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17 November, 2007

DVD Review: THE BLACK DAHLIA

Title: THE BLACK DAHLIA

Year of Release—Film: 2006

Year of Release—DVD: 2006

DVD Label: Universal Studios Home Entertainment





THE MOVIE

On the morning of January 15th, 1947, a young mother taking her child out for a stroll saw what she at first took to be a discarded mannequin lying just off the sidewalk, in a vacant lot on Norton Ave. in Los Angeles. It was unfortunately no mannequin, but the horribly mutilated body of Elizabeth Short, a 23-year old wannabe actress from Medford, Massachusetts. Beth Short was the quintessential nobody, one of thousands of young women drawn to Southern California by dreams of becoming the next Rita Hayworth, the next Betty Grable. Almost all disappeared into obscurity, but Beth achieved in death what she so desired in life: Fame and immortality. She would from that day on be remembered as the Black Dahlia, one of the most famous unsolved murders in history.

Those expecting a serious, in-depth examination of the case will be disappointed with this fictionalized adaptation of the James Ellroy best-selling novel. The murder itself is treated almost as background, becoming a catalyst in the bizarre relationship between two LAPD detectives and the woman they both love. But they shouldn’t let the lack of historical accuracy deter them from delving into this convoluted tale reminiscent of another Ellroy film, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.

Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart are tremendously well-cast as the two detectives who become inextricably tied to the Dahlia, and Scarlett Johansson does an acceptable job as Kay, the female corner of their triangular relationship. You’re never quite sure just who loves whom, or who wants whom, and the oddness of the friendship draws you into the story, making you want answers to those questions. Brian De Palma, no stranger to the genre, brings his distinctive style to the production. As with most of his films, it’s hit-and-miss, but generally works very well here.

One aspect of the film that doesn’t work is Hilary Swank as Madeline Linscott, a mysterious ‘femme fatale’ that draws Hartnett’s character deeper into the intrigue he’s trying to avoid. In my opinion, Swank is one of the least attractive, least capable actresses in Hollywood, and this performance does nothing to change that opinion. Overall, however, the cast is one of the strengths of this film, as it should be in such a character-driven work.

The script, by Josh Friedman, differs significantly from Ellroy’s novel; something to be expected considering the 20-year gestation period it had. But the changes are necessary, condensing the novel into a coherent two-hour story, even if it does tend to drag in sections. Ellroy’s novel is really a hybridization of two unsolved murders: Beth Short’s, and the author’s own mother, who was found raped and murdered in 1958, when Ellroy was 10. This led to his life-long fascination with crime, especially crime in Los Angeles, and he incorporated many facets of his own life into the characters of the book. Most of those aspects survive into the film, and the combination of good cast, director, and story produce a satisfying, if not great, movie.



THE DISC

Universal almost always puts out a good product, and this DVD is no exception. The audio and video quality is superior, and as always the subtitles are greatly appreciated by this Unimonster. The overall design and quality of this disc is Universal’s usual standard, and that’s good enough.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

While there’s not an abundance of extras on the disc, the three special featurettes are worth a look, especially the first. REALITY AND FICTION: THE STORY OF THE BLACK DAHLIA takes a look at the reality of the murder, contrasting it with the movie’s stylized vision of the crime. It also gives the viewer a contextual perspective of Los Angeles in the mid-1940s, and a Police Force that was widely considered to be one of the nation’s most corrupt and violent.

CASE FILES, the second featurette, is a fairly standard behind-the-scenes, making-of documentary. Interesting enough, but hardly engrossing.

The final special featurette, THE DE PALMA TOUCH, is a look at De Palma, and his vision of the film. Nice for those who are fans of the director, but not very engaging for those who aren’t. I place myself in the second group.



IN CONCLUSION

As you might have gathered, this reviewer has more than a passing interest in the Black Dahlia case. And I, like most of those who consider themselves serious students of the murder, have long waited for a high-quality, historically and criminologically accurate, thoroughly serious examination of the case to be produced on film, and as I said before, this isn’t that movie.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad film, and despite some rather obvious flaws, it’s a film that works more than it doesn’t. The movie plays a lot longer than it’s 2 hour and 2 minute runtime, and in my opinion a solid 25 minutes could be cut from it with no great loss. But the last 20 minutes more than makes up for the set-up, the end result is enjoyable.

I found my copy in a bargain bin for $5, and, truth to tell, that’s a fair price. I doubt I would’ve paid anywhere near list for it, and even a ten dollar price tag would’ve made me think twice. But I’ll go a fiver on just about anything, and, given the subject, I was reasonably certain it was going to be a safe bet. As for my recommendation… it’s a solid rental, but don’t buy it unless you really get a bargain.









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