A Life in Crime: James Ellroy, Brian De Palma, and The Black Dahlia

Crime fascinates me. I’ve long been obsessed with the Film Noir genre, in which marginalized men tend to end up on the wrong side of the law, often fueled by their obsessions with deadly women. The gender politics are dated, but the fear these men feel is as potent as ever.

From noir films, I moved on to their literary antecedents. Raymond Chandler’s coolly humane Philip Marlowe gave way to other literary detectives like Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, but also to crime novels by David Goodis and Patricia Highsmith and Dorothy B. Hughes. These books weren’t anchored by ultimately lovable detectives; they were about empty men and women willing to squeeze out the last few drops of their souls for a little money or power. Joyce Carol Oates carries that noir torch into the 21st century, although her oeuvre is much too broad to be limited to it. Even her tamest stories have a faint stench of violence to them, as if it lurks just around the corner, threatening to materialize at any moment.

James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia lives at the intersection of these different forms of crime fiction. Like more romantic writers, it follows a pair of relatively heroic detectives (at least initially). But the crime they investigate is far more horrific than anything Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett ever imagined.

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Elizabeth Short had moved from Boston to Los Angeles for myriad reasons: to escape her mother and sisters, to contact the father who had abandoned them and led them to believe he was dead for years, to find love, and to start a film career. Many accounts suggest that she was obsessed with military men, and even concocted fantasies about her relationships with them. (Or perhaps she was completely rational and these were just lies she told for some kind of benefit.) She may have prostituted herself, although it’s not a certainty.

Her body was found in an abandoned lot on a January morning in 1947. It had been cut in half at the midsection. The naked lower torso was a foot away from the upper torso, with the legs splayed open. Some of the internal organs had been removed and there was no blood in the body, indicating that the killer had washed it away before placing it there. Her breasts were riddled with cigarette burns and had been mutilated with a knife. She had suffered blunt-force trauma to the head, and the corners of her mouth had been slashed, creating what’s known as a Glasgow smile. It’s the same kind of wound Heath Ledger’s ghoulish Joker had in The Dark Knight.

Ellroy describes the horrifying scene matter-of-factly in his novel. I was simultaneously repulsed and intrigued by the violence of it, so I went online to see how the actual crime scene looked; It’s hard not to read about something so monstrous without wanting to see it. Even though the idea of the murder nauseated me, I still needed to know what the woman and child who first found the body would have seen while on their morning walk.

The face was the most disturbing part. Not the slashes to her mouth, but the expression on her face. She looked almost peaceful, as if she were sunbathing on the grass, rather than part of a gory tableau. But another photograph, presumably taken later at the morgue, shows a clearer picture of her face. The lacerations and bruises to her head are easier to see. But her eyes stare back blankly now. I don’t know if someone opened them between the initial discovery and this later photograph, or if the skin constricted over time and the eyes opened. Regardless, those dead eyes horrified me. They were filled with the secrets of her murder. It seemed as if they were trying to convey to anyone who glances upon them that such a terrible crime could never be explained. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. I’m not usually someone whose dreams are influenced by events in real life, but that face haunted my dreams for days after seeing it.

What made Ellroy’s novel so powerful was that he was able to convey the horror that I felt seeing those pictures. The book effortlessly shifts from outright horror to more traditional crime and mystery territories. His version of the Los Angeles Police Department is peppered with detectives of all stripes: some are relatively noble and care about doing their job well, whereas others are driven by a desire for power and have no compunction about cutting corners. At times, The Black Dahlia is a whodunit in search of a killer. At other times it’s a crime novel in which morally compromised detectives do their best to catch criminals and enforce the law.

The Black Dahlia 2

It was inevitable that The Black Dahlia would be made into a film, although it’s astonishing that it would take 20 years to come to fruition. Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006) shares a name, characters, and the murder with Ellroy’s book, but not much else. Josh Hartnett plays Bucky Bleichert, a former boxer who gets roped into investigating the Dahlia murder with his partner, Lee Blanchard (played by Aaron Eckhart). Scarlet Johansson plays Kay Lake, Blanchard’s wife in name only who is drawn to Bleichert.

Hartnett is an appropriate choice for Bleichert; his brooding voice-overs convey the internal deliberations of Ellroy’s character. Eckhart is an unfortunate choice, though. Blanchard is the more strident character, hopped up on Benzedrine and obsessed with Elizabeth Short’s murder. Ellroy paints a compelling picture of obsession triggered but the disappearance of Blanchard’s own sister years before, but Eckhart’s histrionics inspire more laughter than concern. When a raven lands near Short’s corpse and is about to peck at it, Eckhart swats at it and lets out a scream that’s more of a comic squawk. Johansson mostly seems underused; many of her character’s scenes from the novel seem to have been excised in order to leave more time for the murder investigation.

The problem seems to be De Palma’s inability to find appropriate performances from his actors. Ellroy’s novel lives in a nightmarish reality, but De Palma fails to bring his actors back down to earth. The novel also has a twisting plot, but Ellroy is able to pull all the threads together at the end. De Palma’s film never manages that trick and is often incomprehensible. The plot departs significantly from the novel (not at all unusual), but each of the major changes weakens the film, either depriving it of emotion, horror, or sensibility.

In Ellroy’s novel, the reveal of the Dahlia’s killer was shocking and brutal, but De Palma treats it almost as an afterthought. Ellroy is also less sentimental than De Palma; when one of the more noble characters is found out to have been corrupted after his death, it throws Bleichert into fits of uncertainty and makes it clear that no one can truly be trusted. The film never has an equivalent moment, and that characters goes to the grave sparkling clean.

David Fincher had previously hoped to make The Black Dahlia as a multi-episode miniseries prior to De Palma taking over the property. As great a filmmaker as De Palma is, it seems a shame that Fincher never got a chance to make his version of the movie. Surely his version would have been colder and darker, a change in tone that would have worked well. A longer adaptation would have also allowed the film to retain more of Ellroy’s structure, without writer Josh Friedman’s unfortunate elisions and substitutions.

Still, being a De Palma film, there are many moments of beauty and audacious camera moves. De Palma has used split diopter lenses throughout his career (a lens that splits the screen in half so that the foreground is focused on one side and the background focused on the other), and he puts it two excellent use in multiple shots. The late Vilmos Zsigmond gave the film a gauzy, sepia toned look that fits with a fantasy version of Los Angeles that lives in films like The Big Sleep and Chinatown. Composer Mark Isham’s score is often reminiscent of that latter film, and the sadly romantic sections are gorgeous.

Like many of Brian De Palma’s latter-day films, The Black Dahlia is overly convoluted and rushed. Sometimes a filmmaker’s late style can seem simple, even dream-like, as they strip their films to the bare essence. De Palma’s late films have seemed slapdash, as if he’s no longer that interested in making them, just going through the motions. It’s sad to see a great filmmaker laid low, but even worse to see one of the great crime novels of the 20th century so poorly adapted.

One thought on “A Life in Crime: James Ellroy, Brian De Palma, and The Black Dahlia

  1. Thank you. I first heard of Betty Short’s untimemly demise while in high school.
    I discovered Ellroy’s novel sort of by accident, but since I’ve read TBD over & over again.
    I was overly excited about the movie and the casting of Hartnett as Bucky.
    I raved over it, shared my excitement (obsession) with my husband and good friends. We made a date night of it; I entered the theater buzzing with excitement, eager for my comrades to experience Mr. Ellroy’s genius.
    I left the theater crushed with disappointment and apologizing for the confusing mess my friends had paid money to witness.
    I’ve reread the book at least once a year since then, and each time I’m more saddened by that wretched film adaptation.
    I think it’s time Showtime or Hulu or HBO or (preferably) Netflix adapts this book into a truer miniseries version.
    The public is ready for it. I’m hungry for it.
    And the book is deserving of it.

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