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MOVIE REVIEW

Miscasting does in De Palma's 'The Black Dahlia'

Since `` The Black Dahlia" more or less tells the story of an actress, a heinously murdered one at that, it makes sense that the first thing you notice about this so-so adaptation of James Ellroy's novel is the shoddy acting.

Fixating on the performances seems inevitable since it's a Brian De Palma picture. The director bears the unique distinction of being responsible for some of the most sublime performances in the movies (Sissy Spacek in ``Carrie," say, or John Travolta in ``Blow Out") and some of the worst (see ``Bonfire of the Vanities" -- or don't). But ``The Black Dahlia" is woefully short on the sublime.

Ellroy's 1987 novel spun the notorious butchering of Elizabeth Short, a 22-year-old aspiring starlet from Medford, into a strange noir melodrama. Like the book, the film is set in post-World War II Los Angeles and tells the tale through the lazy eyes of Dwight ``Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), a lanky cop and ex-GI, who is promoted from beat work to the sexier warrants division.

There, along with his psychologically volatile partner, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), Dwight descends, as too many real-life men have, into an obsession with the case of the dismembered young woman. Mia Kirshner plays Betty dolorously in flashbacks and screen tests that provide the film with its only true emotional substance. You can see why writers and detectives would have a hard time shaking those big sad eyes.

Hartnett seems ideal for this line of work. He has a slow-to-wake innocence that suits a character whose detective skills always appear to be two or three scenes behind ours. The character's smarts are slightly below average, and Hartnett doesn't have the gravity to raise him up. He's almost too innocent.

One of the film's many outré developments involves Dwight's relationship with Lee and his girlfriend, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). They welcome him into their lives, forming a sort of triangle that grows less equilateral every time Kay leans in to talk to Dwight during Lee's inexplicable absences.

The cop's search for Betty's murderer leads him to her uncomfortable stint in girl-on-girl porn and to a fabulously seedy lesbian bar, where k.d. lang is singing Cole Porter and Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), a kinky acquaintance of the deceased, has just made a furtive exit.

Madeleine is odd. Her wealthy family is nuts. Dwight comes to pick Madeleine up for a date, and winds up sitting down for a meal with her Scottish father (John Kavanagh), deranged mother (Fiona Shaw), and cute, crass little sister (Rachel Miner). It's dinner theater in every possible way. Yet the movie is never quite as good or weird as that sequence. In fact, what comes next is ultimately a drag.

De Palma does a passable job of restaging highlights from his earlier, better movies. One climactic murder sequence in ``Black Dahlia," set on an indoor balustrade, conjures the carriage-descending-a-staircase moment from ``The Untouchables" and crosses it with the slasher stuff from ``Raising Cain." There's also a lovely daylight sequence of cars and characters pulling shadily in and out of a wide frame, done mostly in a single take. And the editing, with its wipes and melting fades, is playful. But my, does ``The Black Dahlia" feel empty.

Ellroy's book was composed, rather creepily, in a fit of filial obsession. His mother was killed some years after Betty Short, and by the author's admission her murder fueled his writing about Short's. So in a sense, the novel was the product of personal compulsion and psychological purging. De Palma would seem ideal for material of such dark provenance. His best and most inspired work -- ``Sisters," ``Dressed to Kill," ``Blow Out," ``Body Double" -- is about the inexhaustible narrative possibilities of obsession. But ``Black Dahlia" is too structurally and thematically sloppy to either capture obsession or inspire it.

This adaptation, by Josh Friedman, doesn't try to make any sense of Los Angeles social history the way Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson did with their strategic paring down of Ellroy's ``L.A. Confidential." De Palma's movie is content being vague and trashy, which is fine. But not everybody in the cast seems prepared for such lurid business, and you pity De Palma. He seems unaware that he's not working with the dynamic stars of his prime. This movie has no Travolta or, for Pete's sake, Kevin Costner to bestow, respectively, a palpable sense of sex or strain of morality.

MORE HOLLYWOOD CRIME To view a photo gallery of classic thrillers set in Hollywood, visit www.boston.com/films.

For instance, he doesn't seem to know how to use Johansson. (Few male directors do.) She's playing a homemaker with a sad past and barely seems to be registering the present. She, Hartnett, and Eckhart, who barrels through the part with his chin, make merry in one early dinner sequence that's embarrassingly corny. Swank, though, gives off a slummy classical-Hollywood hauteur that's fun insofar as it feels like she's playing dress-up.

``The Black Dahlia" calls to mind 1976's all-teen gangster spoof, ``Bugsy Malone," minus the vitality and sporty musical airs. The sight, in De Palma's movie, of these kids -- there's no other word -- pretending to be grown-ups suggests a crisis in Tinsel Town: ``The Black Dahlia" feels too much like a put-on to be completely seductive. It's less a smutty murder mystery than a film-noir costume party.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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