[Screen It]

(2006) (Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson) (R)

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Suspense/Drama: 1940s era detectives try to figure out who murdered an aspiring actress.
It's the mid 1940s in Los Angeles, and cops turned amateur boxers Bucky Bleichert (JOSH HARTNETT) and Lee Blanchard (AARON ECKHART) have been teamed together as detectives. Bucky's the new guy in Lee's division, and there's talk that a sadistic pimp is about to released from prison, a point Lee doesn't want Bucky telling Lee's girlfriend, Kay Lake (SCARLETT JOHANSSON), due to her prior connection to the fiend.

While also working on another case involving a child rapist, the two detectives end up at the murder scene of Elizabeth "Betty" Short (MIA KIRSHNER), an aspiring actress who was beaten to death, cut in half, disemboweled, and sliced ear to ear. As Lee becomes obsessed with and tangled up by the multiple cases -- putting pressure on his relationship with Kay -- Bucky focuses on the actress' murder, with the press referring to her as "The Black Dahlia."

His investigation leads to his viewing of her previous audition clips for an unseen stag film director (voice of BRIAN DE PALMA) and her appearance in such shorts with fellow aspiring actress Lorna Mertz (JEMIMA ROOPER). That trail eventually leads to bisexual femme fatale Madeleine Linscott (HILARY SWANK) whose parents -- Emmett (JOHN KAVANAGH) and Ramona (FIONA SHAW) -- aren't exactly role models for mental stability.

With Lee progressively unraveling and Bucky ending up having flings with both Kay and Madeleine, the detective tries to figure out who murdered Betty and why.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
inĚtent (noun) 1. Something that is intended; an aim or a purpose. 2.Law. The state of one's mind at the time one carries out an action. 3. Meaning; purport.

As in real life, intent is everything when it comes to movies. That can range from a given character's purpose and goal to that of what the performer playing him or her is trying to do. Then there's the matter of what the director is striving to achieve in terms of storytelling, theme and style.

For much of his career, the intent of Brian De Palma seemingly has been to titillate his viewers, all while evoking the style and aura of one of the industry's past masters, Alfred Hitchcock. With efforts ranging from good to mediocre to bad, the director certainly doesn't make boring films, at least from a visual sense and in terms of the lurid characters, story and developments that often occur within them.

His latest effort, "The Black Dahlia" is certainly filled with all of the above. Loosely based on the real-life, unsolved murder mystery case of the same name -- that previously inspired the Robert Duvall/Robert De Niro film "True Confessions" -- the picture had me wondering about De Palma's intent, a point that generated some lively discussion with other critics.

Considering his track record in terms of lifting previous filmmaking styles and stories, I contend that he was trying to make a film noir thriller along the lines of pictures made long ago, when overwrought melodrama, thick manipulative scores and affected acting seemed to rule the day.

What else could explain this film nearly turning into something approaching camp or parody in its second half that elicited plenty of laughter from our screening audience? Some proclaimed they were laughing at the film rather than with it, meaning they assumed De Palma simply let the film spiral out of control. However, since everything becomes so excessive -- particularly regarding the acting -- my impression was that it was purposeful, albeit not exactly successful in terms of making a new old film or as an overall viewing experience.

While that overacting, obtrusive noir score and such will likely draw the most derision from those who don't like the end product, the biggest problem is that De Palma and screenwriter Josh Friedman (adapting the novel by James Ellroy) have constructed the film in such a slapdash fashion that it's hard to be engaged by the story or its characters. I understand the concept of red herrings and storytelling misdirection, but everything here feels like a hodgepodge of characters and scenes from other noir films, rather than a unique, cohesive piece.

It also takes a while to get going. Set in 1946-1947 Los Angeles, it follows two cops -- played by Josh Hartnett (who also serves as our voice-over narrator) and Aaron Eckhart -- being teamed together after a boxing exhibition between them leaves Bucky in need of some new teeth but with knowledge that a sadistic pimp is being released from prison. Lee would like it if Bucky doesn't tell Lee's "good" femme fatale girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson) of that release since the man was her former pimp and she's now living the good life (meaning she sits around and smokes lots of cigarettes, 1940s style).

As they await that occurrence (and sparks fly between Bucky and Kay as they all deliver the sort of noir dialogue only found in such films), they try to find a child rapist and killer, which leads to a shootout in a seedy part of town and then the discovery of a young, aspiring actress who's been cut in half, disemboweled and given something of Joker, ear to earn "smile." She is, or was, Betty Short, the press dub her the titular name, and the detectives try to track down her killer, all while handling other matters.

That leads to Eckhart's character progressively slipping over the edge (figuratively and literally), while Hartnett's watches old audition footage featuring Betty chatting with an unseen stag film director (voiced by none other than De Palma himself), which eventually leads to an entire lesbian subplot (for more luridness) featuring Hilary Swank playing a bad, bisexual femme fatale from a crazy family.

It's during those latter moments where the film suddenly shifts gears and -- depending on one's perception -- completely unravels or gleefully wallows in playing up its over the top homage to films of old. At least one can hope it's the latter as Swank (who's proven she can act superbly with the right material) chews up the scenery in high vamp mode, all while surrounded by her crazy Scot father, bratty younger sister (with an inclination for drawing lewd sketches of her sister and Bucky), and hopped up and/or demented mother (Fiona Shaw who seems determined to win the over-acting award of all time).

Scenes involving them and then the final showdown had various reviewers -- including yours truly -- tittering when not doing a full belly laugh, but by the time all of the accusations, revelations and confessions coming flying forth near the end in a hurry up flurry, you won't care any more, if you even ever did.

Along the way there, De Palma delivers a few of his signature set pieces, this time once again involving a staircase (although not to the fun of his homage and/or theft of the same from "Potemkin" in "The Untouchables"). Yet, while they and the rest of the film look great from a visual standpoint, it all adds up to a whole lot of nothing, particularly for anyone interested in the title case that pretty much gets the short shrift here.

Unless the director confesses one way or another, his intent with the film may become a long-standing mystery much like the real-life murder case, but I doubt they'll ever make a film about anyone intending to search for the answer to this new "mystery." "The Black Dahlia" rates as a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 11, 2006/ Posted September 15, 2006

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