It was not the life of Elizabeth Short that created chaos in the life of officer Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert, but her death. In life, Elizabeth was a struggling actress with loose morals who was trying to break into the movies. In death she became famous—and made others infamous—as Los Angeles’ Black Dahlia.
The Black Dahlia, which is written by James Ellroy, the author of LA Confidential, is a detective film noir set in 1943. Josh Hartnett stars as Bucky, a former boxer who is promoted to homicide warrants in the LAPD with Lee Blanchard as his partner—another retired boxer. Aaron Eckhart plays Lee with class and force. He is the quintessential detective expected in a crime film: smart, good looking, and sociable, who shows passion for the case of the Black Dahlia that is missing elsewhere. Throughout this twisted story, the audience never grasps a clear picture of who Lee is, but is instead shown glimpses of what may be his true character through secretive glances and smoldering looks. A perfect character for the genre. Hartnett, however, plays Bucky with innocence, which turns out to be essential to contrast the ambiguity of Lee’s actions. Bucky is rational and kind, while Lee is fierce and unpredictable. The duo compliment each other as “Mr. Fire” and “Mr. Ice,” their nicknames in the LA papers, and together are the man that Scarlett Johansson’s character Kay Lake needs to survive in the crime filled era of Hollywoodland.
If only it were that simple. The Black Dahlia has a mishmash of mini-plots developed throughout that aims to uncover the background personalities of the characters and build an emotionally wrenching experience for the theatergoer. As though the brutal murder of a young starlet and love triangle weren’t enough. This attempt, while admirable, is too big given the already complex storyline created by Josh Friedman’s screenplay. However, while this is one of the more interesting approaches to character development than the usual one-line summaries, it draws attention away from the search of the Dahlia, and creates a confusing overlap of who’s who. There are just too many minor characters to keep track of, especially when they begin dying left and right. The movie would have had to be at least a half hour longer in order for this development to work.
However, how this movie does succeed though is in the character interactions. Many of the scenes are short to allow for a good movement of the movie. The pace also helps build tension and mystique. The strong bond between Bucky, Lee, and Kay is shown from its beginning, which makes its traumatic deterioration comprehensible. While the scenes depicting their friendship are quaint and sometimes trite, as Kay and Lee’s gritty past together is uncovered by Bucky, the clash of banal cliché and raw emotion from the actors show a range and depth to this movie that translates well from the novel. The audience is let in on why their perceptible personalities are they way they are. Lee’s protective nature and Kay’s brash attitude for a housewife in the 1940s are both facades from which they hide their fears. Watching Hartnett’s Bucky learn the truths of LA and its people is compelling and sexy, especially his interactions with number one suspect Madeleine Linscott, played by a refreshingly soft Hillary Swank.
Overall, The Black Dahlia is a movie that tries to do too much in a short amount of time. If the hunt for the killers of the Dahlia was the only plot for this story, it would be enough. As it is, the running time of 121 minutes is too short for this complex drama. But still, not only is this an intriguing movie, it is visually beautiful and carries a lofty ambition. The real case of The Black Dahlia was never solved, yet here it is given a true Hollywood ending—sensational and passionate—which is what perhaps Elizabeth Short was looking for in her life.
This is a movie to be seen in the theaters once, and rented a hundred times over.
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