a commentary by Tony McRae  

There are two ways to watch “The Black Dahlia.”  You can make a serious effort to understand the motivations of the characters in this story of the most famous murder in Hollywood history; or you can forget the story, sit back and enjoy director Brian De Palma’s gorgeous sets and lurid pictures of post-war Hollywood.   

I wouldn’t be surprised if you chose the first option, and try to figure out character motivation.  Well, good luck.  This is one of the most muddled and overwrought film scripts I’ve encountered I some time.  I doubt a second viewing will help.  

Still, I was kind of hooked.  Brian De Palma can do that—get you to surrender to the picture and forget the story; don’t worry who murdered and mutilated an insignificant actress in 1947.  You will find out at the end of the movie, even though the real murder has never been solved.   

So yes, I did stay to the bitter—and ludicrous—end, not because I cared, but because I was having fun seeing all the Hollywood movies De Palma was referencing, all the camera and lighting and editing techniques he loves to use.     

The most obvious rip-off for me was Polanski’s 1974 “ Chinatown ” with Jack Nicholson.  De Palma used practically the same seductive music, especially the bluesy trumpet solo. And the look, the sepia-like coloring that is at once nostalgic while underlining the cynicism and despair of post WW2 America .  Screenwriter Josh Friedman and De Palma lost track of James Ellroy’s characters.  For example, we wonder why suddenly Sgt. Leland "Lee" Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) becomes so distraught over the case.  One might think he knew the victim.  But no.  It’s not till after his ranting and hysteria that we learn he had a young sister who had been murdered.     

The cast is so-so.  Josh Hartnett and Eckhart, the police investigators, are given some pretty awful dialogue; Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank look their parts, though Swank adds a bit of complexity that gives some credence to the plotline.   The big surprise for me was Mia Kirstner who plays the murdered actress Elizabeth Short.  De Palma films her scenes in gorgeous black and white, bringing out all the hopes and despair that the best film noir of that period had to offer.

I’m not a huge fan of “ L.A. Confidential” which could be considered a sort of companion piece to “The Black Dahlia,” but if you must see a Hollywoody murder story, rent it and forget this movie.  Or better still, watch “ Chinatown .”  

R for strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content and language