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Waste of time 'Black Dahlia' raises art of bad filmmaking to staggering heights

"The Black Dahlia" is the worst major film of the year. Believe me, by year's end, nothing is likely to snatch its crown.

It isn't bad in a dainty, namby-pamby way, it's vibrantly, thrillingly bad -- gloriously alive to the panoramic vistas of badness that are possible in major, big-budget movies but seldom touched. It's the kind of movie that, when it comes out on DVD, you can throw parties around and hoot and holler to your heart's content.

It's like a wicked "Saturday Night Live" spoof of film noir. We're almost talking, sometimes, about Ed Wood bad here ("Plan 9 From Outer Space," "Glen or Glenda"), except that the budget is probably 20,000 times as large. When Josh Hartnett, the calamitously incompetent star in bed with Hilary Swank at the time, stuck two cigarettes in his mouth and lit both as if he were Paul Henreid in "Now Voyager," I just lost it. Josh Hartnett bears approximately the same relationship to Paul Henreid that Paris Hilton does to Audrey Hepburn.

Hartnett, in fact, has been a distinguishing catastrophic factor before in movies -- "Pearl Harbor," "Hollywood Homicide" -- which leads to one of many unfathomable mysteries here. To wit: what gives with this guy's career? He's a tall, handsome kid, for certain -- like the stretched-out son of Ryan O'Neal -- but by comparison, O'Neal looks like Brando next to Hartnett. (When he says in the film, "I feel like I haven't done anything right", I dare you not to want to chortle.)

If this movie were doing anything close to its job, you'd be enthralled with an adaptation of a novel about one of the most extraordinary events in the annals of unsolved American crime -- the discovery, on the morning of Jan. 15, 1947, of the bisected body of pretty, would-be actress Elizabeth Short in a field in Los Angeles' Leimert Park district. Her cheeks had been slashed into a hideous rictus and her entrails had been removed but there was almost no blood on the scene.

L.A.'s two major newspapers had a field day for years slugging it out over "Black Dahlia" coverage. What happened?

This movie isn't more than 10 minutes old when that question pales next to these: How can you make a movie this bad with a double Oscar winner (Swank)? How can you use Scarlett Johansson so stupidly? How does a movie look this bad when it was photographed by one of the masters of his Hollywood trade (Vilmos Zsigmond)?

Who on earth cast this movie, where you've got female bartenders in lesbian bars acting more convincingly macho than guys in the upper echelons of the L.A. police department in 1947 (when it was a wild cowboy outfit if ever there was one)?

Nothing goes right in the movie. The script's use of Ellroy's idiosyncratic tough-guy dialogue is so inept it's frequently funny. How did it get this bad?

Try this possibility: when director Brian DePalma began his career, his movies ("Greetings," "Hi, Mom!") were in-your-face birds flipped in the direction of American power. What if, at the worst possible time, DePalma re-discovered his earliest post-adolescent self and was trying to humiliate a movie studio?

Then again, De Palma was the fellow who also directed the legendarily awful adaptation of Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities."

For the record, a couple things:

1) The only person in the cast who comes off at all well is Mia Kershner, who plays Short in all-too-infrequent black and white flashbacks.

2) The best factual book on the case is probably Donald H. Wolfe's "The Black Dahlia Files" (Regan, 402 pp., $15.95, paper) which blames the whole thing on Ben "Bugsy" Siegel on behalf of L. A. Times honcho Norman Chandler.

1 star (out of 4)

THE BLACK DAHLIA

STARRING: Josh Hartnett, Hilary Swank, Scarlett Johannson and Aaron Eckhart

DIRECTOR: Brian DePalma

RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes

RATING: R for nudity, violence and language

THE LOWDOWN: Adaptation of James Ellroy's novel about the gruesome 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short that is the most famous unsolved crime in Los Angeles history

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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