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THE BLACK DAHLIA

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw
Director: Brian De Palma
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 122 Minutes
Release Date: December 26, 2006

“The basic rule of homicide applied: Nothing stays buried forever. Corpses. Ghosts. Nothing stays buried forever. Nothing.”

Film ***

How many filmmakers are able to make a grand piece of entertainment based almost entirely of style and atmosphere? Not too many, but Brian De Palma is one of few who has always been able to get away with it. Even when one of his films shows a greater potential, there is always something to be marveled by in his films. The Black Dahlia is such an example.

De Palma remains my favorite filmmaker of all time, so maybe I’m always somewhat biased when it comes to reviewing his films. But when you look at how De Palma crafts his films, in every angle from set design to especially that of cinematography, it would simply be hard for a true lover of cinema to not be marveled. The Black Dahlia may just be De Palma’s most amazing film in terms of visual style, which more than makes up for its shortcomings in the story department.

The film, adapted from James Ellroy’s bestselling novel, opens with a bang as we are immersed in the world of L.A. in the 1940s. Not since L.A. Confidential (another film adapted from an Ellroy novel) has a single film brought the time period to superb life. We meet two Hollywood cops, Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), who are partners and the best of friends, as well as part time competitive boxers.

The early part of the story depicts Bucky and Lee’s rise to the top of the LAPD after a string of high profile busts. And by coincidence while staking out a suspect, a body is discovered near the scene. It’s the body of an aspiring young actress named Elizabeth Short. It’s the case that rocked Hollywood, and had a brutal effect on everyone connected with the case.

As the cops dig deeper and deeper into the investigation, their worlds begin to spiral in different ways. Lee’s relationship with his wife, Kay (Scarlett Johansson), goes sour as he becomes intensely obsessed with Short murder. Meanwhile, Kay turns to Bucky, who’s always been a close friend but it slowly escalates to dangerous flirtatious. At the same time, Bucky finds himself drawn to a possible suspect, the sultry Madeline (Hilary Swank), who may have had a connection to deceased starlet.

Any De Palma fan expects at least one or two scenes of intense suspense shot in his films, and The Black Dahlia does deliver in that regard. An early scene is a superbly shot shootout and foot chase that takes place just moments before the cops get word of the Betty Short murder. The second scene is astounding to say the least; a standoff shot in De Palma’s trademark slow motion and a sequence that is right up there with the classic train station shootout in The Untouchables. I don’t want to give away the details of the scene, except it ends with a major visual shock.

As you can tell by now, there is plenty to be awestruck by in The Black Dahlia, but the film isn’t without flaws. The first 90 minutes are so riveting; so much so that you’ll probably be wishing the final half hour could be just the same. The story’s many story angles are tied together in a rather convoluted fashion, and some scenes go a little too over the top. Had there been a satisfying last half, then you would definitely see this film make it on the list of the year’s best films.

But even in the midst of its flaws, The Black Dahlia never bores and does keep you interested throughout.  As an admirer of De Palma’s work, I’ve always come to expect either one or two things from his films; a great cinematic achievement or a winning case of style over substance. The Black Dahlia falls into the latter category, but for me the style is the real star here.

Video ****

This is quite an amazing anamorphic presentation from Universal. In addition, it may just be the finest presentation I’ve seen yet for a De Palma film on the DVD format. Vilmos Zsigmond’s beautiful cinematography is captured amazingly. The authentic feel of the 1940s setting is brought to even bigger life through this terrific video performance. Image quality is thoroughly crisp and sharp as a blade and colors are phenomenal.

Audio ****

The 5.1 mix is nothing short of outstanding! Everything from set pieces to suspense sequences to Mark Isham’s intense music score play off magnificently. It’s a richly detailed piece of sound play that draws you even more into the movie! Excellent job!

Features **1/2

Three featurettes are included, but each are very well made and offer a nice level of depth into the making of the movie. “Reality and Fiction: The Story of The Black Dahlia” details author James Ellroy’s motivation for writing the novel as well as his opinion of how the book was adapted to screen. “The Case File” looks at how De Palma and the cast worked to bring this infamous story to the screen, and “The De Palma Touch” takes a close look at the director’s process of making a film.

Summary:

The Black Dahlia is perfect noir material for Brian De Palma to dig his stylish claws into. It’s invigorating, even during the concluding portions where it drags a bit. If you’re in for a super stylish noir thriller, then you should not hesitate to check this one out!

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