The Black Dahlia

Crimes of Ambition
Brian De Palma
Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Scarlett Johansson
The Setup: 
A fictional account of how notorious Hollywood unsolved murder might have played out.

A reader wrote me that we was having a De Palma obsession, and we got to corresponding, and I asked him what he thought of this film. He had been avoiding it, and, the more I wrote about it, the more I wanted to watch it again. I liked it on my first few viewings, and in my earlier review, I even said, to my current chagrin, that it may be De Palma’s best film. So I watched it again. And, umm, it’s really not his best film, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it’s quite a bad misfire. But, this being De Palma, it misses by being too ambitious, too complicated, and asking too much of its audience.

So this is adapted from James Ellroy’s novel The Black Dahlia, and you should understand that although the murder of Elizabeth Short is real, the story of this film and the conclusion of the case are fictional. We open with Josh Hartnett as Bucky Bleichert about to enter the boxing ring against his friend, Lee Blanchard, played by Aaron Eckhart. We flash back to how they met, on the night of some riots in LA. Soon Bucky is recruited to box against Lee, and to lose the fight. He refuses to throw the fight, but loses anyway. Then he is promoted to detective, to work alongside Lee. They become good friends, and he meets Lee’s girlfriend Kay, played by Scarlett Johansson. Soon Bucky is a regular for dinner at Lee and Kay’s house, and they soon fall into a kind of platonic menage a trois, made clear when they go see a scary film—it is The Man Who Laughs, and this film was not chosen by accident. At a scary moment, Kay grabs BOTH men’s hands. She calls them “my super-cops.” Earlier, we found out a key piece of information when Bucky asked why they haven’t had children and Kay responds “You’d have to have sex for that.” By the way, they met when Lee rescued Kay from a relationship with gangster Bobby DeWitt, and we see that she has “BD” branded on her body, a memento of her time with the abusive gangster… who is about to be released from jail. The friendship a’ trois all going fine, but on New Year’s eve, we have a signature De Palma moment as Lee sees Bucky give Kay a kiss… and we can tell from Lee's gaze that he has a few misgivings about how close they’re becoming.

Sounds pretty interesting, and complicated, right? And the whole first twenty minutes of the film have been nothing but laying out the details of this complex friendship. Too bad that it all ends up seeming all but irrelevant to how this film turns out. It is relevant, it’s just that by the end, you’ll have a hard time saying why. Which is starting to get into why this film ultimately fails. But for now, we can appreciate that this is De Palma’s attempt to comment of noir films, and as such we have a beautiful sepia tone in these early scenes, placing the story within film history as it unfolds. It is also clearly influenced by Chinatown, and is only nine years after L.A. Confidential [also based on James Ellroy], both films in which complicated personal stories affect the larger crime stories, and it seems that this film is pretty consciously trying to arrange itself into that template.

While we’re out of the plot, let’s note that a lot of people complain about the performance of Josh Hartnett in this film. It took me a while [and Wicker Park] to appreciate Hartnett, and his natural reserve, which he is uniquely able to punctuate with hot blasts of emotion on the turn of a dime. He is a reserved actor, and let’s note that his character is often referred to as “Mr. Ice” against Lee’s “Mr. Fire,” meaning that his reserve is working for his character here. Sometimes you want to say to complainers “What do you need… a sign?” but calling his character “Mr. Ice” is about as close to a sign as we could get.

Alrighty, are you ready for an infamous murder to creep in here? Lee calls Bucky to stake out an associate of Bobby DeWitt’s (Kay’s former gangster boyfriend), and they sleep in their car. In the morning, we have one of the most lovely De Palma sequences in his entire oeuvre. We see the building being watched, then the camera rises up over it, past two croaking crows, and we see into the field beyond, where Elizabeth Short’s body lies in two parts. A woman happens upon it and screams, then starts running around the building, where we follow a black car following the same trajectory, across the street to a gangster and his moll, who cross the street in front of Lee, who wakes Lee with a shove just as a bullet goes through the windshield! And, up til the shooting, it’s all one glorious, unbroken shot! And guess what else? It’s no accident that these two events, and the big display of technique, are happening right at this moment, because De Palma is using the technique to bring importance to this shootout—although we won’t understand its significance until the end of the film. Anyway, there’s a big shootout, Lee kills one of the gangsters, and as they’re investigating the crime scene, they see a big hubbub around the body out back.

Now, for as much as De Palma is known to be violent and gory, he is quite judicious about showing the state of the body. The body was cut cleanly in two at the waist, drained of blood and cleaned, most of the organs removed, her hands arranged as though she were pleasuring herself, and her mouth cut open ear to ear. We first see the body at a great distance, which is surprisingly effective, then get a quick glimpse of her disfigured face as Lee shoos a crow away—the first hint of Lee’s obsession with the case. Later, we see the body from above, on a coroner’s table, but tilt away before the sight becomes nauseating. De Palma needs to show us the details of how the body was treated—as that is such an important part of why this case retains its grim fascination—but he keeps it discreet and doesn’t wallow in the gore. From here, Lee starts to pursue this case, although they are assigned to another, and soon has them assigned as the two key detectives on the Dahlia case, to Bucky’s bewilderment.

Gradually Lee starts to become more and more obsessed with the case. Unfortunately, we don’t really feel it, and don’t really know why, and it kind of becomes a weakness of the film, as it’s a key factor that isn’t really gelling emotionally. Soon Kay makes a play for Bucky, but he refuses, as Lee is his partner. She stands naked at the top of a stairway, but still he refuses. The two watch Elizabeth Short’s screen tests (the voice of the director you are hearing is that of De Palma himself, perhaps commenting on the mythology of him antagonizing and exploiting actresses), and visit her father, who has no use for her, and has an alibi that is “as tight as a popcorn fart—and that’s pretty damn tight!” You know, I have never devoted much thought to popcorn farts, but now that I do, I must admit that they are indeed rather tight. Anyway, Short was known as the Black Dahlia because she wore nothing but black, which we can only guess was a signature look as she tried to get parts in Hollywood. She was also, we come to understand, rather free with her affections, and perhaps with the wrong kind of man, which also comes to paint a picture of absolute desperation to make it in Hollywood. Speaking of that, soon they are interviewing a fellow actress who has made it into bit parts as an extra, and knew Short briefly. She is dressed as a Egyptian for a scene as an extra, and they are talking, her ride to the studio shows up. We see a truck with a sort of cage in the back, filled with maybe eight women all identically dressed—and this image alone goes far to make a statement about the commodified, disposable place of women at that time in Hollywood. A bunch of identical women in a cage, eager and desperate starlets, ready to be trucked to the studio, each hoping to be noticed.

So they hear that “the Dahlia,” as she is known, hung out at a certain lesbian bar, and we are treated to a view of a 1946 lesbian bar, with numerous glammed-up or butched-up women, plus k.d. lang singing “Love For Sale” in a large, expensive, choreographed floor show. Did lesbian bars like this really exist in the 40s? I’m highly skeptical, but I admit I haven’t researched the topic. In walks Hilary Swank as Madeleine Linscott, who dresses like the Dahlia as a sort of kink, as we are to understand that the case has consumed the media and society of the day (which does not successfully come across). Bucky meets her a few times, and finds that she is the daughter of the tremendously wealthy Linscott family. She writes her name and number on a matchbook, and she and Bucky, mutually attracted, arrange a date.

Meanwhile, Lee has been growing ever more obsessed with the case, and making big scenes at work, and at home, where he keeps the files strewn all over the house. In here comes a tiny, but crucial scene, that can go by completely unnoticed. Lee is at his desk, on the phone, wanting to light a cigarette. Bucky tosses him a matchbook, and that that moment—there is an earthquake! This, it will turn out, is an earthquake in the narrative. De Palma often uses touches like this to underscore important moments, although this one will elude even the most attentive viewers, until the reason for it is revealed at the very end. You see—I’ll give you a sneak preview—the matchbook Bucky tossed is the one containing Madeleine Linscott’s name and number. Just put that in your cap for now!

Bucky has dinner at Madeleine’s house—note the long Bucky point-of-view shot that doesn’t do much for the film—in which he sees the family dog, now shot and stuffed, and meets the father and younger sister. And then there’s Fiona Shaw as mom Ramona, who is drunk as a skunk and whose performance is pitched… ummm, well, somewhere other than everyone else’s, that’s for sure. Will can debate later whether she is largely responsible for torpedoing the end of the film. Anyway, the Linscott’s turn out to be your average ultra-rich family who may have passed “eccentric” and settled into “psychotic.” Ramona is kooky drunk and eventually refers to Bucky as Madeleine’s “male whore,” followed by Madeleine’s younger sister presenting Bucky with a drawing of him screwing Madeleine. Then—off on their date! After Madeleine and Bucky sleep together, she tells him that she had heard that Short looked almost exactly like her, and became fascinated with her. Being a proper rich daughter, she wanted to be “loose” like Short, but she says that that is all she knows. Later, she says that she pursued Short for a sexual encounter, because she wanted to do it “with someone who looked like me.” The problem—and it’s a huge problem for the whole movie—is that Swank looks nothing like the Dahlia as we see her in the film. The movie hinges a lot on this comparison, and the fact is that they simply do not look alike.

Tensions are growing between Bucky and Lee, especially after Lee kills a man involved in the DeWitt circle, rather than arrest him. We learn that Lee’s little sister was killed way back when, and he felt defenseless to help her, which may explain his protective attitude toward Kay [this was apparently a huge thread in the novel, also to why he grows so obsessed over the case]. And now… are you ready for the central showpiece sequence of this film? Well get ready, because it’s a beaut! Bucky hears that Lee is going to meet Bobby DeWitt and probably kill him, so he rushes there to intercept. They meet on a large square ascending marble stairway. Bucky gets to Dewitt first, but is knocked out by an unnamed person. Lee, higher up the staircase, shoots DeWitt. Bucky sees the shadow of someone behind Lee, and warns him, but Lee doesn’t see. We go slow-motion as Bucky runs up the staircase. A man with a wire catches Lee from behind (this is William Finley, the Phantom of the Paradise himself, as Georgie Tilden, a pivotal character that will emerge a bit more [but not much more] soon). A mysterious figure emerges from the shadow behind a sculpture. As Bucky runs up, Tilden holds Lee as the shadowy figure approaches, a switchblade emerges, and Bucky watches in horror as Lee’s throat is slit. Time seems to stop as Lee and Tilden tumble over the side, then free-fall in beautiful slow-motion down the center of the staircase, fedoras flying into the air, until Lee’s head hits the fountain below with an ugly crunch. Bucky looks on in shock, until he is bludgeoned from behind and knocked out. The whole sequence is a classic De Palma beauty, with slowly-rising tension and accompanying music, and finally a beautiful, extended tragedy as Lee falls to his death. That, and the shot in which Short’s body is discovered, are the high points of this film.

Bucky goes to Kay and delivers the news. They end up giving into their attraction, and have sex. Seemingly the next day, Kay asks Bucky to look at a chipped tile in her bathroom floor. He finds a secret cache with a ton of stolen money, and he knows it’s the money from the bank robbery that DeWitt did before Lee caught him (is this complicated enough for you yet? And there so much more to come, folks). Lee kept the money as recompense for Kay. Bucky is furious and goes to Madeleine’s, where he sleeps with her. Kay has followed him, and chastises him as being “sick” for sleeping with a woman who looks like “that dead girl.”

Then, one night, Bucky is watching a film, and he recognizes the same set used in Short’s pornographic film. The credits of the film give a big thanks to Madeleine’s father. He goes to a condemned, abandoned settlement built by Madeleine’s father (oh God, it’s another whole detail… I just can’t even go into it), and finds the murder scene, as well as the bloody mattress and tools with which she was butchered. He also finds a drawing of a man with his mouth cut ear-to-ear, which looks like a painting he noticed in the Linscott’s home. He goes over to the Linscott’s, where he [rather uselessly] shoots up the place, until Ramona comes out and spills the biggest load of crucial, explain-everything exposition perhaps in film history, all in her silly drunk sing-song voice, and essentially puts a bullet in the head of the film, effectively extinguishing any life it may have had left.

You see, Ramona had an affair with Georgie Tilden—that’s the goon from the staircase—and guess what? Tilden is Madeleine’s real father. Out of vengeance, Ramona’s current husband/Madeleine’s adopted father, who employs Tilden as a servant, damaged Tilden’s face in a way that gave his a deformed smile, like in The Man Who Laughs, the movie Lee and Bucky and Kay all saw together earlier (it’s one of those De Palma film history things). Tilden saw Elizabeth Short during the shooting of her pornographic film, and became obsessed with her. The Linscott’s “bought” Short for him, and arranged a tryst at the condemned place Bucky found. Ramona, however, was disturbed that Tilden wanted to sleep with someone who looked so much like his daughter, and showed up and killed her. Then, as “the cruelest joke,” she carves Short’s face in a way that resembled Tilden’s. The whole rest of the bodily mutilations, and the way the body was arranged, is left unexplained. This all out, Ramona shoots herself! But not before making a very funny, mid-confession joke about how she wishes Bucky would stop shooting their priceless things, as the wealthy are the custodians of culture.

Now, I bet you thought we were done with giant buttloads of whole-thing explaining exposition. Well, you’d be wrong. Once it’s over, Bucky finds the matchbook, and puts together that Lee also knew the Linscott’s. He goes over and gets information from the younger sister—it turns out that Lee knew Madeleine and Short had an affair, and blackmailed Mr. Linscott. Madeleine saw this, and it was she who killed Lee in retaliation. Bucky sees Madeleine once more, and kills her (rather coldly, it rings as a bit too much) in retaliation.

Finally, Bucky goes to see Kay. She opens the door, and the inside of her house is all bright, oversaturated white (notice she is almost always dressed in white, in contrast to Madeleine and the Dahlia). Bucky turns and has a vision of the Dahlia and the crow lying on her lawn. He shuts it out and turns to Kay, as the light inside slowly fades to normal brightness. He enters, and… the end!

Having written all that (and you having read it), what strikes me is the immense complication of it all. It’s not too complicated for a movie, and as I read all this, I think this movie could have been good… had it been four hours [or a season-long TV series]. It just goes past deep characterization into ludicrous amounts of complication. I know that when it came out most reviews pointed to Ramona’s giant drunken explanation-dump at the end as the point at which they could not take this shit seriously anymore, and it really is the nail in this film’s coffin, although the damage has been done long before.

I thought—even up to this viewing—that the Bobby DeWitt stuff somehow related into the Dahlia case and Lee’s obsession with it, but not really. Which makes it interesting, and helpful in delineating his character, but ultimately it doesn’t interlock with the larger plot. Then the stuff about how Bucky and Lee met and became friends, and their relationship with Kay… is it really necessary? I mean, I know other parts of the film lean on these things, but they could have been easily rewritten in such a way as to rearrange things and make them less complicated. Which is not even to mention the whole ludicrous complication of the Linscott’s and the final answer to the crime.

It seems that this overcomplication originates in the novel, where it probably works better, and I suspect it got downgraded by being adapted to a script, and again by having several aspects changed for the film (for example, in the novel, Lee vanishes to Tijuana, where he dies unknown to anyone back home). Plus I think, as mentioned, that they were going for a kind of Chinatown/L.A. Confidential vibe here, with a complicated personal story providing backdrop to a crime. But the complications of the story just got away from them, and no one was able to look at the script and simply say “this is too much.” Honestly, De Palma seems to have a certain blindness to whether stories are really working or not, often seeming to focus more on the concepts, or visual ideas he might be able to bring, and ignoring gaps in the story. Still, as with many of De Palma’s films, you can look at what it seems he was going for and admire that. You can see what a beautiful, resonant and moving film this could have been… if they’d had four hours to really give all of those complications, and characters, the space they needed.

Among those things needing more space and better execution are certain things that the movie is trying to hang on, but simply don’t come across. For one, we are to understand that Lee is obsessed with the Dahlia case, and though we see the evidence of it, we never really feel it, and never really understand why. Also, Lee is always involved in some kind of shady dealing or other, and it’s a disappointment to look back, having sorted them all out, and realize they they are so disparate; there is no connecting line. We never sense that the case has become the city-wide sensation we’re supposed to believe it was. Then there’s the matter that the Dahlia and Madeleine Linscott are supposed to be virtual doubles, and simply look nothing like each other. How haunting it could have been if they did! So that entire angle falls flat, and every time it’s mentioned it comes as a bit of a surprise. And then, not to mention that the main people involved in the murder are barely presences in the film at all.

It’s too bad, because there’s a lot about the movie that is wonderful. The look of it is a nice modern evocation of noir and a sepia-toned, romantic vision of the past. The De Palma direction is sure-footed throughout, with the two major, wonderful [but short] setpieces. The acting is spot-on, even Hartnett [once you accept that he is supposed to be unemotional], and it succeeds in creating a vivid and amazing-looking world. But it just throws so much out there, and so little of it coheres, making it another of those De Palma films in which one has to look at what it could, and should have been, instead of what it is.

Should you watch it: 

For De Palma fans and modern noir lovers.