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Hollywood's darker side at Venice

Venice (Reuters): Dark tales of real-life crime dominate Hollywood's star-studded assault on the Venice Film Festival this year, with US directors drawing inspiration from murder mysteries of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The 11 day competition, held along the exclusive Lido beachfront across the water from Venice, kicks off on Wednesday with widely anticipated ''The Black Dahlia'', about two policemen assigned to investigate the brutal murder of an unknown actress. Set in 1947 and based on a crime novel by James Ellroy, the movie stars Scarlett Johansson and two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank as a mysterious figure linked to the crime.

As with other major productions among the 21 entries in the main competition, Black Dahlia director Brian de Palma will be hoping favourable press coverage in Venice raises the profile of his film in the long run-up to the Oscars next year. Hollywood watchers say they have seen little so far in the way of potential contenders for the Academy Awards held in February, and film festivals like Venice and Toronto are an important factor in the countdown. Last year ''Brokeback Mountain'' premiered in Venice and went on to win the top Golden Lion award, helping it secure pre-Oscar buzz and go on to be the favourite to win the best film Academy Award. It eventually lost out to ''Crash''.

''Four American studios sent their films to the Venice film competition (this year) prior to domestic release, so it does mean there is a special visibility ... created by the Mostra,'' Venice Film Festival director Marco Muller said today. Behind where he stood final preparations were underway for the festival, called the Mostra del Cinema in Italian, with dozens of winged golden lions in place outside the main theatre and the red carpet being unrolled to welcome the stars.

Muller said The Black Dahlia was a film about the ''dark side of tinseltown'' in which director Brian de Palma was ''waltzing on the thin line between the artistic and the commercial''.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 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 but sure to create a stir in Venice is ''Infamous'', Douglas McGrath's take on the life of writer Truman Capote starring Sandra Bullock, Daniel Craig, Gwyneth Paltrow and Isabella Rossellini. Also eagerly awaited by Oscar watchers will be Darren Aronofsky's ''The Fountain'' and Alfonso Cuaron's ''Children of Men'', with Clive Owen, Michael Caine and Julianne Moore about a plague of infertility that threatens humankind. Director David Lynch is expected on the Lido with ''Inland Empire'', as is Jackie Chan for ''Rob-B-Hood'', Kenneth Branagh with the world premiere of ''The Magic Flute'' and Paul Verhoeven for ''Zwartboek'' about a German Jewish girl in World War Two. The main competition includes four Asian films, underlining Venice as a festival friendly to the region. Also vying for the Golden Lion is Britain's Stephen Frears, whose ''The Queen'' examines the royal family's reaction to the death in a 1997 car crash of popular Princess Diana.

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