Black Dahlia, The (2006): De Palma’s Stylish Thriller

Meticulous filmmaking that serves an intriguing story, “The Black Dahlia” is one of the most technically accomplished films of stylist Brian De Palma in a long time.

For a two-hour movie, the yarn may cover too many subplots.  As a result, characters often disappear for too long a time, which might upset viewers (not me) favoring a cleaner plot line. Also potentially upsetting for mainstream audiences is De Palma’s rapidly changing tone (often from scene to scene) and mixture of noir, horror, and satire black comedy conventions (particularly in last reel), which don’t harmoniously co-exist.

Along with the mentioned uneasy blend of the various story strands, the film’s other major flaw is the staging of the last reel, in which heavy melodrama kicks in, with De Palma succumbing to old habits and to something that’s equivalent to a modern Greek tragedy. This is particularly the case of a crucial scene set within the Linscott mansion, in which a major revelation is made.

Weaving together a fictionalized tale of love, obsession, corruption, greed, and depravity around the true story of the brutal murder of real-life fledgling Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Short, “Black Dahlia” emerges as a quintessential film noir.

As a darkly cynical period piece–the story is set in 1947–this uniquely L.A. and Hollywood saga establishes immediate thematic connections to other noir classics, such as Roman Polanksi’s superb conpsirational “Chinatown,” set in L.A. in the late Depression, and particularly Curtis Hanson’s sublime policier “L.A. Confidential,” set in the late 1950s; like the new picture, it draws on a James Ellroy hair-raising crime novel.

In “Black Dahlia,” text, characters, subtext, and visuals gel creepily in retelling the Black Dahlia yarn that shocked and fascinated the nation over half a century ago and still remains largely unresolved (See Below).

The yarn is anchored by six endlessly shifting characters, three of which are splendidly played by Josh Hartnett, Hilary Swank, and Mia Kirshner; two, by Scarlett Johansson and Aaron Eckardt, are mediocre; and one, by Fiona Shaw, is downright dreadful.

The fact that about half of the cast is female, and that women play major roles, is also something of a novelty in De Palma’s predominantly male-driven oeuvre. That said, the movie belongs to Hartnett, whose assertively central turn is not only his most impressive performance to date, but also one that should catapult him to the front rank of American leading men and stars.

The feature’s first chapter establishes the specific locale and intricate relationship between the two protagonists, pugilists-cops Sgt. Leland “Lee” Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Officer Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett). Defined by intimate camaraderie but also rivalry, it’s a bond in which initially Lee has the upper hand, in and out of the ring. However, after the first reel, the balance of power begins to change in unpredictable directions.

Erotic tension is introduced from the start, and continues to build throughout between Bucky and Kay Lake (Scarlet Johansson, who looks beautiful as a blonde in period wardrobe), Lee’s alluring, somehow mysterious wife.

Turning point occurs when the duo are called to investigate the homicide of ambitious silver-screen B-lister Betty Ann Short (Mia Kirshner), aka “The Black Dahlia,” whose mutilated body is found in the open fields. In actuality, the attack was so grisly that images of the killing were kept from the public eye, and De Palma deserves credit for never exploiting, or even showing, the gruesome sight of Betty’s corpse up to the very end, when he recreates the brutal murder.

Lee’s growing preoccupation with the sensational murder turns into an outright obsession that threatens his marriage to Kay, and soon she kicks him out of the house. Meanwhile, Bucky tracks some leads of his own, which take him to the enigmatic Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), the daughter of one of the city’s most prominent families, who just happens to have an unsavory connection to the murder victim.

Space doesn’t permit me to dwell on the twists and turns of the intricate plots and subplots (it’s part of the fun to discern them for yourself), but gradually, a very dark, somber, and sordid portrait of L.A. and its sharp stratification system (the gap between the “haves” and “haves not”) emerges.

The Linscott clan, headed by corrupt patriarch Emmet (John Kavanah) is cursed with all the problems and ills of a rich, blue-blooded American family out of a 1950s melodrama: incestuous relationship with one daughter, mentally disturbed wife (played by Fiona Shaw with a touch of Lady MacBeth), who knows and dangerously talks more than she is expected to, a younger, jealous daughter Martha (Rachel Miner), who later on plays a key role in unraveling the mystery.

This being quintessential noir, “Black Dahlia” is sexually explicit in depicting a romantic triangle between Bucky, Kay, and Madeleine, who may or may not have known Betty Short and who may or may not be bisexual. The sexual attraction between Bucky and Madeleine is depicted in particularly steamy way in a number of scenes. As De Palma promised during production, Hilary Swank, known until now for her tough gender-bending Oscar roles (“Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby”) is utterly credible as a noirish femme fatale.

Integrated into the maze, which gets creepier, freakier, and more overwrought with every scene, are black-and-white flashbacks of Short’s Hollywood screen tests, including a pornographic film of her with one of the lead female characters that’s repeatedly watched by Bucky, the cops, and other city officers. (These are the few sequences in which De Palma goes overboard with trashy sleaziness that is remarkably absent from the rest of the film).

Film noir connoisseurs and purists will be able to detect all the prevalent types of the genre’s iconographic landscape: Corrupt politicians, clean and dirty cops, attention-seeking journalists, femme fatales, black widows, psychotic murderers, and a whole host of ruthless mobsters and gangsters, seedy filmmakers, abusive directors, and young and poor actresses (mostly white trash but also minorities) hungry for quick fame and instantaneous stardom.

What enriches “Black Dahlia” are not only the major twists and turns, but also the double nature and fluid identity of most of the characters, each of which carries a chip on his/her shoulder. Through subtle details, we get to know the younger versions of all of the characters and what makes them tick at present. Hence, crucial details are disclosed about Lee’s past family history that may explain his growing obsession with this particular murder case.

As in most noirs, the saga unfolds from the consistent POV of Bucky, who serves as the film’s tormented, guilt-ridden protagonist and narrator. However, De Palma’s shrewdly keeps the voice-over to a minimum, mostly to bridge the various subplots and to provide s self-reflexive commentary when it’s necessary, as for example, to indicate Bucky’s growing awareness of his weaknesses after Lee had saved his life.

In “Chinatown,” the power struggles over water and land indicated corruption and greed in the evolution of Los Angeles as a modernized city. In contrast, in “Black Dahlia,” we get a glimpse of how the movie industry evolved as an integral force of the city’s economy and power structure. Specific references are made to Mack Sennett and the movies’ silent era, the notorious Hollywood Sign (also currently seen in “Hollywoodland”), the studios’ link to valuable real estate, and even connections to the art world; a particular painting serves a major clue.

Unfortunately, what is subtle and subdued in the first hour gets increasingly more overwrought and even hysterical, a tone that’s reflected not only in the mise-en-scene but also in the visuals and acting.

That said, overall, the collaboration between James Ellroy (who had previously written “L.A. Confidential” and “American Tabloid), screenwriter Josh Friedman with his lively and alert dialogue, director De Palma and his technical crew, particularly ace cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, proves extremely creative, resulting in a sumptuous mounted production, and a uniquely American movie that only Hollywood has the resources and know-how to make-but seldom makes anymore.

This picture shows congruency between De Palma’s thematic and stylistic preoccupations and those of “Black Dahlia.” It’s hard to imagine any other filmmaker tackling such “sleazy” and “decadent” material it with such stupendous results on visual, audio and even acting levels (often not the best aspect of De Palma’s movies).

Brilliant cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond not only serves his director’s eccentric, often hyperbolic style but also add some idiosyncratic notes of his own. Jointly, they have made a visually dynamic picture, with swooping, circular, and vertical camera movements that highlight the film’s impressive set-pieces.

Dante Ferretti and costume designer Jenny Beavan have recreated late 1940s L.A. with the same attention to detail as lenser Zsigmond. Mark Ishams moody score is rich enough to encompass jazz, period orchestral bands, and noirish musical tones. Last but not least, singer kd lang deserves a mention for delivering a song in a nightclub frequented by lesbians that in its decadent recalls “Cabaret” and Bertolucci’s tango dances in several of his pictures.

Eckhart, who has been circling around stardom for years, may have found the right vehicle to achieve the real thing. Hartnett, up until now a youth heartthrob in mindless actioner and romantic comedies, has finally matured out of his “boyish” looks and seems ready to assume adult leading roles in high-profile movies.

The cast’s femmes are just as impressive as the men. Swank, a two-time Oscar winner who gets better and better, plays a sexually ambiguous role: She might have been the girlfriend of the victim, to whom she bears resemblance! One of her creepily bizarre lines, trying to explain to the straight arrow (in both senses of the term) Bucky her past, may enter into movie lore. Says Madeleine: “Elizabeth and I made love once. I just did it to see what it would be with someone who looked like me!”

Considering her age, 22, Scarlet Johansson has already done great work, in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” and Woody Allen’s “Match Point.” Though looking stunning in period costume, here, she struggles as the story’s “femme fatale,” torn between loyalty to Lee, who had saved her from the clutches of an abusively brutal man (with evidence on her sexy body), and growing attraction to Bucky, particularly after realizing the lost love to the rapidly declining and eventually doomed Lee.

Movies of Interest

Chinatown (1974)
L.A. Confidential (1997)
Hollywoodland (2006)

Literary Source

“The Black Dahlia” is the story of the seamy underbelly of a city, in which the death of one girl led to the birth of a legend. For almost 60 years, the notorious murder of Elizabeth Short, a lost soul in a heartless town, has fascinated the nation. Betty’s case remains one of the most gruesome, unsolved homicides in the City of Angeles’ history. Conspiracy theories and false confessions abound, but no one has ever known why the aspiring starlet was horrifically tortured, or who committed the crime.

Known facts: On January 15, 1947, detectives from the LAPD found the nude, mutilated remains of a young actress cut in half at the waist, with organs removed and blood drained from her small body. Her killer bludgeoned and sodomized her, slit her mouth from ear to ear in a sickening, clownish grin and dumped Betty in a vacant lot near Leimert Park. Betty’s attack was so grisly that most images were kept from the public’s eye–and from journalists too.

Determined to be famous, destined to be infamous, Betty Short affected more lives dead than she possibly could alive. She dreamed of being photographed for the big screen, but wound up the pin-up girl of a tabloid autopsy photos.

Forty years after her killing, crime novelist James Ellroy (who penned “L.A. Confidential” and “American Tabloid”) crafted “The Black Dahlia, a best-selling whodunit with Betty’s murder at its crux, and boom-era Los Angeles as its backdrop. Ellroy says he used the book as an attempt to exorcise demons from the strangulation of his own mother in 1958.