The Black Dahlia (2006) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

"The Black Dahlia" was the tabloid nickname of the victim in L.A.'s most famous unsolved murder. In 1947, a naked female body was found in a vacant lot in a residential section of L.A. She had been chopped in half at the waist. Her body had been drained of blood. Many of her internal organs had been removed. Her face had been disfigured.

The victim turned out to be Elizabeth Short, a pretty 22-year-old drifter who had come to L.A. with the vague hope of turning her good looks into a stardom which never materialized. While she seems to have stopped short of prostitution, she basically survived by being a professional date. Men liked to buy her dinner and/or give her rent money, and she was not known to refuse. She rarely dated the same man more than once, since she doesn't seem to have been interested in intercourse, but she dated a lot of men once - perhaps including, finally, the wrong one.

I can't see much sense in my rehashing the details of this famous and infamous case. Nobody has solved it in sixty years. Many people have theories, but none of them seem to agree. You can find comprehensive summaries and supporting documents in the following virtual locations:

The renowned author James Ellroy wrote a fictionalized treatment of the Dahlia case, focusing on two (fictional) investigating officers. This is one of four acclaimed noir novels penned by Ellroy about post-war Los Angeles.   

  • The Black Dahlia, takes place in 1947, written in 1987
  • The Big Nowhere, storyline 1950, written 1988
  • L. A. Confidential, storyline 1951, written 1990
  • White Jazz, storyline 1958, written 1992

An extremely detailed summary of Ellroy's book can be found here. It should be noted that Ellroy's characters and situations are almost completely fictional. Although the story concerns the police investigation of the Black Dahlia murder, and does include some real information about the police procedures and about Elizabeth Short's life and death, those details are freely interwoven with fiction, and its solution to the case is not meant to be real or even plausible. It's simply a work of imagination inspired by the case.

Brian De Palma's film is based on Ellroy's novel, not on the facts of the case, but it is even further removed from reality in that it takes many artistic liberties with Ellroy's plot, sometimes merely condensing and consolidating, but at other times changing elements quite significantly. In other words, the film called The Black Dahlia should be evaluated on its own as a work of fiction which includes a complicated provenance: Ellroy's eponymous novel, earlier hard-boiled detective stories, earlier movies, and the facts of the case, giving no special preference to any one of those sources, not even the truth. It substitutes style for narrative, and truthiness for truth, in a kind of post-modern concept of crime reporting as it might be done by The Colbert Report.

So is the film any good?

Depends. What are your criteria for "good"?

It's stylish and decadent and it's loaded with glamorous set pieces, smoke-filled rooms meticulously recreated, run-down gyms, old porno loops, references to old films, and shabby buildings in decaying neighborhoods. DePalma, his cinematographer, and his set designers managed to do an astounding job of recreating the feel of 1947 Los Angeles in Bulgaria.

Unfortunately, the look is all it has. It's missing a lot of the pleasures of film noir. It doesn't really manage to use the musical theme to evoke the desired mood, ala Chinatown. It doesn't have a lot of snappy patter, ala The Big Sleep. It doesn't really have the combination of sleaze and jaunty fun that made L.A. Confidential so entertaining. It doesn't have a brilliant, quirky performance by someone like Bogart or Jack Nicholson or Russell Crowe to anchor it. It is left trying to entertain us with mannerisms and plot - the complex, convoluted plot of a deliberately dense three hundred page novel condensed into a two hour movie. Frankly, it needed a lot more simplification to become an engaging film. It has too many unnecessary side-tracks, too many narrations of off-camera events, and the film even resorts to the dreaded last round-up which rehashes the events already seen, filling in the necessary connections and explanations, in filmdom's latest variation on "let me tie you up so I can tell you the plot." To De Palma's credit, he did manage to raise the film's "coherent level" to "barely" from Femme Fatale's "in-," and he didn't resort to any truly awful storytelling clichés like "I woke up and it was all a dream," but the film is loaded with narrative mishaps.


There is one scene, for example, where one of the investigators is killed by a mysterious man shown only in silhouette. Except that it is completely obvious that the "man" is Hilary Swank in drag. Her body is too slim to be a normal man's, which sets off the alarm and gets the viewer watching closely. Is it a teenager? A child? An emaciated old man? Look - there are the distinctive ears. It's freakin' Hilary Swank!



I didn't take a lot of pleasure from the performances, either. Scarlett Johansson was given a role with no point, no personality, and nothing interesting to say, and she couldn't figure out how to make the character breathe, though you can't really blame her. Josh Hartnett looks like a little kid wearing his dad's suits, and should not do any more tough guy roles until he reaches puberty. Fiona Shaw is so far over the top she couldn't even see the top from there. Hilary Swank delivers the expected sass as an obligatory genre fixture, the campily decadent rich broad, but didn't we already see this exact same character in The Big Sleep?

There is one performance that I found genuinely brilliant - Mia Kirshner in a small role as The Dahlia. In just a few moments of screen time, she manages to convey all the shattered dreams of a pretty, haunted, eager-to-please, not-too-bright girl being crushed by an exploitative world, and starting to realize it.

If only the rest of the film could have matched that kind of soulfulness.



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  • Jemma Rooper and Mia Kirshner show their breasts in a black-and-white film within a film.

  • Hilary Swank shows her bum.

  • Josh Hartnett shows his bum.

The Critics Vote ...

  • British consensus: two stars out of four. Mail 2/10, Telegraph 8/10, Independent 4/10, Guardian 4/10, Times 6/10, Sun 5/10, Mirror 4/10, FT 6/10, BBC 3/5.


The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. It will finish somewhere around thirty million in domestic gross. The budget was fifty.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a C-. This film has some razzle-dazzle and is beautifully filmed and styled, as you'd expect from DePalma, but it's an unfocused, confusing mess, and basically no fun.

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