By Owen Gleiberman
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(Entertainment Weekly) -- I'm always happy, at least in theory, when Brian De Palma, that outrageously gifted flake, leaves aside his slow-motion set pieces and sub-Vertigo mystery blondes, his look-ma-no-hands traveling shots, his whole showy candied-camera ''virtuosity'' and goes back to making an honest-to-God movie.
So I should be glad, at least in theory, that he has now made "The Black Dahlia." Adapted from a James Ellroy novel, which was itself a fictional reworking of the legendary unsolved Hollywood slasher case of 1947, it's an old-fashioned noir made in the gallows-smirk spirit of "L.A. Confidential."
Dominated by one of those jazzy trumpet-blues scores that's the aural equivalent of sun streaming through Venetian blinds, the film is more than a little in love with the corruption it finds under the floorboards -- and that, of course, is perfectly dandy. I wouldn't trust a film noir that wasn't enthralled by decadence.
Like Ellroy's "L.A. Confidential," "The Black Dahlia" offers an uneasy pair of detectives, Dwight ''Bucky'' Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Leland ''Lee'' Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), whose lives get twisted together like grapevines. At the beginning, they face off in an amateur boxing contest, which climaxes when Lee, in a raging punch, knocks out Bucky's front teeth -- a rather curious way to establish that these two men are about to become the most trusting of comrades, but then, we all bond in different ways.
Besides, there's a sadomasochistic pull to the entire relationship, as Lee's girlfriend, who has the "How fatale am I?" name of Kay Lake, insists on treating Lee as a piece of the furniture and Bucky, the wholesome odd guy out, like an animal she'd like to maul, but gently.
As Kay, Scarlett Johansson, so lost as the robo-girl reporter of Woody Allen's "Scoop," takes to the pulpy period atmosphere as if it were oxygen. In a Lana Turner coif, she shows a flair for double-talk -- for come-ons that are blatant in their sensuality yet hide the mystery of how serious they are. Bucky and Lee make a crack cop team until a horror is found in a weedy field: a young woman's corpse, the body sawed in half like a magician's trick gone wrong, her mouth sliced upward at the corners to form a hideous clown rictus.
The woman, Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), was a starlet and sultry ''innocent,'' the kind of good-time girl who landed auditions but not roles, and the investigation into her killing leads to what are supposed to be the shadiest corners of Hollywood.
There are lesbian bars -- more than one! There's an eccentric friend of Elizabeth's all done up in Cleopatra tinsel. There's a wealthy demented family whose members, for one scene, lend the movie an off-key ghoulish verve. Bucky is introduced to them after he starts seeing their daughter, Madeleine, played by Hilary Swank in a breathy Diana Vreeland accent as an enticing aristocratic harlot.
Swank and Hartnett lend the picture a bit of steam. Yet while it's fine for Bucky, whom Hartnett embodies with a bit too much of his perpetual squinty boyishness, to be pulled toward sin, the audience needs to have a clear idea of what he wants and who he wants it with. Is it the decadent Madeleine? The voluptuous Kay? Or coltish Elizabeth, whom he watches, like a voyeur, in amateur black-and-white audition films that threaten to turn into porno until they finally do?
Somehow, it's all dreadfully old hat. The hideous fascination of the Black Dahlia case, and all the cases like it, is that it's driven by a shuddery link between sexual obsession (easy to relate to) and homicide (not).
A movie like this one asks: Where do the two meet? It's the same question taken up by the rapt, absorbing, criminally underattended Hollywoodland, which digs into why a town as image-driven as Hollywood has so often found blood on the other side of a moving picture.
"The Black Dahlia" starts well, but it has too many femmes fatales, too many blind alleys that lead nowhere, too much sinister convoluted nonsense. The screenplay, by Josh Friedman, doesn't streamline Ellroy's density (as "L.A. Confidential" did); it diagrams it.
I was never clear, for instance, just what Aaron Eckhart is doing in this movie. His Lee is supposed to be driven nuts by his fixation on the Dahlia case, but instead he seems to enter a different film entirely, maybe a more dark and interesting one.
The murder itself gets solved in a fireworks display of gothic high jinks that is neither unsettling nor particularly convincing.
"The Black Dahlia" isn't a cheat, it's just a misfire, but the most surprising feeling it stirred in me was nostalgia for Brian De Palma's old flamboyance. Come back, candied-camera junkie!
EW Grade: B-
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Josh Hartnett and Hillary Swank star in Brian DePalma's "The Black Dahlia," about a famous L.A. murder.