Brian de Palma adapts James Ellroy’s exhausting and meticulous novel about one of Hollywood’s most notorious and gruesome murders. The cold exacting text of the semi-fictionalised book would be difficult to pull of cinematically whilst maintaining any audience identification so Josh Friedman’s screenplay centres on a few key players and necessarily has to come to some kind of closure. The results are always watchable but the film is uneven.
Boxing policeman Bucky and Lee find themselves tackling the gruesome case of Elizabeth Short – an actress found dissected, disembowelled and horribly mutilated. Their investigations lead them into a complex labyrinth of property dealers, prostitution and porn flicks, of vice, drugs and misery.
The Black Dahlia makes a valiant attempt to keep together the huge mountain of facts and sub-stories that encircle the case – like real life the clues don’t necessarily relate to the case in hand, there are diversions, red herrings and personal problems to deal with. Elizabeth Shorts death is but one of the multitude of issues and cases that affect Bucky and Lee but it seems to be the catalyst. Like Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks Elizabeth Short is dead before the films timeline begins, and like her the presence of her dead body is always the focus of apparently disconnected events. Everything from a police pay rise to a modern painting seems inexorably linked but everything always comes back to Elizabeth.
De Palma relies on his usual arsenal of long steadicam shots and occasional operatic set pieces to tell this bloody tale. What he does do though is shy away from the sheer horror of Elizabeth’s death, focussing instead on the repercussions of it. It’s probably a wise move – he shows enough to let us know that we don’t want to see more but doesn’t shy from the murder or wallow in it, it’s sordid enough as it stands.
The washed out, sepia tinged cinematography shows off the set designs to great effect. Like The Untouchables The Black Dahlia looks to real events in a fictional context but unlike that films sense of jour de vivre The Black Dahlia is a more sombre piece.