Somehow you can tell by the first frame of the film that it is a disaster.
Why is it so bad? Where do I start?
I blame most of the disaster in the casting, particularly that of Josh Hartnett, in the role of the hero policeman. I want to know who decided that this kid, who has the emotional depth of a lamp, is an actor. I have never seen anybody suck so much. He can't act, he can't speak, and on top of everything he delivers a mumbling voiceover narration suitable only for the treatment of acute insomnia. Why, if there are so many young, capable, interesting actors in Hollywood, De Palma chose this klotz, is beyond me, but he ruins the film. He is so bad, that it took me like two hours to realize that he was sexually obsessed with the footage of the Black Dahlia's sex movies. A wall could have expressed that more accurately. The other actors just give up trying to be alive next to him, and none of them, except for Hilary Swank and Mia Kirshner, seem to have a clue of what to do. It is interesting to see otherwise reliable actors, like Aaron Eckhart and Scarlett Johansson, totally adrift and acting awfully, no doubt aided by a terribly cliched script.
I don't know the source material, James Ellroy's novel, but I know that the movie is called the Black Dahlia because of a gruesome real-life murder and so what I expect to see is a detective story about the murder, which has never been solved. Instead, we are treated to the boring and irrelevant relationship between two partner cops, the dame in the middle and no Dahlia to speak of for hours. When she finally shows up, played by Mia Kirshner, she is the only thing in the film that doesn't seem to come straight from Mme Tussauds. Then there is Hilary Swank, acting weird as the klotz's perverse love interest. She's supposed to look like the victim, but you can't understand why anybody thinks that Hilary Swank looks like Mia Kirshner. Then there is Fiona Shaw, going berserk in a most disturbing way, as her mother. This has got to be the most acute case of unhinged hamming ever recorded. Puts Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rod Steiger* to shame. Coming from an actress of Shaw's caliber, it's painfully embarrassing.
My guess is that the entire approach of the film is misguided. The interesting thing about this story is the endless rot and corruption beneath the glaring veneer of balmy sunshine and Hollywood glamour. But this looks like an expensive music video, all very reminiscent of glamorous photography but not in touch at all with the messy corruption underneath the tinsel.
A terrible movie. Hack work.
*Two hams I loathe.
I also revisited Rosemary's Baby. And boy, do I wish I had seen it before I shot my film. Polanski is a master of creating tension in very limited spaces (check out Knife in the Water). His doors and windows and gorgeously effective camera moves tell the story better than words. He loves that thing where someone answers the phone in the other room and you just see her back. Very unsettling. He is also a master of sound. There is always a clock ticking, or the muffled sounds coming from that other apartment, or stuff that adds to the menace without screaming for attention. This story of sexual guilt is very similar to the story of sexual panic in his film Repulsion, which I like much better.
I prefer to believe it's all in Mia Farrow's head. That is much more interesting than an actual satanic coven. But this is one of the themes in Polanski's work, God bless him: Hell is the neighbors (check out The Tenant). I love that the most benign elderly people are potential satanists. Delightful. I love the casting of the old Hollywood actors. I'm not crazy about the hamming of Ruth Gordon, but somehow it works for the movie. The acting is stilted and clunky at times, but Mia Farrow, as bad as she is, works really well because of how strange and vulnerable she is. She also created a craze with that haircut, which the movie makes sure to mention about 5 times, credited to Vidal Sassoon.
Rosemary's dream sequence is magnificent. All done without special effects, rather cheesily, but it is psychologically and visually believable. It does feel like a dream. And Polanski knows suggestion is far more powerful than showing you the horror. The movie will creep you out.