The Black Dahlia

Despite the bright, pretty images we see on the screen, the film business is filled with dark, disturbing stories, tales of broken hearts and broken dreams. Like a car wreck, we can’t help but look, our curiosity primed and ready for the worst.

Two new films explore the dark underbelly of Hollywood, and safely set in the past, allow us to explore these tragedies without personal involvement. “The Black Dahlia” and “Hollywoodland” take notorious cases and splash them on the screen with beautiful precision. Exquisite period detail, handsome leading men and beautiful dames allow “The Black Dahlia” and “Hollywoodland” to lovingly recreate an era lost in time.

Director Brian De Palma’s fascination with crime and sexual obsession is the perfect attitude for “The Black Dahlia.” Part fact, part fiction, derived from the pages of a James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential) novel, “Dahlia” is pure De Palma. Populated by hard talking detectives, scorching femme fatales, corrupt officials and tragic victims, “The Black Dahlia” is both exceptional and excruciating. It’s a handsome and sturdy film, but the screenplay by Josh Friedman, like the actual crime, is purely speculative.

Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) was an aspiring star whose mutilated body was found in an empty lot in Hollywood in 1947. Sawed in half, the murder became a cause celebre, attracting more attention than Short ever could have as a star. Hollywood’s postwar growth attracted both dreamers and schemers, and Short’s death was the perfect example of what happened when those two worlds collided.

“The Black Dahlia” brings together cops Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), best friends on and off the beat, whose relationship was forged in the boxing ring. Adding fuel to their friendship is Lee’s bombshell girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson).

When Bucky begins seeing Short look-alike Madeline (Hilary Swank), a bi-curious lesbian whose eccentric family has strong ties to the city, the intruder into their abstract ménage a trois takes the cops down different paths. Like “Chinatown,” “The Black Dahlia” is at its best exploring seedy people doing seedy things. Rife with suspects, the screenplay captures the essence of Ellroy. The film’s hard-boiled narrative never flinches, turning crime drama into pulp fiction.

Even the film’s over-the-top moments, a 1940’s lesbian bar, Bucky’s fascination with Short, Madeline’s nonconcentric family, play into De Palma’s psycho-sexual vision. As the director of “Body Double,” “Dressed to Kill” and “Femme Fatale,” De Palma continually examines violent and sexual obsession. The discovery of Short unlocks different passions in Bucky and Lee, testing their loyalty and friendship. Everyone in “The Black Dahlia” has a secret, some more devastating than others.

While nowhere as dynamic as the pairing of Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in “L.A. Confidential,” Hartnett and Eckhart remain impressive. Hartnett is a little bland at times, but it’s more in the writing than the performance. Bucky goes through the biggest transformation, and Hartnett is convincing as a man looking for light at the end of the tunnel. Eckhart is good as a cop on the edge whose past keeps infecting his present. Johansson shines as the blonde vamp who comes between the two cops, while Swank paints her femme fatale with broad, exotic strokes.

Actor George Reeves was luckier than most, a handsome man with a chiseled jaw, perfect for portraying the man of steel. As television’s “Superman,” Reeves became famous for his portrayal of an upright role model. Off screen, Reeves was a wreck, trapped in a bad job working for bad money. Even though he was the star of a hit series, Reeves didn’t make much money, and after the show ended, so did the offers. Typecast and broke, Reeves died in June, 1959.

Like Elizabeth Short, the death of Reeves was never really resolved. One theory is Reeves committed suicide. Others believe his fiancee accidentally shot him and covered up the crime. Still others contend Reeves was murdered by a notorious Hollywood crime boss. Like “The Black Dahlia” “Hollywoodland” director Allen Coulter and writer Paul Bernbaum use fact as the high dive to leap into a pool of speculation.

Coulter, a veteran television director making his big screen debut, uses the death of Reeves to tell several stories. Bernbaum’s script is broken down into two chapters, one taking place a week after the actor’s death, the other the years leading up to his success. Like all Hollywood stories, “Hollywoodland” is filled with both joy and heartache. Despite his good looks, Reeves was never considered leading man material. As the determined yet broken Reeves, Ben Affleck finds just the right balance of gilded angst.

The actor’s death brings out opportunistic private eye Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), who convinces Reeves’ mother the death might be murder. At first Simo is looking for a big paycheck and his name in the paper, but as he digs deeper into the actor’s life, he begins to understand what might have happened during his last moments.

“Hollywoodland” is rich in period detail, although on a smaller scale. The emphasis is on story, and Brody hits just the right note as a leech losing his taste for blood. There’s integrity and honesty in the performance. Diane Lane radiates as the wife of studio boss Bob Hoskins, a studio mogul who hasn’t totally abandoned his mob ties.

Although they deal with the dark side of Hollywood, both films are competent and engrossing.

Tarnished Tinsel

Film Noir Exposes Land of Broken Dreams

The Black Dahlia

Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner. Directed by Brian De Palma. Rated R. 121 Minutes.


Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, Ben Affleck, Bob Hoskins. Directed by Allen Coulter. Rated R. 126 Minutes.

Larsen Rating:

The Black Dahlia $8.00

Hollywoodland $7.00

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