Well into the final act of Brian De Palma's "The Black Dahlia," I found myself asking questions one should not be asking nearly two hours into a noir thriller.
Questions such as, "Now who's that guy?" and, "How did that person know the victim again?" and, "Wait a minute, are we supposed to know who this guy is?"
Mostly, though, I was asking: "Are you kidding me? It all comes down to this contrived silliness?"
Such a shame that "The Black Dahlia" collapses into a gruesome pile of steaming camp in the last half hour. Prior to that, De Palma had crafted a jumbling and lurid but relentlessly entertaining adaptation of James Ellroy's sprawling novel, which is based on one of the most notorious murder cases in the history of Los Angeles -- a case that remains unsolved today, despite the best efforts of dozens of authors, newspaper journalists and amateur sleuths. (All it takes is a couple of keystrokes on Google, and you'll find yourself immersed in Web sites obsessing on the Black Dahlia killing, including some of the most disturbing morgue photos in existence.)
In 1947, Los Angeles was in the midst of a post-World War II boom when the city was reminded of its darkest underbelly with the gruesome murder of one Elizabeth Short, a beautiful young woman who had come to Hollywood like a thousand other girls, only to see her dreams die hard and fast and ugly. The discovery of Short's tortured, blood-drained, mutilated corpse set off a media frenzy and precipitated a departmentwide manhunt among police, but the killer was never found.
De Palma uses Betty Short's name and relies on some of the documented circumstances of her life and death as the foundation for his story -- but the rest is stylized, parallel universe moviemaking, perhaps even less historically accurate than De Palma's bloody and brilliant version of "The Untouchables."
The cast is better than the material. With his heavy eyebrows and a mannequin-handsome face that makes him look like a ready-made caricature on the walls at Sardi's, Josh Hartnett sometimes has a leaden screen presence, but he shines here as Bucky Bleichert, an earnest if not particularly street-smart cop who becomes partners with fellow ex-boxer Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), an ambitious, rule-bending, no-nonsense type who could be the cousin of the Russell Crowe character in "L.A. Confidential." (How good is Eckhart, that he could be so funny and charming and slick in "Thank You for Smoking," and so intense and menacing and dangerous here?)
Bucky enters into an asexual menage a trois with Lee and his live-in love, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), a sweater-clad bombshell who spends her days getting gussied up and cooking pot roast for the boys, so they'll have a warm, loving home and hostess waiting when they return home after a long day of mixing it up with the seediest criminals prowling the city. Kay seems like a sweet, good girl -- but like just about everybody else in "The Black Dahlia," she's harboring some pitch-black secrets. Let's start with the giant initials "BD" carved crudely into her curvy flesh, just above her backside. (Bucky gets a glimpse of the scar on one of the many occasions when Kay conveniently lets him see her in stages of undress.)
In one of De Palma's typically impressive, unbroken-Hitchcockian camera soliloquies, Bucky and Lee get tangled up in a deadly shootout that just happens to occur around the same time and place as the discovery of Betsy Short's mutilated corpse. De Palma's camera swoops up and over and around the tableau like one of the alien tentacles in Spielberg's version of "War of the Worlds." It's a thrilling sequence, even if it's so attention-grabbing that it takes you right out of the story.
From that moment, "The Black Dahlia" squishes us eyeball-deep in confusing plot twists, bizarre subplots, violently passionate lovemaking scenes, and the introduction of about a half-dozen freak-show supporting characters -- most notably Hilary Swank as Madeleine Linscott, a bisexual praying mantis who dresses like the Black Dahlia and frequents seedy bars as well as lavish, girl-on-girl emporiums in search of either servicemen for one-night stands or lipstick lesbians for narcissistic dabbling. At one point Madeleine tells Bucky she slept with the Black Dahlia because they were lookalikes. Swank has never been sexier, and she has a lot of fun effecting a mid-20th century, clipped-tone, actor-y accent. (Eckhart goes on a similar lark with his vocal mannerisms. Even though the two share separate storylines, it's as they got together and decided they'd try to sound like old-fashioned movie actors.)
Kay is worried about Lee, who's hopped up on pills and is so consumed with the Dahlia that you wonder if he knows more about the case than he's revealing. Madeleine introduces Bucky to her wealthy, grotesquely eccentric parents and her apparently crazy little sister. Chicago's Mike Starr, always a welcome presence, adds a touch of sanity and authenticity as a sympathetic lieutenant who tries to keep Bucky on the straight and narrow path. And we get to know the Dahlia (Mia Kirshner of "The L Word") through an audition reel that seems to be longer than most feature films. Again and again, as an off-screen voice cajoles her and ridicules her and teases her like some "Girls Gone Wild: The Early Years" creepazoid, Betty tears up and gazes sadly at the camera even as she tries to act sexy. OK, we get it: Hollywood killed the Black Dahlia's spirit long before she was actually killed.
De Palma isn't the wrong director to tell this story. In fact his taste for overwrought set pieces, flashy camera moves and interlocking sex-and-violence seems perfectly suited for such salacious material. For about two-thirds of the journey, "The Black Dahlia" is a glorious B-movie filled with great pulp fiction characters spouting stylized dialogue before they unload their guns or rip off someone's clothes for a bout of knock-over-the-candlesticks lovemaking.
Then it all goes ugly and stupid. The last-act revelations aren't just implausible -- they're connected by only the barest of threads to previous events. In a murder mystery, we feel cheated when we're introduced to key characters so very late in the game. All these murders and twists and turns, and now a bunch of people we hardly know are going to stand around explaining it all?
That's just not playing fair.