Two Oscars aside, Hilary Swank just doesn't work in a period film—she carries a whiff of the strip mall about her; her hand was made to carry a cell phone, not a stemmed cigarette holder or a switchblade. Scarlett Johansson, sure, she's acceptably retro; she's got the lips and hips to match the uncorseted contours of a Packard. Aaron Eckhart, unquestionably—look at that jaw and dimple. They both wear the threads of late '40s Los Angeles with panache—hats and veils and silks and gloves you wouldn't even find in a boarded-up storefront today. So far as Josh Hartnett is concerned, though, I'm on the line. Pictured in an 8-by-10, he's at home in the black-and-white past. You could imagine him standing in line at the studio commissary behind Bogart or Alan Ladd ("Hey, buddy, got a smoke?"), but his mannerisms are as loose as a surfer's. He's not starched, but that's at least preferable to Swank's being starched, steamed, pressed, and practically embalmed in her disastrously miscast role as a patrician femme fatale.
In this muddled and unpersuasive adaptation of James Ellroy's 1987 novel, Madeleine Linscott (Swank) speaks with a lock-jawed Bryn Mawr purr as if her vocal cords were injected with Botox. Like the famously mutilated corpse of the real-life 1947 "Black Dahlia" murder mystery that drives the film, everything else in it has a certain rictus aspect. Director Brian De Palma has always had a fascination with the ghoulish, of course, yet he's spent most of his career since the '70s trying to disavow the buckets of blood and exploding heads of Carrie and The Fury. Though there were fun, lively, trashy moments in Femme Fatale or Mission: Impossible, fresh blood has been traded for the ossified past in The Black Dahlia. Like a lot of Ellroy's crime writing (The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz), the movie resembles a dusty old shoebox found in the back of the closet—full of jumbled yellowed tabloid clippings, spent bullet casings, porno mags, love letters, war medals, knocked-out teeth, and a perfume bottle whose contents have curdled into a fragrance that suggests both death and the boudoir. In this film, there's not much difference between the two.
Before the dead girl (Mia Kirshner, alive in flashbacks) and Madeleine show up, the setup to the murder investigation is one of those cases where the undercard upstages the title fight. We've got two cops, Lee (Eckhart) and Bucky (Hartnett), both stuck on the same girl, Kay (Johansson), but she's with Lee, owing him a debt at least partially signaled by the initials carved into her back. These cops happen to be ex-boxers, so they get roped into a police department benefit fight, which earns them headlines and promotions—a small price to pay for Bucky's teeth and humiliation. Or at least that's the way it seems to Lee, who develops a rapid and somewhat inexplicable obsession with the Black Dahlia case. As he goes AWOL (Eckhart's loss, and ours), Bucky follows clues leading to a lesbian bar (where k.d. lang sings "Love for Sale"), leading in turn to Dahlia-obsessed Madeleine and her decidedly loopy family (matriarch Fiona Shaw the loopiest among them).
In truth, of course, the Black Dahlia case was never solved. Ellroy (see interview, p. 78) found parallels with the murder of his own mother, which helped shape the fiction of what became his "L.A. quartet" of novels. Those, including Dahlia, are packed with so much sordid underworld detail—call it amphetamine baroque—that De Palma quickly becomes overwhelmed with the dirty cops, aspiring starlets, child rapists, real-estate swindles, police murders, sexual abuse, Jewish mafioso, Hollywood history, stolen cash, and other subplots that turn out to matter not much more than the main plot (if there is one). The effect is like a lazy Susan spinning so fast at a Chinese restaurant that you have no idea what morsel De Palma is about to pluck and serve next. (Nor perhaps does he, being a director for hire, and not the writer of the piece.)
That's why, after the first half hour of Dahlia, after the boxing and popping flashbulbs and a shoot-out and the discovery of the corpse, this bubbly noir cocktail swiftly goes flat. The movie looks right, thanks to cinematographer Vilmos Szigmond and designer Dante Ferretti, but it chiefly reminds you how much better Curtis Hanson was at shaping Ellroy's unruly world in L.A. Confidential. Like Kirshner's sad wanna-be who never gets past stag movies and screen tests, like Swank's own spotty career (two hits and what else has she done?), like those amateur detectives still hoping to solve the 60-year-old crime, The Black Dahlia dreams big and realizes little. BRIAN MILLER