I'm one of few filmmakers to go to bat for Brian De Palma. It's so unhip to like his films, but I think he's churned out a number of underrated gems, including Casualties of War, Carlito's Way, even Snake Eyes. That said, he's helmed some misfires too, and The Black Dahlia is one of them.
While beautifully filmed by the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond, and with flawless production design by the equally celebrated Dante Ferretti, its story – about two cops in 1947 Los Angeles investigating the infamous murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, nicknamed The Black Dahlia – is muddled where it tries to be complicated, aimless where it tries to be character-driven, and, in its finale, stupid where it tries to be shocking. Chinatown it ain't, and the hopelessly wooden Josh Hartnett is a terrible choice for the lead.
The rest of the cast sounds like a director's dream, but none put in their best work: Scarlett Johansson seems a bit lost; Hilary Swank tries hard, but is undeniably miscast as a femme fatale; even the usually blameless Aaron Eckhart struggles with character motivation that comes out of nowhere: his tough guy cop somehow becomes insanely obsessed with Short's murder. I didn't buy it for a minute.
Supposedly, the film's conclusion, which coughs up a million revelations, explains everybody's connection to the titular murder case (which takes a back seat to smaller, less interesting side stories for much of the run time), but it's so contrived and confused that it doesn't satisfy.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that this mess all comes from a novel by James Ellroy, who also penned the vastly superior L.A. Confidential. I haven't read Ellroy's novel, so I don't know whether to blame him or screenwriter Josh Friedman. Or perhaps they both did great work and it was studio tinkering that ruined the story.
In any event, while De Palma has some good ideas as usual, and while the movie itself is one nice piece of eye candy, The Black Dahlia is a big disappointment.