Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) used to be a boxer, so when a fundraiser in the Los Angeles police force where he works comes up, he agrees to put the gloves back on and fight fellow cop (and ex-boxer) Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). He might lose his pride - and a couple of teeth - but the match is a success and the two men are promoted to the homicide department while Bucky gets to put his ailing father in a rest home. Then one day, they are performing routine police work when a gunfight breaks out - yet nearby, on a patch of wasteground is a case that will ruin both of them.
Judging from the lonely trumpet of Mark Isham's score, The Black Dahlia was meant to be director Brian De Palma's Chinatown, and in a way it was in that he would have been best to forget it. Josh Friedman adapted James Ellroy's minor modern classic crime novel, but he, like De Palma and most of the cast, allowed the complex material to get away from them. The real Black Dahlia was Elizabeth Short, wannabe starlet and victim of one of the most gruesome murders of the 1940s, and Ellroy's book was a version of events that provided a solution to the actually unsolved case.
In the film, there are changes as there often are with novel-to-screen journeys, but none of them are alterations for the better. The body found on the wasteground is Short's, horribly mutilated, and being homicide cops Bucky and Lee are put on the case. There was an opportunity here for an exploration of how the most disturbing sides to police work can have detrimental effects on the people investigating them, but that would require more depth than this film is comfortable with as it's all they can do to keep the twists of the plot understandable.
It was a film with troubles in its development, yet many big screen works succeed despite the conditions they were made under which doesn't really happen here. To its credit, and as expected with De Palma, techincally it is very proficient with a sepia-hued nineteen-forties world at least looking the part. But the cast never look the part, there's too much of the dressing up box about most of them and Hartnett remains oddly leaden throughout. Not to mention the air of dread and violence taken from the novel dies away after the first few scenes.
So you're left with a collection of beautifully photographed sequences that don't fall into place when strung together. Scarlett Johansson play's Lee's live in girlfriend, a prostitute he saved, but is too mannered one minute, too muted the next. Hilary Swank is a strange choice for femme fatale Madeleine, especially as she's supposed to be the image of Short, but as Short is played by Mia Kirshner the suspension of disbelief quickly evaporates when it's plain they look nothing like each other. Then there are the grotesque scenes with rich girl Madeleine's family which might have fit well into a comedy of embarrassment: Fiona Shaw as the mother ludicrously overacts and her final bit of business near the end is absolutely hilarious. Another Ellroy adaptation, L.A. Confidential, found a way to succeed by making up its own story from the bare bones of the novel, but The Black Dahlia fumbles, never settling into a satisfying style.
He's not aversed to directing blockbusters such as Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible, but Bonfire of the Vanities was a famous flop and The Black Dahlia fared little better as his profile dipped in its later years, with Passion barely seeing the inside of cinemas. Even in his poorest films, his way with the camera is undeniably impressive. Was once married to Nancy Allen.