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DePalma's Disjointed 'Black Dahlia'

The detective movie The Black Dahlia has an impressive pedigree. It's based on a novel by James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential), directed by Brian De Palma (Scarface, The Untouchables) and tells the story of one of Hollywood's most celebrated unsolved mysteries. And it gets off to a decidedly snappy start.

Lee Blanchard and Bucky Bleichert are L.A. detectives in 1947 -- partners with different temperaments and the same taste in women. They're opponents in an upcoming boxing match that's supposed to help raise money for the police department -- something about a bond issue -- and the match is a real corker.

But it turns out to be just a distraction from the main event. In fact, the first 40 minutes of the movie are a distraction -- from the character setups for Lee, Bucky, and their gal-pal Kay (played by Aaron Eckhart, Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson), to the murder case they're working on, to a zoot suit riot, to a big shootout that director De Palma illustrates with some really neat tracking shots. All distractions. And then the camera backs up from the shootout, and there, hidden in the grass by the side of a road, is a truly grim, chopped-up sight: the plot.

That is, what's in the grass is the body of the young actress who became known, because of her mane of raven hair, as the Black Dahlia. Her actual name was Elizabeth Short, and her real-life murder made headlines in 1947 when she was found mutilated, disemboweled and cut in half near the Hollywood studios where she'd hoped to work. The case was never solved, but it inspired plenty of fiction, from false confessions, to more than a dozen novels. James Ellroy's Black Dahlia, published in 1987, came at the story obliquely, spinning a complicated tale of two cops he called Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice, along with body doubles, and nefarious schemes involving real estate development. De Palma has elected to keep many more of these details in his overstuffed movie than it can comfortably hold.

And perhaps because he was shoehorning them all in, he's allowed his actors to perform in what seem to be entirely different films: Fiona Shaw playing a society matron as high camp, Hilary Swank playing a vamp more or less straight, Scarlett Johansson playing a... um... sweater. Meanwhile, Eckhart mostly shouts, while Josh Hartnett just stares blankly, muttering Bucky's lines and looking helpless as various women rip his shirt off.

De Palma also gives himself a few lines. He's the off-screen director's voice on Betty Short's audition reel, gruffly putting the soon-to-be murder victim through her acting paces, and wondering if she's capable of expressing emotions. That's a question -- you can't help thinking -- that he should have asked his leading man.

The director orchestrates plenty of gorgeous camera work and lush scoring, but you get a feeling that the director was more interested in outdoing other films noir, than he was in telling a coherent mystery story. He's got Hitchcock moments, and Chinatown moments, and a lesbian bar scene that would have made a great starting point for a Busby Berkeley moment, each with its own distinct plot thread. And finally, in The Black Dahlia's last reel, De Palma brings all those plot threads together. And what's he got?... a tangle.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.