Brian De Palma eschews the Classics Illustrated mannerisms of L.A. Confidential in his adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel The Black Dahlia, a fictionalized take on the still-unsolved murder of aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner). An ostensible work-for-hire, the film is nevertheless distinguished by De Palma’s expert navigation of its frighteningly finite space. This is a fever dream vision of the City of Angels, the shared nightmare of its principal players whose every move, we realize in retrospect, is helplessly preordained. Dante Ferretti’s elaborate sets, built almost entirely on Bulgarian soundstages, are quite intentionally hollow (one wrong turn by prop or character and the scenery would no doubt cave in on itself) and it is out of this—as opposed to more standardized, gut-punch narrative twists and turns—that the film’s primarily psychological tensions arise.
Though its main actions take place in 1947, the world of Black Dahlia is essentially timeless. De Palma tips his hand via the film’s key exchange between warrants cop Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and the brunette Dahlia doppelgänger Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank). Standing before a portrait of Gwynplaine, the deformed protagonist of Victor Hugo’s novel The Man Who Laughs, Bleichert says, “I don’t get modern art.” To which Madeleine responds, “I doubt modern art gets you either.” De Palma is as much a historian as a filmmaker, so his intense focus on and present-tense reading of the painting (an incidental plot point in Ellroy’s book) is no accident. This is a film that understands its influences, tracing a line from Hugo’s Romanticism (and likewise incorporating his cutting critique of aristocracy) to German Expressionism and film noir (in its brilliant use of Paul Leni’s silent film adaptation of The Man Who Laughs). It’s a short jump from there to Black Dahlia‘s flamboyant lesbian bar sequence featuring k.d. lang in full Dietrich drag, singing “Love For Sale” among slinky French-kissing chorines, and to De Palma’s own Greetings homage that sees the director himself assuming the impatient voice of authority in Elizabeth Short’s screen tests.
But it’s not all film theory. A throwaway sequence sees Bleichert stumbling upon the bodies of two Chinatown residents whose deaths he inadvertently caused; the bullet-ridden tableau suggests and points the way toward Vietnam, highlighting a retroactive sense of guilt, helplessness, and rage all-too-applicable to our own current events. It’s often forgotten (or casually elided) that De Palma is a political filmmaker; even Black Dahlia‘s finest set piece (a subjective-camera “first date” between Bleichert, Madeleine, and her dysfunctional family) gets at the push-and-pull of the democratic system, with all its hierarchical factions and subdivisions fighting for power and the final say-so. The tragedy of Black Dahlia is that there is no finality for anyone—solving the “mystery,” so to speak, counts for next-to-nothing. Ellroy himself said it best in an interview (“Closure is bullshit”) and De Palma likewise understands that experience lingers and that there’s no telling where, when, or how the ghosts of our life will haunt us.