When I moved to L.A. in 1999, the memory of the unsolved 1940's murder of "The Black Dahlia," Elizabeth (Betty) Smart, was as fresh as if it were yesterday. She was an incredible story within many stories, the quintessential wannabe starlet who came to a singularly gruesome and mysteriously symbolic end. She was dubbed the Black Dahlia during her life because she always dressed in black with a flower in her hair, reminiscent of a current movie, "The Blue Dahlia."
The 2006 movie, "The Black Dahlia" is another attempt to capture and explain her short life, or rather, its immediate aftermath. ("Hollywoodland," "True Confessions," and many other films have also taken up her sad, unrequited cause.) Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart star as boxers turned, respectively, cop and reporter. We don't really care about their fictitious characters' inflated lives, or their mutual girlfriend, played by Scarlet Johanssen. We want to see and learn more about Betty Smart. Hilary Swank does a fine turn as a rich, spoiled Betty-Smart-lookalike who is a little too close to the case. The heart and soul of the movie is Betty herself played by the captivating Mia Kirshner. The very effective device is that we only see film reels of Betty--screen tests, interviews, stag films (fleeting nudity). Mia Kirshner has Zooey Deschannel eyes and Alexandra Breckenridge acting chops. The outrage of the detectives watching her sex films posthumously is very refreshing.
The film lacks a consistent tone, style and feel. There are directing, acting and editing problems. Transitions are self-conscious. The movie seems like it was going for the unflinching re-creation of 1940's Los Angeles of "L.A. Confidential," but fails, mostly because it tried to be a 1940's film noir while being a film about the 1940's. Again, the trumped-up, hard-to-believe story surrounding the already-bizarre Black Dahlia story was a dead appendage and unnecessary competition that belittled Betty's tragedy. We needed more Betty and less what's-his-name.
In 2004, when I left Los Angeles, the latest thinking was that the Black Dahlia's father killed her. I feel a connection to her simply because she was from Malden, Massachusetts (not far from where I grew up).
My father lived in Pasadena in the 1940's and used to refer to the City of Angels as "a satin-lined sewer." This reality is consistent well-communicated throughout the film. There's very little hope. Anywhere. This is one of those movies that has some solid elements, but far too many annoying parts to be a good film.