David Fincher was going to direct it in black and white at three hours-plus), he pared it down to two hours, eliminating a lot of the backstory.
& r & That was fine. But in the current version, he and De Palma have added new elements that didn't exist in the book. And these fall under Ellroy's categories of melodramatization and vulgarization. This should have remained the moody and intense crime study it started out to be. Instead, director and screenwriter have cheapened the whole affair with unnecessarily violent, needlessly exploitative plot turns in the final reel.
& r & Having said all of that, there are still reasons to see the film, especially that first half. De Palma has long been a visual master, with a fantastic eye for imagining near-impossible shots, then using state-of-the-art technology -- and much cinema trickery -- to pull them off. You can see that here in many scenes: One actor is standing outside of a building in bright daylight, another is inside at the top of a dark staircase, yet both are in perfect focus. At about the same point in the film, he sets up what might be the mother of all tracking shots, one that begins on a street, rises up over a building to where a horrific discovery is made, then glides smoothly back to the street scene. Brilliant stuff, and photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, one of the best cinematographers in the business.
& r & There are good performances here by Josh Hartnett (looking world-weary enough to silence those detractors who have said he's too young to play the part) and Aaron Eckhart as police partners who do not share the same ideas of how to be a cop, by Hilary Swank as a sleazy rich girl, and Mia Kirshner as the unfortunate Betty Short, aka the Black Dahlia. Too bad that Scarlett Johansson, who certainly looks at home in a '40s-era film, turns in another example of her proclivity to overact.
& r & Parts of the movie are fun; other parts are dazzling. But it's as if De Palma somehow lost control of everything, or maybe of himself, at about the two-thirds point. The film erupts into a confusion of story ideas that suddenly need to be resolved; they're wrapped up without much thought about whether or not they make sense. It all ends up being about everyone but the Dahlia. Maybe when they changed all those plotlines, they should have also changed the title.
& r & Rated R
Directed by Brian De Palma
Starring Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Mia Kirshner & r &