Over half a century after she was murdered, Betty Short continues to fascinate us, a screen upon which we project our hopes and fears about fame and fortune, beauty and lust, art and commerce, and that place where it all comes together, Hollywood. A would-be movie actress, Short didn't attract the public's attention until she was found in a vacant lot, her mutilated body drained of blood and severed at the waist, her face slit ear to ear in a hideous grin. Adding insult to injury, the killer had posed her like a pin-up girl, legs spread and one arm raised over her head. And in a sick kind of way, he made her a star. Dominating the headlines, Short was soon dubbed 'The Black Dahlia,' the name derived from The Blue Dahlia, a movie that had come out the year before, written by that auteur de film noir, Raymond Chandler. Alas, Betty Short was dead before she could become a femme fatale.
But we weren't through with her yet. In the intervening years, at least a dozen books have been written about the still-unsolved case, including two in which the authors pointed the finger at their own fathers. And now here's The Black Dahlia, Brian De Palma's lurid movie version of James Ellroy's 1987 novel, which solved the murder by introducing fictional bad guys (and girls) worthy of such a heinous crime. Known for his muscular prose, Ellroy had lost his own mother in a never-solved case of rape-murder when he was 9 years old. And his novel can be read as a J'accuse to the entire city of Los Angeles, that pungent cesspool of sleaze and corruption. Chandler and the other noir scribes had exposed the seedy underbelly of L.A.'s orange-grove Eden. But Ellroy turned the town upside-down. Now everybody was on the make, everybody was getting screwed. Just living there was murder.
The novel packs a wallop, featuring a pair of former boxers who've wound up in the Los Angeles Police Department, serving and protecting their own interests. But the movie, I'm sorry to say, is a disaster ' an enjoyable disaster, often, but a disaster nonetheless. It opens with the infamous Zoot Suit Riots, in which America's soldiers and sailors, having fought so valiantly in World War II, decided to clear the streets of anyone whose ethnic heritage happened to differ from their own. And De Palma stages it like an MGM musical, the blows choreographed as in a Gene Kelly ballet. And why not? Ellroy's novel isn't exactly kitchen-sink realism. The artifice just keeps coming, though, as if De Palma were winking at us while only pretending to take the whole thing seriously. The movie isn't set in the '40s, it's set in 'the '40s,' that movie-stuffed time capsule buried in some long-abandoned studio backlot.
Unfortunately, the actors don't inhabit 'the '40s' or even the '40s. Josh Hartnett, for reasons understood only by the casting director, plays Bucky Bleichert, L.A.'s version of a good man. (He only lies, cheats and steals when he has to.) But Hartnett, with those sleepy eyes, seems almost incapable of summoning up the moral depravity required by the movie, a boy sent to do a man's job. And Aaron Eckhart, as Bleichert's bulldozing partner, Lee Blanchert, is even worse, if only because the role clearly calls for Russell Crowe. Assigned to the Dahlia case, Bleichert and Blanchert seem more concerned with Kay Lake (Scarlett Johannson), a Lana Turner type whom Blanchert's known for a while and Bleichert would like to know better. Then Hilary Swank shows up as Madeleine Linscott, a poor little rich girl who had a thing for ' and perhaps a fling with ' Betty Short. Mysterious women abound, driving the men crazy.
One can easily imagine De Palma (Carrie, Scarface, etc.) having gone to town on this material ' the feverish sex, the mutilated corpse, the mental derangement. And he does pull off a couple of cinematic set-pieces that will take their rightful place in his career-highlights reel. But the movie's close to an incoherent mess, scriptwriter Josh Friedman having failed to whittle Ellroy's mound of pulp down to size. (It takes several scenes to sweep up all the plot shavings.) Luckily, there's plenty to watch as the movie spins more and more out of control, including an over-the-top, around-the-back and through-the-legs performance by Fiona Shaw as a society matron unhinged by all the California sunshine. Shaw's gothic gargoyle is a total hoot, but it's at the expense of a movie that might have helped us understand that sprawling hallucination known as the City of Angels. By the end, a thick layer of smog has settled over everything.