For its sheer gothic horror, handiness as a cautionary tale about broken Hollywood dreams and enduring mystery, the grisly murder of Elizabeth Short, a wannabe starlet whose mutilated body was found cut in half a few inches from the sidewalk on an empty lot in the middle of Los Angeles in 1947, continues to exert a macabre fascination over our psyches. Or maybe it's just all the cross-promotion. Either way, it helps explain why James Ellroy used the story of the Black Dahlia, as she came to be known, as a springboard for a novel, but not quite why he dived from it into a turgid pudding of noir conventions, lurid melodrama, stock characters and more improbably staggered subplots than a Prague cemetery.
Like the book that inspired it, Brian De Palma's "The Black Dahlia" feels a little like a bait and switch -- or, more accurately, a bait and dump. The overripe period detail, doused in thick, glowing amber (is this a movie or a pancake?), has a kitsch waxworks quality to it, complete with the kind of hard-boiled '40s-era voice-over that no doubt made Edward G. Robinson a very popular party guest. The brief glimpses we do get of the Dahlia herself, both as a gruesome corpse in police photos and as a sad lost girl in myriad screen tests, are the most compelling thing about the movie. But even she gets lost in the teeming swarm of morally compromised and terminally obsessive characters, each burdened with a byzantine past and hulls full of florid baggage.
Josh Hartnett, an innocent in an Alfalfa hairstyle, plays Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert, a former boxer turned cop who agrees to participate in a publicity match for the LAPD against another prizefighter turned cop named Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). Bucky is a poor kid from Lincoln Heights, and if he seems too young and too pretty to be so cruelly disillusioned, well, check out his batty father. He shoots pigeons from the window for fun! The much-publicized fight wins Bucky and Lee matching promotions and marks the beginning of their friendship, their professional partnership, their platonic \o7menage\f7 \o7a trois\f7 and their trip down the rabbit hole of pure L.A. gothic.
The sweater girl in the middle is Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), with whom Lee lives in suspicious luxury and apparent sin, neither of which turns out to be what it seems. In fact, very little in the movie does. Thanks to Bucky's persistent voice-over, every inch of space between the characters is spackled with biographical information and plot fillers. It seems a cop can't investigate a murder in this town without opening up a big can of personal and psychological worms. The result is dizzyingly hard to follow, and proves too much for Lee, who shortly after requesting a transfer from another case to the Dahlia murder descends into a benzedrine-fueled spiral that sends him spinning, top-like, into a third obsession and right out of the movie.
Bucky descends into a netherworld of his own when he meets a mysterious Black Dahlia look-alike named Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank). Madeleine couldn't be more fatale if she fired death rays from her eyes. The part is ludicrously vampy, and Swank, chomping on an incongruous Scottish burr, takes full advantage. A bisexual heiress with a taste for the lowlife, she lives at home with her corrupt autocrat of a father, Emmett (John Kavanagh), an immigrant turned self-made real estate millionaire; her unhinged pill addict of a mother, Ramona (Fiona Shaw); and her perverse younger sister, Martha (Rachel Miner). But she prefers to spend her time hanging out in Hollywood lesbian bars and picking up sailors for change, just like the dead girl she's been told she resembles. And Madeleine isn't the only one with a personality problem -- sanity is in extremely short supply. Her prominent family, for one, is decadently, extravagantly starkers; just how so is revealed in an over-the-top dinner scene in which the scene-stealing Shaw airs the family's dirty laundry with the help of a stiff martini.
The more Bucky digs, the further he sinks in the swamp of corruption and deception, sexual perversity and double-cross that makes up the classic L.A. noir. (At least he never has to go to Chinatown.) And the further-flung from the central mystery these characters appear, the harder the movie works to bring them back to the scene of the crime -- or rather, the harder it works to expand the scene of the crime until everyone is implicated. It was society's fault.