“Do you think you’re capable of playing sadness?” an unseen director asks a wannabe actress and future murder victim, in screen test footage that recurs throughout Brian DePalma’s The Black Dahlia.
“Sure,” she replies, her voice steady but her mind elsewhere. “I can do that.”
And so can De Palma, who provides the voice of that soft-spoken yet menacing director. One of the filmmaker’s most ambitious and formally complex films, The Black Dahlia is, above all else, a tragedy—and not just for the abovementioned Hollywood actress, Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), whose unsolved 1947 murder-mutilation in served as the basis for countless movies and books, including DePalma’s source material, James Ellroy’s 1987 novel. (Be warned: this review is all spoilers.) Ellroy’s book wove a fictional mystery around Short’s murder. Both a pastiche and a critique, it used Raymond Chandler-styled purple prose knowingly and ironically, cluing the reader to see through Chandler’s smoky machismo and understand that the same male swagger that’s sanctified via the hardboiled fiction hero exists in the real world, where it enables sexism, racism, xenophobia and the subjugation of the poor by the rich.
Screenwriter Josh Friedman’s adaptation frames the story within a heavily narrated extended flashback by ex-boxer turned L.A. police detective Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), who tries to solve Short’s seemingly random killing with help from his partner, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), and drifts ever closer to two women, kinky socialite Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) and Lee’s blond goddess girlfriend, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). At first the film plays like Chinatown-style modern noir, in which the investigation of a singular horror reveals corruption within families, institutions and communities. But The Black Dahlia soon reveals itself as something more: the story of a young man discovering his moral code, then realizing how useless it is in the face of society-wide indifference, greed and cruelty.
De Palma translates Ellroy’s dick-swinging dialectics into his own, decidedly more sensitive aesthetic, with its alternately subjective and omniscient camerawork, attraction-repulsion to brutality, and simultaneous indulgence and rebuke of the male gaze. That’s no big surprise; anyone familiar with both artists already suspected they were kindred spirits. What is surprising, though, is the way DePalma re-imagines Ellroy’s worldview and clarifies his intent. The movie version of Dahlia shatters the tough guy façade of Ellroy’s fiction and exposes the author as a depressive romantic who hides behind ass-kicking hepcat prose, just as his Neanderthal heroes wrap themselves in stoicism, homoerotic competitiveness, tribal loyalty and gallows humor, stunting their human potential to shield themselves against hurt. Most impressively, the film foregrounds the book’s political consciousness (a trait often missed by Ellroy’s fans and detractors alike) and magnifies its core emotions: disgust at the treatment of the powerless by the powerful, and furious sadness at the realization that there’s not much an individual can do to stop it. These are the touchstones of tragedy, and to watch this film is to realize—or be reminded—that DePalma’s sensibility is tragic more often than not.
The film is broken into three distinct sections. Section one starts with an unusually subdued De Palma opening shot, set in the bowels of a stadium on fight night; it locates the gloved-up Bucky in wide shot, then slowly moves in for a close-up, always leaving room in the composition for a poster on the wall behind Bucky that trumpets the match as a battle of “Fire” and “Ice.” Those elemental nouns don’t just describe the temperament of the two cops; they’re a key to understanding DePalma’s aesthetic, which is fueled by similar tensions.
The director is fully engaged with Bucky’s emotions—which is at it should be, since the story is told from Bucky’s POV—and there are times when the film openly sympathizes with him. (Hartnett’s solid screen presence—world-weary yet curiously innocent, like John Travolta’s Jack Terry in Blow Out—is just right for a DePalma tragedy, and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond lights his woodcut face for iconic impact; wreathed in cigarette smoke, he looks like the young Chet Baker.) We learn of Bucky’s partnership with Lee, a fellow ex-boxer turned cop who first bonded with him during the Zoot Suit riots of 1942; his professional progress within the LAPD (a supervisor refers to him as “a bright penny”); his sublimated love for both Kay and Lee, which creates a Jules and Jim-type triangle; Bucky and Lee’s investigation of the Short murder, which at first centers on a known sex offender, then gravitates toward less obvious suspects; and Bucky’s go-along-to-get-along attitude, which leads him to take a dive during the Fire-and-Ice fight so he can afford to support his senile dad, and leads to future compromises.
This is a lot of information packed into about 40 minutes; most of it deals directly with Bucky’s personality, past and present. But even though DePalma stays inside his protagonist’s head, he never ignores the larger forces conspiring against his happiness—forces that Bucky is only beginning to understand in hindsight. As Bucky rifles through his own memories—and imagines what might have happened to Short—DePalma appears to leave the hero’s point-of-view, often via crane shots that survey whole rooms, blocks or neighborhoods. But although these techniques imply a shift from subjective first person to godlike third person, the movie never actually makes that transition. In time, the viewer comes to understand that the film’s seemingly omniscient flourishes are meant to visualize the inner workings of Bucky’s grief-stricken mind—a mind that never stops connecting Bucky’s situation to the wider world. When we watch The Black Dahlia, we’re not seeing what Bucky sees; we’re seeing what he feels, and his own unvoiced explanation for those feelings.
Like a self-aware dream that decodes itself as it goes along, The Black Dahlia’s expressionistic imagery describes a man’s attempt to understand his own pain, and the social forces that brought it into existence. The film treats Short’s demise as a byproduct of her society’s hierarchy of oppression (rich folks on the roof, straight white men on the top floor, everyone else in the cellar); then it demonstrates that both Short’s murder and its subsequent exploitation by the media, the LAPD and Hollywood were born in the same dark places. The grandest example is a lengthy, uncut, high-angled tracking shot that connects two crimes: a bank robbery-cum-shootout with black perps that the cops care about, because it involves a rich man’s money; and the discovery of Short’s violated body nearby, an offense the LAPD likely would have round-filed if Short weren’t young, white and gorgeous, like so many young women clinging to the fringes of the film business.
Bucky’s realization of his own helplessness is predicted in the scenes where Bucky watches Short in a girl-on-girl stag film shot on a soundstage originally built for Conrad Veidt’s The Man who Laughs (a film also viewed by Bucky, Lee and Kay) and in the aforementioned screen test footage, which finds Short indulging her director’s invasive chatter because she has no choice. (De Palma’s verbal dissection of Short predicts her gutted and vandalized corpse, visually linking filmmakers and killers.) Kirshner’s remarkable performance—like Naomi Watts’ Mulholland Drive audition scene writ large—mixes obedience, in-the-moment intensity, actressy flirting, and a sad facsimile of girlish sweetness. You know you’re not seeing a woman lose her innocence because DePalma and Kirshner make it clear that she lost it long ago.
The spiritual deflowering is all Bucky’s. As he watches Short’s screen tests, he becomes entranced by her ghostly image, and pursues justice in hopes of reclaiming her goodness and strengthening his. Like the heroes of other obsessive necrophiliac love stories—including Laura, Vertigo and De Palma’s own Body Double—Bucky works through, and also evades, his dawning sense of helplessness by falling in love with a murdered woman and figuratively trying to resurrect her. It’s a doomed quest. As Bucky burrows deeper into the city’s underbelly, Short’s murder begins to seem a redundant postscript—the annihilation of a woman who was already dead in spirit—and a harbinger of Bucky’s own journey: his birth, maturation and death as a moral force.
Section Two of The Black Dahlia charts Bucky’s fling with Madeleine Linscott, a rich, bisexual, nightclub-crawling friend of Short’s (played by an uncharacteristically glam Swank, who undresses Hartnett with her eyes and snaps off her sentences like Bette Davis’ hot-to-trot baby cousin). As Bucky lets himself become ensnared by Madeleine (a vertigo-inducing name), he drifts into the orbit of her family, a clan so comfortable with its own grotesquerie they could have been sketched by Charles Addams. Bucky’s first meeting with Madeline’s parents is one of the great De Palma tracking shots, a setpiece that belatedly achieves the satirical tone De Palma’s Bonfire of the Vanities botched. It’s also the most convincing use of first-person camerawork since the celebrated Goodfellas sequence where Henry Hill greeted his fellow mobsters. The camera observes Madeleine opening the front door of her father’s house and leading Bucky inside, briefly dips down to check out her assets (this is Bucky’s POV, after all), then rises up to meet her cheerful monster of a daddy (John Kavanaugh) and her boozy, scatterbrained, thoroughly disapproving mother (Fiona Shaw, in a risky, super-stylized performance that teeters on the knife-edge of mental breakdown).
On paper, Ellroy’s depiction of wealthy freaks living beyond the reach of society’s laws was no mere detective fiction trope; the author’s disgust was palpable. But De Palma goes Ellroy one better by framing the Short case’s richest suspects as participants in a satirical black comedy that looks like Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind by way of Mad TV—privilege re-imagined as burlesque. Critics who complain that these scenes feel incongruous, glib or exaggerated are forgetting that we’re not seeing “reality,” but a grief-stricken blue-collar cop’s remembrance of it. Much more so than the film’s gallery of foulmouthed Runyonesque street types, the Linscotts are gargoyles to Bucky—monsters of entitlement.
As Madeline grows to dominate Bucky’s thoughts and actions, the Bucky/Lee/Kay triangle gets shunted to the film’s margins. Lee is diminished and Kay all but vanishes. This tactic may seem like a mistake, but it retrospectively makes sense in section three, after Bucky’s gotten hip to the breadth and depth of the corruption around him—including his buddy Lee, who was secretly entangled with the Linscott family and their Noah Cross-like schemes. Bucky chases his leads to their appalling conclusion; he also re-enters Kay’s life a more energized, passionate man, and enacts the romantic fantasy he’s nurtured privately for years. But we can’t cheer Bucky on because we understand (as he does) that he’s indulging a variant of necrophilia. Once content to treat his best friend’s girl as a running buddy and platonic crush, he now views her as an angel—a purified version of Elizabeth Short and Madeleine Linscott; an emblem of the unexpressed love he felt for his now-dead partner, and a redeemer who will cleanse his sins and numb his pain.
Unfortunately, Bucky’s trying to replace emotions and character traits that are lost forever—a notion planted early on when Bucky’s loses his namesake choppers in his publicity match with Lee, then gets fitted for false teeth. This is the first in a series of such losses, and an indicator of De Palma’s moral calculus—a point made visually at ringside with a slow zoom shot of a tooth that got knocked from Bucky’s mouth and landed beside a bloody scorecard. Irreparable damage, irreplaceable loss and unfathomable violence are the three true stars of The Black Dahlia; their presence lends De Palma’s film a weight that few retro crime thrillers (including L.A. Confidential) can muster.
But while De Palma’s tone is mostly somber, the filmmaking is ecstatic, and sly, too. Friedman’s script makes room for distinctively De Palma touches, including paintings, movies, mirrors and similar objects and characters arranged in sets of two and three. The director seizes these opportunities with gusto. He’s one of the few filmmakers who can make a joke without words: Short’s freewheeling kid sister traipsing through a park clad in little Shirley Temple’s “Good Ship Lollipop” outfit; Mrs. Linscott’s batty final monologue, which is lit and framed to suggest a an early Technicolor melodrama; Bucky’s visit to a lesbian bar where line dancers sashay and a Marlene Dietrich figure (played by k.d. lang) croons “Love for Sale.” Elsewhere, De Palma’s patterns and juxtapositions are more unsettling. Strengthening the film’s themes of loss and disfigurement, De Palma links the maimed hero of The Man Who Laughs; a suspect’s obsessive painting of that same character; Short’s corpse, whose mouth was cut from ear to ear in an obscene parody of a grin, and the hero’s dental prosthesis (the doc who installs it crows, “Just look at that smile now!”) As always, De Palma explores cinema’s voyeuristic tendencies, and the coldly male, often dehumanizing aspect of that gaze. When possible, he denies the viewer a defineable vantage point; you’re often unbalanced, unsure if you’re looking at “reality,” its representation (movies, photographs) or its reflection (in windows and mirrors). The first image of Bucky and Lee after the zoot suit riots is a medium shot of the partners reflected in a mirror; you only realize it’s a mirror if you look at the top of the image and see the slight distortion caused by glass joining the mirror’s frame line. Bucky’s clinches with Madeline and Kay are delineated by window frames or viewed through the windows of front doors, so that we feel like peeping toms. First-person shots of Bucky staring at Kay and Madeleine (and Short’s filmed image) are disrupted when the woman looks into the camera, implicitly challenging Bucky’s (and our) privileged viewpoint.
Most striking of all is De Palma’s use of composition and camera movement to suggest the right moral response to savagery. In two scenes involving Short’s corpse—its discovery by the LAPD and a subsequent coroner’s report—Zsigmond gracefully cranes down from a loftily detached position (a God’s eye view) to a subjective one (Short’s POV, looking up at the men scrutinizing her ravaged body). In the space of seconds, we go from objectifying Short to feeling for her—the hero’s moral evolution in microcosm. That any attentive viewer could sit through this film—or its spiritual sister, Casualties of War—and still think De Palma hates women is inconceivable.
Zsigmond employs a slightly desaturated color palette throughout, a choice that initially seems to work against the film’s lavish period details and De Palma’s preference for hyper-reality. But the choice justifies itself in the movie’s final scene, which finds Bucky returning to Kay’s house, battered in mind and spirit. She appears in her doorway bathed in angelic light—the brightest thing in a very dark film. But then Bucky looks over his shoulder and hallucinates seeing Short’s disfigured corpse, at which point the color scheme becomes desaturated again. Bucky will see that dead woman as long as he lives. Justice won’t bring her back to life, and no matter how diligently he tries to submerge that dreadful image—to forget and heal and move on—it will remain in his memory and erupt when he least expects it. “Nothing stays buried forever,” Bucky tells us early in the The Black Dahlia; by the end, he realizes just how right he was.