In the mood for fedora hats, trenchcoats, and some hard-boiled cop genre caught on film? Grab some popcorn and a copy of The Black Dahlia.
The film follows two police officers, Dwight ‘Bucky’ Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and his partner, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) through the dark and rainy streets of Los Angeles in the 1940’s as they try to solve the grizzly murder of a young actress. She’s been mutilated and left to the crows. Meanwhile Bucky tries to navigate a love triangle between himself, Lee, and Lee’s girl- Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson).
Although the plot is supposed to involve the solution of this mystery, the movie actually spends very little time focusing on the investigation. Instead we move from sub-plot to sub-plot, and never really get anywhere. First there’s the scene of how Bucky and Lee met- we get to watch as Bucky and Lee fistfight their way through a riot in downtown LA. Later, we get to see Bucky and Lee in a boxing match that goes on for charity. Then there is a setup for the love triangle as we watch Bucky, Lee, and Kay all going to the movies together, eating together, etc. Then there’s a shootout for apparently no reason in which Lee apparently saves Bucky’s life. (but we find out later there was some sinister intention on Lee’s part)
After we’ve gone through all of this foreshadowing we finally get to see our murder victim…..for about ten seconds, and the body is off camera or shown from a distance for those ten seconds as we try to follow the police dialogue to understand what the heck just happened.
After a short visit with the body, we get some more sub-plot mystery as we learn that some shady character from Lee and Kay’s past is due to be released from prison. What does that have to do with the murder of the Dahlia? Not a thing, just adding more layers of plot to this mystery soup.
After that Bucky investigates the Dahlia murder by himself as Lee is having a small mental breakdown. We get one witness who tells us almost nothing, a few short clips of a ‘stag film’ that the Dahlia acted in, and finally Bucky winds up meeting Madeline Linscott (Hillary Swank) who he decides to talk to for no other reason than she sorta looks like the dead girl, and happens to frequent the same nightclub.
Swank does a great job at playing the sultry temptress, but why the movie decides to spend the next twenty minutes focusing on Bucky meeting her parents (just to show us how nutty they are) I’ll never know. Add one more body into the love triangle. Oh, wait, you can’t have a love triangle with four people.
Not to worry, the movie subtracts Lee from the equation when he’s killed by a stranger with a garrot- well, actually it’s by the shadowy figure weilding a switchblade- who just so happens to show up to the same deserted place at the same time to kill the same guy- with no apparent motive or way of knowing that he’d be there.
They waste no time introducing a few cardboard mobsters to whack Bucky on the back of the head with a sap, and then stuff Lee’s body into an incinerator (to protect the property value, of course) and oddly enough everyone is just ok with this arrangement.
So Bucky winds up sleeping with Kay before Lee’s body is even cold, but he’s also still messing around with Ms. Linscott, oh and by the way there is thousands of dollars in stolen money hidden beneath the floor in Kay’s house that ties into that strange character from their past that we’d forgotten about.
And Ms. Linscott’s father is also a real estate crook who uses old movie sets to turn into firetrap houses all over LA. And her mother likes pictures of creepy clowns. Oh, and we saw footage of ‘The Man Who Laughed’ at some point earlier in the movie.
Somehow this all ties together and reveals that Ms. Linscott’s mother actually killed the Black Dahlia- along with an accomplis that we’ve never heard of aside from a blurry picture sitting on the Linscott mantel (Gee, how did I miss that?) So, after shooting Ms. Linscott’s mother, Bucky trails Ms. Linscott herself to a hotel and shoots her too- because she was complicit in this whole thing somehow…
There is a lot of stuff going on in this movie, and yet somehow all of the interesting stuff is happening off screen. There is very little actual investigating, or police work, and at intervals throughout the movie it is quite easy to forget that they’re supposed to be solving a murder. The subplots take this picture over and leave very little meat to sink your teeth into, and by the time the murder mystery is solved at the end, you’ve stopped caring, and so many other things have happened that you’ve got to watch it again just to put the pieces together to understand what had happened. The pieces of this puzzle fit together about as well as corn flakes.
Entertaining, sure. Fedora hats, fist fights, shootouts. It’ll help get you through a rainy day. Mystery and suspense? Not here friends.