We made it out to see the Black Dahlia Saturday. With Nada being a big mystery fan and from Southern California, this was a must see. From Ken's comments
and other reviews, I knew that there would be rough spots, but I was still interested in seeing what De Palma did with the story.
It turns out, that De Palma started out with a odd take on the tale of the Dahlia
from Ellroy. His story focuses on two of the police detectives assigned to the Dahlia case and spends much more time on them than exploring who the Dahlia was. Ellroy took the approach of using the Dahlia tale to examine the Los Angeles of the late 40s and its secrets. This was a riskier proposition in the movie because it brought up inevitable comparisons to Chinatown. Unfortunately, the Black Dahlia suffers in comparison both to that movie and to LA Confidential.
Two of the real problems with the Black Dahlia are timing and perspective. There is a big showdown in a hotel that feels like the conclusion, but it was more like the mid-point turn. Part of the problem is that the scene comes with the creaky associations of the big De Palma set pieces on the train station steps in The Untouchables and in the motel in the underappreciated Raising Cain (and with the bell tower scene from Vertigo). The bigger problem is that the film does a terrible job of setting up this scene. A critical character appears in this scene without introduction and is killed.
Toward the end of the movie, when all is revealed, we actually are introduced to the character. But, the reveal is so poorly set-up and the characters involved are so poorly defined that there is no payoff. The bigger problem is that this reveal should be the climax of the film, but the film goes on for another half a reel to a climactic scene that occurs after the audience is mentally already in the parking lot.
There is a lot of potential in the Dahlia tale. Hopefully, someday, someone will figure out how to turn it into a great movie.