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It's Not Chinatown

Brian De Palma murders film noir with "The Black Dahlia."

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Based on the grisly 1940s L.A. murder of would-be starlet Elizabeth Short, the movie seems to assume that the mere sight of men wearing short ties and fedoras or women got up as if for roles in "Mildred Pierce" will be enough to set audiences swooning for the vanished Hollywood of yore.

The often bewildering plot centers not so much on the murder itself as on the tribulations of the cops on the case, Lee Blanchard (a swaggering Aaron Eckhart) and, especially, Bucky Bleichert (a soporific Josh Hartnett), who falls for Lee's girl (Scarlett Johansson) and acts as the tale's droning, apparently bored narrator. The victim herself (Mia Kirshner) appears mostly in dubious footage that turns up as evidence of her seamy life on the periphery of the film industry.

Like "L.A. Confidential" (1997), "The Black Dahlia" is based on a novel by James Ellroy and, like the earlier picture, comes equipped with a number of purposefully murky subplots and vignettes pointing to the bottomless iniquities in the City of Angels. Drug deals, louche bars, and casual violence abound. K.D. Lang even shows up in drag singing "Love for Sale" to the patrons of an improbably swanky lesbian nightclub.

"L.A. Confidential" gloried in its sleaze steadfastly and energetically enough to achieve a cheesy sublimity. De Palma's new mess, on the other hand, is weighed down with a positively sodden performance by Hartnett, and a helpless one by Johansson, who seems at a loss throughout. Much more thought has gone into her wardrobe than her characterization. In terms of sheer wattage, Eckhart offers a contrast, at least. Flashing a ferocious smile and foaming at the mouth by turns, he does his best to chew up the impeccable period scenery.

About halfway through the film, a spark of hope arrives in the person of Hilary Swank, playing the quasi-degenerate daughter of an unscrupulous real-estate baron and his dipsomaniac wife. An acquaintance of the dead girl, Swank's character, and her half-mad relations, bring a much-needed note of fun into this grimly dutiful attempt to resurrect film noir, the genre that will not be allowed to rest in peace. Before long, however, she gets sucked into the film's creaky narrative mechanism and becomes little more than a conduit for the flood of incomprehensible back story rushed into the movie towards the close, in a futile attempt to make sense of the botched, jumbled plot.

Behind it all is the specter of Roman Polanski's 1974 noir masterpiece, "Chinatown." Little reminders of the earlier film show up repeatedly: rowboats in Echo Park, a referendum on a questionable bond issue, the shady deals behind L.A.'s expansion, incest — the works. De Palma seems to want to tap some of the power of Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne's mythic vision of Los Angeles.

Moreover, those who have struggled with the intricacies of Polanski's film should be warned that compared to "The Black Dahlia," "Chinatown" is simplicity itself. You'll need a pad and pencil to keep track of the names, dates and places required to put all the pieces together once you get home. Most viewers, however, will probably realize in short order that it's not worth the trouble and will content themselves with the exquisite tailoring and set design on display. (R) 121 min. * S



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