Stylish "The Black Dahlia" a noir-lover’s wet dream

by Eric Melin on September 14, 2006

in Print Reviews

“It’s like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.”

Nigel Tufnel from Spinal Tap may have been talking about the color of his new album, but he may as well have been talking about “The Black Dahlia.” By definition, film noir is black. Pitch black. Some argue that it is a specific period of films rather than an enduring genre, but one thing is agreed on by all fans of film noir. The mystery itself always takes a backseat to a dark atmosphere.

“The Black Dahlia,” directed by Brian De Palma (“Scarface,” “The Untouchables”), is overflowing with dark touches and the director’s trademark flair for operatic visuals. In the scene where the nude vivisected body of Elizabeth Short is discovered next to a sidewalk in 1947 Los Angeles, Vilmos Zsigmond’s unhinged camera movement gives the grisly discovery an almost omniscient perspective. It scales the side of a building, swoops over the roof to peer down on the woman who discovers the Dahlia, follows her running and screaming to get a passing car’s attention, then moves with the car around the corner, ending up on the street that it began, only on the other side now, facing the spot where it started.

Based on the fictional novel by the renowned “demon dog of crime fiction” James Ellroy, De Palma’s film purports to be about the unsolved real-life murder of Short, an aspiring actress-to-be. What it actually does is use her brutal death as a metaphor for the filth beneath the town’s glitzy surface, a place where the Dahlia’s own father shows no grief over her demise and gleefully tags his murdered daughter a tramp. Dreams don’t come true in this Hollywood. This is the place where dreams are ridiculed and beaten, then crawl away to die.

The characters in Ellroy’s stories are always morally corrupt in some fashion, and De Palma understands this. A long tracking shot at the beginning of the film depicts officers standing on the sidelines during a riot while Mexican zoot-suiters and sailors beat each other to bloody pulps. The radio announcer proudly proclaims that the police department has everything under control.

“Looks like six more weeks of winter.”

Warrants cop and part-time boxer Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) may be the straightest arrow in this movie’s quiver, but even he isn’t immune from the allure of throwing a fight, especially when he could use the money to put his ailing father in a retirement home. Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) is the veteran cop who meets Bucky in the ring to drum up some support for a police bond issue. When it passes, the two move up the ranks and become unlikely friends and partners.

Obsession and voyeurism are major themes in early De Palma films like “Body Double,” “Blow Out,” and “Dressed to Kill,” making him the perfect director to explore the nightmarish infatuation that gripped Los Angeles during this time. It’s no surprise that two of its biggest casualties are Blanchard and Bleichert.

Lee seeks redemption for a troubled past in solving the crime, stealing case files from the department and venturing out on his own. Elizabeth Short dominates his every thought and drives him away from Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), whom he has made a home with. In a twisted way, Bucky also spends time alone with the Dahlia. He watches her desperate Hollywood audition reel and has sex with Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), a rich sicko who trolls the streets dressed in black to mimic Short.

Zsigmond’s flamboyant camerawork and the extravagant set design of Dante Ferretti help to put a highly theatrical spin on “The Black Dahlia.” Although it comes two books before “L.A. Confidential” in Ellroy’s L.A. quartet of novels, De Palma’s film inhabits a more squalid area than its movie predecessor. While it has a darker sense of humor, it also contains more melodrama. Some iffy last-minute revelations do not serve the mystery well, but they are in line with the mood of the film, and don’t do it a terrible injustice either.

Film lovers don’t hold classic noirs like “The Big Sleep” and “Double Indemnity” in such high regard because the plot makes perfect sense. It is the style, stupid– the dialogue, the gloominess, the shadows, the feeling of doomed destiny that prevails over everything. “The Black Dahlia” is right in line with these film noir ideals, but tells the story with bravura and a technical prowess that was unavailable in the 1940s.

Holding it all together is Mia Kirshner, so sympathetic as the dead girl Elizabeth Short. In a few well-placed scenes, she becomes the living, breathing receptacle for all of our fears; a vessel for all of our failed hopes and disgrace. Is it a coincidence that the unseen man who verbally abuses her during her pathetic audition reel is De Palma himself?

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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