Because it wasn’t entirely clear to me when I left the theater just who had done what to whom, and why, you needn’t worry that I will give away the plot of The Black Dahlia. All I really understand about this story of late-1940s Los Angeles–not so much a city, you’d think, as a tar pit, bubbling with near-universal ickiness–is that a character in it once slapped up a shoddy housing development, using materials scavenged from Mack Sennett’s studio.
As with the setting, so with the film itself: The Black Dahlia turns out to be something of questionable structural integrity, pieced together from old movies.
Normal filmgoers may now stop reading, knowing that The Black Dahlia will not give them the usual satisfactions of a good story told on Saturday night. Only viewers with the patience of true auteurists are likely to be rewarded by The Black Dahlia. They will have seen Brian De Palma before at his directorial games and will expect him to treat this plot as a distraction, in two senses of the word: as an inconvenience to be endured and as a diversion to hold the viewer while a trick is done. The question is, what trick did De Palma carry off this time, under the pretext of making a police thriller? What might it mean that the form of his new movie flagrantly imitates a crime?
The beginnings of an answer lie in the movie’s source material–a well-regarded novel by James Ellroy–and in the real event that provided the core for Ellroy’s fiction.
In early 1947 the naked corpse of a 22-year-old woman, Elizabeth Short, was discovered in a vacant lot in downtown Los Angeles. In life, as one of Hollywood’s innumerable aspiring actresses, Short had stood out only because of the black wardrobe she’d affected, set off by a flower in her long, wavy hair. In death, she was distinguished by the gruesomeness of her murder. Even Jack the Ripper’s victims had not been so mutilated. In the public’s mind, or the part of it that was fed by newspapers, Elizabeth Short’s hacked-up body quickly became a site where fantasies coalesced: images from the movies and about the movie business, fears about city life, anxieties about the sexual wants of young women. A fascinated city took to calling Short the Black Dahlia–substituting a lurid nickname for an obscure, now-unknowable person–while telling itself endless stories of what she might have done, and how she might have died.
Too many stories? According to the fictional narrative of The Black Dahlia, people who ought to have been thinking of other things were busy instead with the Elizabeth Short mystery, and so allowed all manner of betrayals, tragedies and crimes to play out. (Auteurists may insert here a list of earlier De Palma films that dwelt on the sin of prurient inattention–I’ll spot you Body Double–and for ten bonus points may cite precedents from the work of Alfred Hitchcock.) But, to stick to the case: Among the distractable types in The Black Dahlia, none is more at fault than the film’s point-of-view character and voiceover narrator, a young police detective named Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett).
He’s unreliable, of course–and not just because he’s set up as the standard film noir sap, infinitely gullible and infinitely horny. The very first shot in the movie finds Bucky in the locker room of a boxing arena, preparing to fight in a publicity fundraiser for the police department. The story you’re about to hear is therefore being recalled by a guy who’s had his brains rattled. Punch-drunkenness may help explain, if not excuse, the ensuing fuzziness about who did what, etc. It certainly provides the only possible justification for later episodes in The Black Dahlia that are so clichéd as to seem lifted from a 1947 B picture, or so preposterous as to be worthy of a Monty Python broadcast.