The Black Dahlia (15)

Forget it, Jake. It's not 'Chinatown'
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One of the pithiest ideas in James Ellroy's LA quartet of Forties- and Fifties-set crime novels is a Hollywood brothel specialising in women who have had their faces altered by plastic surgery to resemble screen goddesses of the time. Today, no one would be at all surprised by such an establishment: the really outré joint would be one that guarantees its staff 100-per-cent surgically unretouched. But the idea of "hookalikes" in the Forties, casting a lurid reflection on the seemingly untouchable sexuality of that era's stars, is bound to seem sacrilegious - wherein, of course, lies its kick.

One of the great pleasures of Ellroy's thrillers is precisely their potential for perverse fantasy casting. Reading them, you can picture your favourite period stars - Hayworth and Lake, Garfield and Widmark - and cast them in dramas that go way further down noir's dark streets than even the grimmest, seamiest thrillers of the period were able to.

But how many of today's A-list would you want to cast in an Ellroy adaptation? Given how easy it is, even without the knifework, to give a contemporary actor a near-perfect period look, how many contemporary names can carry themselves with the style it takes to inhabit the Forties? Adapting The Black Dahlia, the first in Ellroy's quartet, Brian De Palma sometimes gets it right. Yes, I believed in Aaron Eckhart, with his eager grin and shovel jaw (a broadened-out Kirk Douglas model), as an amiable lummox of a cop who topples over into neurotic frenzy. But I didn't buy Josh Hartnett as his partner: he's a dimensionless beach boy, a sulk stuck on to an opaque plane of a face. In his nude scene, Hartnett could be a Ralph Lauren model changing between shots: as we know from Pearl Harbor, he's just not built to Forties specifications. What's worst is the way that Hartnett's flat, numbed voice-over defuses the narrative: he never remotely sounds as if he's lived through the events he recounts.

One of the appeals of Ellroy's novels is the sense of a forbidden West Coast archaeology. The past they show is uncannily close: these people have our own profane minds, our own obsessions (sex, drugs, showbiz gossip). But Ellroy's terrain is the old LA, a civilisation that, even if buried just beneath the surface of today, is as lost to us as Ur or Atlantis: some of its neighbourhoods truly are lost, like the long-demolished Bunker Hill, location of many an atmospheric noir scene.

Curtis Hansen's 1997 Ellroy adaptation LA Confidential was less about geography than style: it was a celebration of certain cars, patterns of tweed, intensities of neon. But with its brassy vividness, narrative thrust and note-perfect cast, it was a much better film than De Palma's. In fairness, De Palma gives us more of the lost city (is there an Oscar available for location scouting?), but what we see is a ghost town, inhabited by people you don't believe in, and who don't quite seem to believe in their own presence there.

Ellroy's novel is inspired by the real-life "Black Dahlia" case of 1947: a young would-be actress, Elizabeth Short, was found brutally murdered, sliced in two. In Ellroy's version, her death case is investigated by cops Lee Blanchard (Eckhart) and Bucky Bleichert (Hartnett), champion boxers dubbed "Mr Fire" and "Mr Ice" and given star billing in a PR exercise by the LAPD. The deeper they get into the case, the more their respective obsessions take hold of them. Blanchard is consumed by a frenzied need to find the culprit, for grim reasons of his own: in Ellroy's world, cops can turn as crazy as any killer at the drop of a fedora.

Meanwhile, Bleichert falls for Blanchard's girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). Hopelessly pining, he takes up instead with a rich bisexual vamp, Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), who frequents lesbian niteries dressed as the "Dahlia". Unlike the novel, the film doesn't begin to evoke the morbid public fascination - the Dahliamania - that the case aroused, but we do hear a cop explain how the name caught on, after "that Alan Ladd movie" (The Blue Dahlia, 1946). All LA, in Ellroy's stories, lies in the psychic shadow of the big sign ("Hollywoodland") on the hill.

It's Swank who easily emerges best from the film, and most artfully plays off silver-screen archetypes. Hear her arch, theatrically gravelly voice, and you know she's channeling all the right dames of yesteryear: there are overtones of Bacall, Stanwyck, even Dietrich.

Scarlett Johansson doesn't do it, though. Her Kay is a bundle of mannerisms that seem exact, but never right: she holds her cigarette at a just-so angle, like a fashion-shoot prop, and her poised smile seems pasted on to her face. That may well be hitting the appropriate note, given that the essence of Kay, fashion plate and perfect suburban love-nester, turns out to be her fakery: Johansson, smartly enough, portrays Kay's pretence, but pushes the archness just slightly too far.

But it's the voice that spoils it: the delivery, too, seems like a retro accessory that Johansson is wearing. You can't believe Kay as a woman with a past - simply because Johansson doesn't have one. It's not that she's too young, just that you can't help coming to the film with a received sense of her as an overnight media sensation. Johansson made her name with naturalness, as sad but spirited girls-next-door in Ghost World and Lost in Translation; but here she's not so much playing a character as adding dialogue to all the premiere red-carpet poses she's been doing since she became the New Thing.

The Black Dahlia is not without its pleasures: a signature De Palma over-the-roofs shot for the collectors; a cops' meeting peopled with period-perfect horse-face galoots; a neat scene-steal by Rose McGowan in Cleopatra drag. And there are some wildly jangling off-notes: not least, Fiona Shaw going through the rococo ceiling as a barmy society matron.

Reading Ellroy is like trawling through the sewers beneath the glamorous city. De Palma, being De Palma, relishes some nasty sights, but never captures the black psychosexual currents that make the novels so gripping. The skeletons in LA noir's closet have been unpacked far more memorably in certain other retro thrillers, and De Palma has little to add. In other words: Forget it, Jake. It's not Chinatown.