Review: The Black Dahlia

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They meet cute, albeit somewhat bloodily. Bucky (Josh Hartnett) is the baby-faced innocent. Lee (Aaron Eckhart) is the hard case. They're both cops and they're both boxers. They bond while beating one another to pulps in a boxing match for the benefit of a police charity. They become detective-partners and further buddy up in a chaste, yet sexually charged, relationship with a mysteriously damaged woman named Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). Their relationship is sealed (and ultimately undone) by their assignment to the eponymous Black Dahlia case.

It is at this point that fiction and fact violently intersect. For the James Ellroy novel on which Brian De Palma's movie is based, weaves many of the known facts of the infamous (and unsolved) murder of 1947 into its fictional narrative. The crime was about as grisly as any ever recorded: the nude body of an aspiring movie actress named Betty Short was discovered in an empty lot in Los Angles. It was severed in two and forensic evidence indicated that she had been tortured and sodomized before death, with her organs removed and the blood drained from her body after death. Crime scene photos have not, to this day, been publicly released. Equally curious, the police have never uncovered much evidence about her pre-death friends, movements or possible lovers. The case was a journalistic sensation and it has retained its powerful hold on the public as well as on novelists and filmmakers. In 1977 John Gregory Dunne wrote a novel, True Confessions that was much more artful than Ellroy's, and it, too, was made into a movie.

The horrific nature of the crime and the fact that it remains unsolved account for part of its persistent hold on our collective memory. But it has—or can be made to have—a heavy symbolic resonance as well. Post-World War II Los Angeles had about it a dark glamour. People were reading noirish novels (and seeing the movies based upon them) that had been created just prior to and during the war. The city was still digesting a huge and largely ill-favored population increase—people had flooded in to take jobs in booming wartime industry. It was policed by a force infinitely more corrupt than the norm and it had a thin, mysteriously wealthy upper crust capable—or so the fictioneers liked to think—of doing anything required to maintain its status. And that says nothing of Hollywood, whose morals everyone had suspected for decades. How closely this fictionalized portrait of a seamy, teeming Eden turned anti-Eden actually matched reality is a good question. But it sure made for good reading (and viewing). The "Black Dahlia" case actually derived its name from a pretty good film noir, starring Alan Ladd, that had been released the previous year.

The problem is that the known particulars of the case—aside from fact that the victim had drifted into town looking for work and had a vague interest in a movie career—do not especially match the cosmic sociological maunderings that have surrounded it. The cops may have been inept, but there is no reason to suppose that they were deviously protecting a psychotic murderer. Nor is there any reason to imagine that the criminal was socially well connected or was a Hollywood type (even though a preposterous rumor, repeated dismissively in a recent biography, put no less a figure than Orson Welles under suspicion). The likelihood is that this was one of those dreadful crimes that emerge from the psychopathic minds and was in no way motivated by general social conditions or, indeed, by anything—other than perhaps a chance encounter—that was deeply woven into poor Betty Short's brief, sad, agonizingly ended life. In that sense it is both the perfect crime and the perfect subject for realistically rendered, but fantastically imagined crime fictions.

The Black Dahlia is far from being a perfect version of that story. It is, in fact a major disappointment, despite the fact that it seems, superficially, to be an ideal subject for Brian De Palma, given his passionate, long-standing obsession with the sex and violence nexus. Mostly, the movie is a tin of red herrings. That's particularly true of the triangular relationship between the cops and Kay. She, too, has been sexually abused and the movie seems to want to say that violent crimes against women were—are—more common than we like to pretend, which is doubtless true, but essentially irrelevant to the case at hand. Worse, Johansson seems lost in the role. She's just not old enough or worldly enough to enlist our interest. She does, however, inhabit an apartment almost parodistically stuffed with art deco artifacts, enough of it to stir at least one collector—me—to paroxysms of awe and envy.

The film also shows the seemingly honest Lee as a surprise partaker in police corruption, but since most of the film's other police officers are seen to be honest, if rather dull, fellows, this plot strand doesn't elicit much shock or insight, either. But the silliest aspect of the film is the relationship that develops between Hartnett's Bucky and an heiress named Madeleine Linscott (Hillary Swank). They meet in a lesbian bar (more L.A. decadence for you), but she turns out to be resolutely heterosexual, very rich and—need we say it?—that most conventional of film noir figures, the spider woman luring the besotted male close to doom and even closer to the solution of the labyrinthine, and, in this case, utterly risible, plot.

One would be inclined to laugh, if one were not so numbed. This movie, which was written by Josh Friedman, is less a response to a novel than it is a synopsis of it—ploddingly plotted, enlivened by the occasional shock occurrence, lacking that attention to mood and nuance which made Curtis Hanson's version of another Ellroy novel, L.A. Confidential, such a rich, rewarding entertainment a few years ago. You begin to wonder: maybe it's time to give film noir a rest. The academics have had their fun with it; no genre has attracted more scholarly attention in recent years. And we've had our fun with it too; the DVD re-releases of its classic titles and cult favorites have been delicious reminders of noir's wonderfully stylized strengths. And some of neo-noir's best titles, from Chinatown through The Grifters, have been real additions to the American canon. But The Black Dahlia is tired when it is not self-parodying, and it suggests that our nostalgia for its genre tropes has become idle and a vacuous waste of our time and of our filmmakers' energies.