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Classic Crime Story Comes to the Big Screen in "The Black Dahlia"


Filmmaker Brian De Palma takes movie audiences back to 1940's Los Angeles in his new 'film noir' thriller adapted from a classic crime story by hard-boiled author James Ellroy.

The mystery has haunted the Los Angeles Police Department for some 60 years: who killed Elizabeth Short? The gruesome 1947 murder of the young, would-be starlet remains one of the city's most notorious unsolved crimes:

Police detectives Bucky Bleichart [BLY'-cart] and Lee Blanchard - partners on the force and best friends off-duty - become obsessed with the case of the dead young woman whose flirtatious black dresses earned her the nickname "The Black Dahlia." Each soon finds himself in too deep. A tragedy in his own family dogs Lee; for Bucky, it's the clues that lead to a high society femme fatale:

Oscar-winner Hilary Swank plays the dame with the deadly curves; Josh Hartnett, who stars as Bucky Bleichart, says "Because the characters are so well-developed in the book and the scenario is so clear, it's almost like all we had to do as actors was develop a shorthand with each other ...a sort of understanding with each other so that we could move through the piece, because I think (James) Ellroy has done most of the work for us. We know how we feel about any of the characters at any given moment because it's in the book.

For example, both of the detectives were professional boxers before joining the police force; and Hartnett says training for that sport helped him create the screen version of Bleichart. "Ellroy makes a direct correlation between the way that Bucky acts as a fighter and the way that he acts in his life. The way he takes apart an opponent is very similar to the way that he takes apart the case. For me, when I got into the ring I felt I was starting to understand the character, so I spent seven months boxing," he says.

Aaron Eckhart co-stars as 'Mr. Fire,' short-fused detective Lee Blanchard; and Eckhart took his cues from the silver screen. "It's fun to play 1947 cop because you look at the old movies and they talk fast with a certain cadence to their rhythms. You get to smoke hand-rolled cigarettes - you always have a cigarette hanging out of your mouth - and you get the fedora (hats) ...all that sort of stuff. It was cool," he says.

Scarlett Johansson plays Kay Lake, the beautiful woman who is in a relationship with Lee, but finds herself drawn to Bucky. The 21-year-old actress says she enjoyed stepping into the 1940's style and mannerisms; but she found delivering the old-fashioned lines an unexpected challenge. "As a modern actor, we made this movement that started in the 1970's: realism and the gritty kind of natural technique. It was interesting to pair that with the dialog (that is) so stylized and impossibly unrealistic, saying things like 'How could you, Dwight, how could you?' We never say those things. That kind of dialog is so dated," she says.

The story of the movie and the book is fiction, but "The Black Dahlia" murder was real ...and remains unsolved. Author James Ellroy, who says he is pleased with how director De Palma interprets the story, probably knows more about the case than anyone outside of police detectives. "There is one thing I never talk about: who killed Betty Short and why. Some theories are better than others, but they are all unprovable in the end; and none of the theories has anything to do with my book," he says.

"The Black Dahlia" is adapted from the novel by screenwriter Josh Friedman. The cast also features Mia Kershner as the young murder victim. Production designer Dante Ferretti recreated several blocks of 1940's Los Angeles in Sofia, Bulgaria, where the film was shot; and the musical score with its film noir echoes of the era is by Mark Isham.