The Black Dahlia was advertised as the presentation of a grisly, unsolved Hollywood murder. Do not go to the theater expecting to get that.
The murder is there, but it is almost overshadowed by several other strong threads of plot. The whole conglomeration is decked out with an absurd amount of corruption and violence.
From the beginning, Dahlia is more the story of two boxers-turned-cops from 1940s Los Angeles than it is an account of the death of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short.
Josh Harnett plays Bucky Bleichert, and Aaron Eckhart plays Bleichert’s partner, Lee Blanchard. Both are assigned to the Short case, but their investigations mainly serve as background for other aspects of their lives.
Bleichert falls for Blanchard’s girlfriend Kay, played by Scarlett Johansson. Blanchard goes crazy and obsesses over both the Short case and the prison release of an old enemy. Investigations lead Bleichert into an affair with wealthy socialite Madeline Lindscott played by Hillary Swank.
About halfway through, The Black Dahlia begins to sink into the realm of disturbing. A treacherous pile of money appears under some floorboards. A date goes horribly wrong when a vise-grip gets involved. A woman’s confession involves mad ravings and a pistol stuck in her mouth.
Eventually, all of the plot threads tie together and the murder of Betty Short is solved, but by then it is too late. The audience has seen an excess of horror and corruption, and is most likely trying to figure out why half of it was necessary.
The vision of a crow pecking at a mutilated corpse in the ending scene is just the icing on a very rotten cake.
In The Black Dahlia, Brian DePalma paints a strong portrait of post-war depravity in American cities. Try not to get too dizzy looking at it.