The Black Dahlia
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James Ellroy's 1987 novel The Black Dahlia, the basis for this film, fictionalizes the investigation into the grisly real-life murder of a young woman in 1947 L.A. Sensationalized in the press for her tendency to wear black outfits and a flower in her black hair, Elizabeth Short was a 22-year-old hopeful actress from small town Massachusetts. Her naked body was found in a park, abused, cut in two, drained of all blood, and with its organs removed. Her mouth was cut from ear to ear. The horrific murder scandalized L.A., drew endless attention for years to come, generated thousands of false suspects and even confessions, but it remains unsolved today.
Ellroy's book—and now Brian De Palma's film—use those basic facts as the foundation for a seedy "true crime"-style '40s noir thriller that "solves" the murder. The story follows detectives Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, assigned to the high-profile case because of their celebrity status as boxers on the police force. Their off-hours friendship includes spending lots of time with Blanchard's girlfriend Kay Lake. The trio grows close, but their loyalties are tested when Blanchard becomes dangerously obsessed with the Dahlia murder and withdraws from the other two. Adding to their stress is the impending release from prison of a brutal man who abused and scarred Lake during her previous career as a prostitute.
Meanwhile, chasing down leads at some lesbian bars Elizabeth Short may have frequented with a younger friend, Bleichert encounters a woman dressed in black who looks very similar to the murdered girl. After a dinner with Madeleine Linscott and her weird and wealthy family, Bleichert falls into a sexual relationship with the woman. Soon, however, information uncovered from some of Short's "screen tests" (and a porn film) begin to make Bleichert question everything he thought he knew about the case.
Bleichert is the closest thing the film has to a moral center, though he compromises his own conscience throughout the story and participates in unethical, illegal and immoral actions. He cares for his aging father who suffers from a disabling dementia. Though attracted to his partner's girlfriend, he resists the temptation to bed her out of loyalty to his friend. He genuinely cares about stopping a brutal killer on the loose and tracking down Elizabeth Short's murderer. Still, even his good intentions rarely lead to positive results.
In three encounters, a man and woman kiss and grope passionately and begin to disrobe before the scene cuts to them in bed together after the act. In one instance, both male and female rear nudity are on display.
Scenes set in lesbian bars show women dressed provocatively and/or dressed as men. In one, a stage show includes revealingly dressed female dancers embracing erotically. Extended footage from a porn film shows two women, topless, engaging in graphic sexual activities both implied and seen (among them, oral sex and bondage). These images are made more disturbing by the fact that one woman (who may be a teenager) is high and the other is clearly reluctant. In what may be the scene's only redeeming element, the footage is viewed by a roomful of rightly disgusted and angry male detectives working the case.
In addition, pimps and prostitutes figure prominently into the story. Several sexually suggestive and extremely crude comments are made. The camera glimpses a drawing made by a teenage girl of two other characters in a sexual position.
In real life, Elizabeth Short's gruesome crime scene photos were reportedly so troubling they were kept from public view. The Black Dahlia exercises no such restraint. Her nude and terribly abused (and dissected) corpse is seen. An extended shot in the morgue reveals all the detail previously described, including her disfigured face. Later, we see the beginnings of this crime: the blow to her head and the initial cutting of her face (while she's still alive). Several other bloody and gruesome deaths result from gunshots (one self-inflicted), knife wounds and men falling several stories to land face-first on a sharp object. A little girl murdered in a robbery is seen with a bullet wound to her head. The camera rarely turns away from the gory details of these crimes.
In addition, a street riot features military men and guys in "zoot suits" beating each other and setting cars on fire. Severe blows are exchanged in a boxing match between Blanchard and Bleichert; one gets his front teeth knocked out, resulting in lots of blood. A killer is described as "raping children and beating old women." Punches are regularly administered and exchanged.
Crude or Profane Language
There are 10 or so uses each of the names Jesus, Christ and God for swearing. The f-word is heard at least 20 times (often sexually, once with "mother") and the s-word around 10 times. Other crude and profane language includes several harsh slang words for parts of the male and female anatomy.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Nearly every character smokes constantly, and alcohol consumption is nearly as ubiquitous. Blanchard develops a drug addition. Several unstable characters are known to be "hopheads." And a woman performing in a porn film admits to being high.
Other Negative Elements
As is the norm with noir thrillers, several police detectives are revealed to be corrupt and/or compromised, muddying the lines between the good guys and the bad guys. Crude and hurtful racial comments are made about Jews, blacks and Hispanics.
Brian De Palma's ability to capture and maintain a stylistic tone—as well as his technical achievements with the camera—are simply undeniable. The overall look of late '40s L.A. and several of the long shots in The Black Dahlia are breathtaking. Again, however, the famed director puts all that skill into the service of a gruesome, ugly, ultimately unredeemed story that leaves you feeling the need for a shower. And CliffsNotes. After dutifully wading through all the depressing moral dreck on display, I was still pretty sure I'd missed several key points in the densely plotted story. And the most important ones are all revealed in a rushed, out of left field, violent info dump to bring the film to closure.
Ellroy and De Palma do succeed in revealing the corrupting influence of power, money and the need to be famous in '40s Hollywood. In one voiceover, Bleichert mentions the problems of ambition, pride, dissatisfaction and a love for violence.
Stories like this, then, may be a bracing antidote to those who champion innate human goodness. But choosing to stew in the cinematic juices of depravity is hardly necessary (or even beneficial) in one's journey toward becoming fully convinced of what Jesus said in Mark 7: "For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly."
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Josh Hartnett as Bucky Bleichert; Aaron Eckhart as Lee Blanchard; Scarlett Johansson as Kay Lake; Hilary Swank as Madeleine Linscott; Mia Kershner as Elizabeth Short
Brian De Palma ( Mission to Mars)