The Venice Film Festival opens on Wednesday with the world premiere of “The Black Dahlia,” a sepia-tinted throwback to 1940s Hollywood based on a grisly real-life murder that remains unsolved to this day.
Starring Scarlett Johansson, two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank and Josh Hartnett, Brian de Palma’s heavily stylized adaptation of a James Ellroy novel kicks off 11 days of movies, stars and parties along the fashionable Lido beach front.
The highly anticipated movie is one of four major U.S. productions in Venice this year that focus on true-murder stories from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.
The title “The Black Dahlia” is taken from the nickname given to Elizabeth Short, a young aspiring actress whose grisly death in 1947 gripped Los Angeles.
Short’s body was discovered naked and cut in half at the waist. Her organs had been removed, blood was drained from her body and the killer had bludgeoned and sodomized her and slit her mouth from ear to ear.
Ellroy’s novel, which layers fiction on to the factual murder, was the writer’s way of coping with his own mother’s death by strangulation in 1958 in another unsolved case.
“Twice in my 27-year novel-writing career I got lucky with film adaptations -- first with ’LA Confidential’ and second with ’The Black Dahlia,”’ Ellroy told reporters after the press screening of the film ahead of an evening red carpet premiere.
“The Black Dahlia is an obsessive mark on my history deriving from my own mother’s murder in 1958 -- my mother, Black Dahlia as one.
“What Mr. de Palma did so very deftly in this film is isolate the key themes of sexual obsession and redemption and the triangulation of one man between two women, and always the haunting spectre of ... the Black Dahlia.”
Johansson too sexy?
Johansson, asked if she thought her scene of passion with Hartnett might prove too distracting for viewers, replied:
“Of course it’s nice to be considered sexy as a young woman in my prime, I guess.
“I try not to think about sexiness or sexy scenes.”
She drew parallels between Hollywood’s fascination with Short’s murder and today’s media frenzy surrounding the unsolved murder of 6-year-old U.S. beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey.
“I think people distract themselves with those type of news stories so as not to pay attention to their own depression,” she told reporters. The actors in this modern “film noir,” much of which was shot on set in Bulgaria, drew inspiration from screen giants from the 1940s and ’50s, including Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Fred MacMurray and Rita Hayworth.
De Palma said he was keen to resurrect the old crime genre.
“They don’t do many of them today, these obsessive stories, these femmes fatales, these dark depressive characters leading into hell,” he said. “I can’t quite explain why that period was so full of these noir works.”
The movie is a fitting opening to a festival also featuring competition entrants “Hollywoodland,” about the mysterious death of Superman TV star George Reeves in 1959, and “Bobby,” about the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968.
Hollywoodland stars Diane Lane, Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck and Bob Hoskins, while Sharon Stone, Anthony Hopkins, Demi Moore and Lindsay Lohan appear in Emilio Estevez’s “Bobby.”
Out of competition is “Infamous,” Douglas McGrath’s take on the life of crime writer Truman Capote featuring Sandra Bullock, Daniel Craig and Gwyneth Paltrow.