I first became aware of the Black Dahlia murder years ago, when it was mentioned in passing in some other period-piece detective flick set in L.A. in the ’40s. Intrigued by the name, I looked into it a little. But those were the days before Google, and although the internet existed, there was not the plethora of info on the web as there is today. I found very little on the case except that it was a sensational and notorious murder that had left the victim badly mutilated; there was some mystique around the identity of the Black Dahlia and the murder had never been solved.
I filed that away and moved on. Later, in 2006, a movie called The Black Dahlia was made. I noted that as well, but was not in a place where I could catch the flick in the theaters. Again, something to note for later.
Well, later finally came. Needing a break from book writing, I took a little time out to look over my Netflix queue – where lo and behold, I had saved the streaming version of that 2006 movie. So I watched it the other night. Here are some thoughts about the movie, and the unsolved murder at the heart of it.
The Mystery of Bucky and Lee
For the first third of this movie, I wondered if I should double-check the title. It is set in a nice noir-ish 1940s all right, but what in the world did it have to do with a murder, or the Black Dahlia? Apparently very little.
The opening scene shows Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert getting his fists wrapped in preparation for a fight. Through his flashback we see how he met the opponent he’s about to fight, and we cut to an a street fight in full fray. This scene is intriguing, because it shows a notorious but today largely forgotten event: the Zoot Suit riots in Los Angeles. During this series of riots in 1943, sailors and Marines stationed in L.A. decided to start beating up on Hispanics who they deemed were gang members and criminal low life. They could tell they were this way because they were dressed in their cool regalia of long-tailed coats, baggy pants, huge-brimmed hats and long-chained pocket-watches. This distinctive “zoot suit” was an ethnic night-clubbing fashion statement of the era, and clearly labeled its wearers as targets of opportunity. Like hip-hop kids in the ’80s: people with a certain look and clothes, you knew they were of a certain economic class and social standing – and if you guessed ‘gang member’, you might be wrong – or, you might be right. Ditto with the Zoot Suiters, with their shiny cars, cruising for chicks. And the sailors and Marines went to town on them.
Infamously, the L.A.P.D. largely stood aside and let them have at it, until things got a little too bloody or caused too much ruckus, and only gradually did the police step in to break things up.
All of this backstory is missing from what is depicted on screen. We see only military uniformed men going at it with Latino Zoot-suiters in what is patently a Hollywood-style staged street fight, cops standing conspicuously out of the way and letting the free-for-all go on. The purpose of this is to set the tone of the streets of L.A. and the era, I suppose, but also primarily to introduce us to our two cop heroes, who end up fighting and helping each other out in an alley against pugnacious sailors.
In this we see they are both excellent boxers, and the banter tells us they’ll hit it off. And so we fall into the Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) bromance that fuels most of the movie.
The Detective Duo
We return to Bucky getting ready for a fight; through more flashbacks we get better acquainted with his soon-to-be friend, Blanchard, and the young woman who will become their mutual love interest, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). The flick goes on to develop relationships between these people, and shows us how Bucky fits into his world. He cares for his going-senile father; he’s a studly boxer in addition to being a cop, who gets cast in a PR stunt doing an exhibition fight with Blanchard (billed as Mr. Ice and Mr. Fire). The premise here is supposed to be that an exhibition match will drum up public interest and ensure the passage of a police funding bill. Yeah, right. The rationale is as hokey as the name billing, and there are intimations of big money riding on this fight (although machinations are never clarified), but ok, let’s play along.
The advantage of the fight (which department hero Blanchard duly wins) is that it gives Bucky his entree to the detective force, where he partners with Blanchard, and the two take on the world of crime. OK this is good: now we’re inching into the realm of those who deal with murders and such, and maybe at some point the title of the movie will become relevant in the story?
But no, not yet. We learn of their accomplishments by a verbal recap, but the only actual street doings we see are a stake out and pursuit of some thug named Nash, a “bully” who pistol whips old ladies and rapes or kills children. OK, evil sucker, we must nail his ass. But something goes wrong on the stake-out. The cops are made, and Blanchard saves Bucky’s life by making him duck down out of the way when bullets start flying. A black prostitute is shot dead, along with her white john; guns blazing, these cops kill or arrest black pimps in the building they were staking out.
Meanwhile some woman walking past the field behind this block of buildings sees something and starts running, screaming for help. This is unnoticed by our gun-fighting heroes, and is nearly ignored by the camera as well. It is an incidental bit of strangeness… until we cut to the police captain berating his people for not getting Nash, and demanding a perimeter be set up around this badly mutilated body.
She does not yet have a name, but here at last is the Black Dahlia.
The Black Dahlia
On the coroner’s autopsy table we meet Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia – a play on the name of a then-current movie called The Blue Dahlia. Short is 22 and a half years old, has been knocking around doing who-knows-what in the area, and has been brutally murdered. We get details about this and quickly cut glimpses of a severed torso, gutted top and bottom, and an ear-to-ear “Glasgow smile” cut into her face. Gruesome, indeed, although it is rendered in a sterile, stylized manner in keeping with the historical facts of her posed body found in Leimert Park, Los Angeles in Jan 1947.
Blanchard becomes obsessed with the murder. He can’t seem to let it go, and pursues it by ignoring Nash and other cases to concentrate on this one. Bucky is loathe to let Nash go, but follows his bro’s lead, and investigates in his own manner, tracking down Elizabeth’s past roommates, learning that she made a nudie movie, asking questions at lesbian bars she used to frequent. In this manner he encounters Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), a high-class dame and daughter of a rich daddy construction magnate who goes slumming for fun. Of the two detectives, it is Bucky’s work that is yielding real inroads. Is Madeleine a help or a distraction? We don’t really know, but the two eventually fall into bed together. Along the way we get a Bucky-eye view of the Linscott family. This is noteworthy not only for later plot reasons, but for two stellar performances that emerge from this little group.
Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank)
Swank is much better known for her edgy tough roles (Boys Don’t Cry; Million Dollar Baby), and when she is cast as the femme fatale she is sometimes grievously miscast. A notable failure in that regard was her starring role in The Affair of the Necklace, where even Simon Baker‘s rakish charm could not turn her square-shouldered, square-jawed forthrightness into seductive appeal.
Here, though, in Dahlia, Swank has undergone an amazing transformation. Her performance was one of the surprise gems in the movie. It starts with her ’40s makeover: the long, softly curving Veronica Lake-ish styling to her hair goes far to soften her stark facial profile and make her look both ladylike and sexy. The slinky ’40s dresses do not hurt in that regard either. Whatever voice coaching she did for this period piece was also spot on: Swank speaks convincingly with that tone called “the mid-Atlantic accent” (think Lauren Bacall or the transformed Mia Farrow’s speaking voice in Radio Days), a cosmopolitan, pseudo-British accent that was the
standard for upper crust East Coast society from probably the late 1800s up until the 1950s, when television began to successfully homogenize much of the national pronunciation with a standardized California/mid-American accent.
I knew Swank was in this movie, but it honestly took me a while of watching and listening to Madeleine to figure out that this was Hilary Swank. She disappears into the character that well. She starts out as an aloof, entitled tease, and turns out to be a thrill-seeking spoiled daddy’s girl. This is an excellent and I think largely under-appreciated performance by Swank.
Naomi Linscott (Fiona Shaw)
Another surprise, and this one a total show-stealer, is Fiona Shaw. She plays Madeleine’s mother, and our first view of her is of a face frozen in disapproving regard as she meets Bucky for the first time. When she staggers to her feet and attempts to speak, though, we realize she is pickled, or strung out on drugs. I’d go for three sheets to the wind, alcohol seeming to be the acceptable social drug of choice, although later it seems to be pills that have her whacked. In either case, she nails the behavior of someone whose inhibitions are shot to hell because they’re all doped up, but who is doing her damnedest to control herself (for some value of “control”) because anything less would be improper.
We meet her for a second and final time at the denouement of the film, and we see her in flashbacks acting more than a little crazy. Now her being drugged is making more sense. Was she drugged because she acted crazy, or did she act crazy because she was drugged? There is no telling, and when she “accidentally” kills herself (as headlines will attest), we will never get any deeper answers about the state of Naomi Linscott. Even so, in two brief scenes – three if you count a flashback – Fiona Shaw leaves an indelible impression on the movie and on the viewer.
Hartnett and Other Performances
Other performances here are workmanlike at best. Josh Hartnett as Bucky Bleichert seems like a nice guy, but he is an everyman without a hook. It is hard to get a handle on his soft energy and tiny eruptions of anger or frustration. He looks manly and seems believable as a boxer and as beta detective to Eckhart’s alpha, but beyond that, his performance, although earnest, is forgettable. Which is unfortunate, since he is the real protagonist of the movie.
Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart)
Aaron Eckhart plays a detective who is more dirty than we realize, given his hero-cop billing, but as usual, Eckhart plays Eckhart in every role he takes on. I have never yet seen this actor disappear into the character he is playing. I could be watching Harvey Dent here (The Dark Knight), or the scholar-lover in Possession. Maybe it comes from his having such a distinctive face, or being cast in similar type roles, but whatever the reason, it is hard to shake the awareness of watching a certain actor act. I am never completely swept up in Lee Blanchard as a character for this reason, and so the man’s obsession, duplicity, and eventual death leave me completely unmoved.
Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson)
Johansson’s character Kay Lake seems envisioned to be The Love Interest, and the vulnerable girl we’re supposed to fall for before a twist makes her out to be not-such-a-good-person after all. It’s a small-ish role, considering screen time given to others, and by the end of the movie I am convinced only that Kay is a woman who just does what she needs to to get by. There is no great crime here, also no great passion, although the storyline asks for both of these things to be established – and fails in doing so. That failure is partly in the scripting, and perhaps partly in the acting. Again: a workmanlike performance, but not much more than that.
Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner)
The Black Dahlia herself is another story, and handled in a very interesting way. We get to know the murdered woman almost exclusively through how we see her in screen tests and stag film viewed by Bucky. The ever-diligent detective has collected film from Short’s attempts to land acting jobs, and we see her talking to the director and attempting to act and saying revealing things on film. This is what he is using to get inside her head, to try to understand the victim of the murder he’s attempting to solve. It puts us inside her head as well, and introduces us to a coquettish, not really talented young woman who is just trying to get an in somewhere.
In the movie, her “in” is her eventual appearance in a nudie film that, it turns out, is a link to her death. In real life, I don’t believe it was ever established that Elizabeth Short ever did any auditioning or screen testing at all. So this is a fiction to serve the needs of the story portrayed in film, but it is an effective one. There is something poignant about the Elizabeth we see in black and white screen tests, lost in Hollyweirdland and trying to make her way. It is not a stunning performance but it is an intriguing one, and now I’m curious to see how Kirshner handles more coherently written material.
And the Killer Is…
The Black Dahlia features some ho-hum performances, some mild degree of mystery about who is doing what to whom, Blanchard bumped off in what is obviously a setup, and earnest Bucky trying to make sense of it all. Without giving any more spoilers than I already have, I’ll say Hartnett soldiers through to an ending where the Dahlia’s murder is solved and the details of it revealed by confession, rather than deduced by the detective. In spite of one shocking twist at the denouement, we still manage to have a rather pedestrian finish to a mystery.
In real life, Elizabeth Short’s murder was never solved. Even though nearly 50 people confessed to doing it, no one has ever been arrested as a suspect. There is no real-life solution to emulate here, and therefore the field is left open for artistic license to give the audience that sense of resolution that consumers of fiction crave.
The Black Dahlia at least offers that. There is constructed drama around the murder investigation, suspense created out of unknowns and duplicity and threats; a denouement that the protagonist’s actions provoke and that is sincerely surprising in and of itself. Still, when all is said and done, except for the great cameos by Shaw and the supporting role of Swank, and a visually interesting portrayal of 1940s Los Angeles, the film remains rather tepid. I presume it reflects the eponymous book it was based on, with its focus on Bucky and his crushed romantic hopes and the loss of his (dirty cop) friend. We do not have a visceral sense of victory over the murderer, or feel the Black Dahlia can truly be put to rest.
And in that much, I suppose this story mirrors real life.
Lizard Lair’s “Dinosaur Stomp of Approval” Rating
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