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“The Black Dahlia”

Universal Pictures

Directed by Brian De Palma

Written by Josh Friedman, based on the novel by James Ellroy

Starring: Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank

Rated R/121 minutes

Opened Sept. 15, 2006

Two out of four stars

Brian De Palma does not serve his story well in “The Black Dahlia.”

Based on the true-crime novel by James Ellroy and set in and around 1940s Los Angeles, “Dahlia” is about two lawmen, the blond woman between them and the murdered starlet who tears them apart. This is grisly, labyrinthine, film noir territory, a genre that lends itself to a certain acceptable amount of ambiguity. De Palma does us no service by distracting us with his craft.

Here is a born filmmaker, a man who knows how to move a camera dynamically and creatively. He began “Snake Eyes” (1996) with a 12-minute, seemingly unbroken tracking shot in which the Nicolas Cage character strides through an Atlantic City casino on fight night, large and in charge, placing bets, roughing up lowlifes and essentially building a character not just through fine acting, but through breathless camerawork that sucked us in and made us sit up in our seats at attention. De Palma is not a timid guy.

That tracking shot lent to the story bolstered it, created organic unity between aesthetics and plot. In “Dahlia,” De Palma’s bold artifice always seems to exist above the action, condescending to it, never a part of it. Handsome actors like Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson occupy period costumes and period sets, speaking period dialogue. Never does it feel like anything but a movie. It’s the way scenes are lit and composed, how the actors are choreographed, how meticulously shiny every detail is.

De Palma is the plate of glass between the story and us-we admire it, rather than wallow in it as we should in a good noir. A good noir is all about getting our fingers dirty right along with the protagonist as he investigates the dark, lecherous, morally bankrupt side of life. De Palma’s style is akin to giving us a spray can of sterilizer and gloves.

Hartnett is actually very good as Officer Dwight “Bucky” Bleichart, part-time pugilist and full-time squinter. The body of a young woman (Mia Kirshner) is found in a grassy field, sliced in half at the waist, her organs removed and an extended smile sawed into her face. Bucky and his partner, Sergeant Leland “Lee” Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), are assigned to the case, which has a maddening dearth of leads.

Lee has troubles at home, where his work interferes with his marriage to Kay (played by Scarlett Johansson as though her primary direction from De Palma was for her lips and bosom to enter a room before the rest of her body). Kay turns to Bucky in her times of need, and Bucky turns to Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) in his times of need. Madeleine is a smoky, mysterious brunette whom Bucky meets at a lesbian nightclub. She takes him home to meet her rich family, which we experience through Bucky’s point of view in a first-person tracking shot so distracting and ill-fitting to the rest of the movie’s style that it takes us right out of the story.

That’s a prime example of De Palma’s unsubtle presence. In fact, he seems to be hovering over every shot with puppet strings on his characters and sets, manipulating them with undeniable technical skill, yes, but with such obviousness it’s sometimes laughable.

The last 30 minutes are resolved in a confusing, melodramatic rush, as though the screenwriter, Josh Friedman (he worked on Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds”), suddenly remembered he had a murder mystery to wrap up after an hour-and-a-half of meandering plot lines. When we find out who did what to whom and for what reasons, we laugh at the over-the-top-ness of it all.

I remembered the final, inexplicable scenes in the first “Mission Impossible,” which De Palma directed, and thought, “This guy knows how to put on a show; he just needs to learn how to get out of the way of his story.”