The Black Dahlia
PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):
In Los Angeles, on January 15, 1947, LAPD officers Dwight ‘Bucky’ Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), investigate the murder and dismemberment of Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), soon dubbed ‘The Black Dahlia’ by the press.
Bucky learns that Elizabeth was an aspiring actress who appeared in a pornographic film. Through his investigation, Bucky learns that Elizabeth liked to hang out with lesbians. He goes to a lesbian nightclub and meets Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), who looks very much like Elizabeth. Madeleine, who comes from a prominent family, tells Bucky that she was ‘very close’ with Elizabeth, but also asks him to keep her name out of the papers. In exchange for his silence, she promises him sexual favors. Continuing his relationship with Madeleine, Bucky meets her wealthy parents, Emmett (John Kavanagh) and Ramona (Fiona Shaw).
Bucky’s partner, Lee, also becomes obsessed with Elizabeth’s murder. Lee’s obsession leads him to become erratic and abusive towards his longtime girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), who is also one of Bucky’s close friends. After Lee and Bucky have a nasty argument about a previous case, Bucky goes to Lee and Kay’s to apologize, only to learn from Kay that Lee was responding to a tip about a recently released convict, Bobby DeWitt. Bucky goes to the location and gets into an altercation with DeWitt in the atrium of the building. DeWitt is gunned down by Lee, standing on the stairs across the atrium. Bucky sees a man sneak up behind Lee, wrapping a rope around Lee’s neck. Lee fights back while Bucky, paralyzed with shock, watches from across the atrium as a second shadowy figure steps out and slits Lee’s throat. Lee and the man holding the rope fall over the railing to their deaths several floors below.
Dealing with the grief of losing Lee propels Bucky and Kay into a sexual encounter. The next morning Bucky finds money from a bank robbery hidden in Lee/Kay’s bathroom. Kay reveals that she had been DeWitt’s girlfriend, that DeWitt had mistreated her, and that DeWitt had done the bank robbery. Lee had rescued Kay and stolen DeWitt’s bank robbery money. Lee needed to kill DeWitt now that he was out of prison—leading to the encounter that resulted in Lee’s death. Bucky leaves, furious with Lee and Kay for their actions and lies. He returns to Madeleine’s family mansion and continues his intense relationship with her.
Watching an old movie one night, Bucky notices that a bedroom scene matches the set in Elizabeth’s pornographic. The credits at the end of the film includes the statement “Special Thanks to Emmett Linscott”, Madeleine’s father. Lee’s search for answers leads him to an incomplete housing project that Madeleine’s father had started just below the Hollywoodland sign. In one of the empty houses, Bucky recognizes the set that was used to film Elizabeth’s pornographic movie. In a barn on the property, Bucky finds where Elizabeth was killed and her body butchered, as well as a drawing of a man with a Glasgow smile. The drawing resembles a painting in Madeleine’s family home, and matches the disfiguring smile carved into Elizabeth’s face during her murder.
Bucky confronts Madeleine and her father in their home, accusing them of murdering Elizabeth. Madeleine’s mother reveals that she was the one to kill Elizabeth, who looked so much like Madeleine. She confesses first that Madeleine was not fathered by Emmett but rather by his best friend, George. She further reveals that George had been on set when Elizabeth’s pornographic film was made, becoming infatuated with her. Finally, she felt that Elizabeth looked too much like Madeleine, was bothered that George was going to have sex with someone who looked like his own daughter, and decided to kill Elizabeth first. Upon finishing her confession, Ramona kills herself.
A few days later, remembering something Lee had said during the investigation, Bucky visits Madeleine’s sister with some questions. He learns that Lee knew about the lesbian relationship between Madeleine and Elizabeth and was blackmailing Madeleine’s father to keep it secret. Bucky finds Madeleine at a seedy motel, and she admits to being the shadowy figure that slit Lee’s throat. Although she insists that Bucky wants to have sex with her rather than kill her, he tells her she is wrong and shoots her dead.
Bucky later goes to Kay’s house. Kay tells him to come in and closes the door as the film ends
I was asked the other day to offer up my thoughts on The Black Dahlia based on my love of the 40s and film noir. Modern filmmaking and a period piece are sure to be right up my alley, but what would everyone else think about this? Reading some of the reviews, critics weren’t exactly favorable of it. What say we delve into the mystery, shall we?
What is this about it?
Two Los Angeles cops uncover corruption and conspiracy within the force while searching for the killer of a Tinseltown hopeful. To crack the high-profile case, they venture into Hollywood’s darker side to piece together the actress’s secret life.
What did I like?
Visuals. It may seem that it is a given that I ma going to like any period piece set in the 40s, but that just isn’t true. Having said that, this film manages to capture everything we all know and love about the glamorous 40s, from the cars, outfits, big band jazz to the criminal underground and seedy underbelly. The only thing missing was the post-Depression/war feel that made this era. Brian De Palma has an eye for such things and gives us a feast for the eyes.
Dahlia. Like the critics, I was blown away with Mia Kershner’s performance as Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia. From what I know of this case, Short was along the lines of what we label as emo these days, very miserable and depressed. Kershner captures those emotions while also portraying an actress who was obviously troubled. It was either a masterpiece of a performance or disturbing in how much she channeled Short.
Out with a smile. Again, I am going to heap some praise on director Brian de Palma, at least for his decision to insert clips of the great film The Man Who Laughs here and there. Why is this relevant? Well, Elizabeth Short’s body was found with a Glasgow smile carved into her face. What is that? Best way to explain it is the same kind of smile as Cheshire cat or an even better example would be The Joker. So, the decision to show clips of this film are relevant because it is said that the main character is the inspiration for the Joker in the comics, who also has a Glasgow smile (although he wasn’t dead).
What didn’t I like?
Huh? Like most film noirs, this film was a bit hard to follow. One minute it was here, then next there, then back again, then jumped to something completely different. Oy! It was confusing, and it didn’t help that I was half asleep before the film began! The film is very well made, don’t get me wrong, it just could use a more audience friendly approach to telling the narrative.
Removable objects. I find it strange that the primary subject matter of the film can actually be removed and not effect this film in the slightest. I believe that is a mistake by de Palma. There should be more emphasis placed on the Dahlia and not so much on the sexual escapades of the leads. I really could have done without all that, personally, even if it did feature Scarlett Johansson.
Score. Normally, I’m one of the first to praise the musical score, but this time, I felt it got in the way. There was music in just about every single scene, and it wasn’t really necessary. For an extremely, shall we say vocal, film as this the music was more of a nuisance in places, rather than a help. It really took away from the film and dampened the impact of some key moments, when it should have accentuated said scenes. That being said, I did enjoy Mark Isham’s score, it just needed to be pulled back a little.
The Black Dahlia suffers from a talented, yet overambitious director trying to shove too much down the audience’s throats. Had this film cut back on a few things and brought the actual murder mystery to the forefront, this probably would have been better received. That being said, I didn’t find it as bad as the critics. Do I recommend it? Not really, unless you’re into this particular case or film noir. This is just not the kind of film for the general public, so it might be best if you just pass it on by.
3 3/4 out of 5 stars