Man with the Camera: Brian De Palma’s ‘The Black Dahlia’

The Black Dahlia Movie Film

When working with source material based on a real, unsolved crime, there is tremendous pressure on the filmmaking team to provide a concrete resolution to the drama. The numerous adaptations of the Jack the Ripper murders, including Murder by Decree (1979) and From Hell (2002), pick up the mantle from the countless true crime books that claim to have “the answer” to the killer’s identity. With crimes so far in the distant past, the solutions the films (and their source material) offer amount to little more than speculation. The more recent-history film Zodiac (2007) likewise takes an unsolved crime and puts it thumb on the scale; taking its lead from the non-fiction book written by Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film), David Fincher’s version points the finger at Arthur Leigh Allen, despite a preponderance of conflicting information. One of Fincher’s most impressive scenes comes midway through the film when a trio of police officers (Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards and Elias Koteas) conduct an interrogation of Allen (chillingly played by John Carroll Lynch) in the breakroom at the factory where he works. At a moment when Allen seems to have given away a crucial incriminating detail, each of the detectives looks directly into the camera in close-up, a point-of-view intervention undertaken nowhere else in Zodiac — the intensity of the moment suggests quite heavily that this is the person responsible. The film further underlines Allen’s possible guilt in its final scenes: a seeming witness identification by one of the Zodiac Killer’s victims and an accusatory, wordless confrontation in a hardware store between Graysmith and Allen. The film’s text coda, a signal of documentary authority, indicates that since Allen’s death, Graysmith has not received a single threatening, heavy-breath phone call that became so regular during his independent investigation of the crimes. Whether or not these films purport to “solve” these crimes, their selection of a guilty party reflects the vision of the filmmakers. The suspect who is ultimately responsible has more to do with the ideas of the film than any adherence to the facts of the case. The same is true of Brian De Palma’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel The Black Dahlia, released in 2006, which is marked by the director’s own personal obsessions — namely, his relationship with the cinema of the past. Though many obviously and rightly associate De Palma with the films of Alfred Hitchcock, whose work he is frequently accused of plagiarizing, the totality of the director’s filmography reveals a passion for cinema of all kinds. In the director’s work, he explores the cinematic language of earlier periods of filmmaking; The Black Dahlia is his most overt engagement with film noir. A critical and commercial failure — one that seems to have driven the filmmaker permanently into a state of cinematic exile, leaving him to make intermittent films for little money in Europe — The Black Dahlia shows De Palma in a reflective mood, considering the impact cinema, especially his own, has had on the lives and suffering of women on screen. 

Officially unsolved, the Black Dahlia murder has long had a presence in noir. The real-life victim, Elizabeth Short, was discovered in a field on January 15, 1947, and immediately became a media sensation thanks to the condition of the body — graphically mutilated at the face, organs removed, body cut in half at the waist. The details of the crime are well-known to even casual true crime enthusiasts, not least owing to the moniker bestowed upon Short after death. Accounts differ as to how the victim earned her floral nickname, but at least one attributes the credit to a film noir released just one year before, The Blue Dahlia (1946), starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. In the film, Ladd’s Johnny Morrison returns from the war to find his wife has abandoned her marital vows and taken to hosting wild parties in their bungalow; Morrison’s life grows more complicated when she is found dead and he is one of the chief suspects. The idea of a woman dead, a flower clipped from its stem — this iconography would likewise influence a film released in 1953, Fritz Lang’s noir The Blue Gardenia, which plumbs the guilty conscience of a woman who thinks she has committed murder during a night of blackout drinking. Though Lang’s victim is a man, the media circus whipped up by a sensationalist newspaper man, Casey Mayo (Richard Conte), who makes considerable hay out of the titular flower, applying the moniker to the “unknown murderess” in the inches of his regular column, undoubtedly reflects that which followed Short’s murder some six years earlier. Another representation of Short would appear in 1981 in Ulu Grosbard’s True Confessions, starring Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall as brothers, a powerful monsignor in the Los Angeles Catholic Diocese and a police detective, respectively. Duvall’s cop is assigned to the Dahlia-esque case at the heart of the film, which leads him to the power structure of the Church; simultaneously, De Niro’s monsignor conducts his own internal investigation, and finds his faith shattered and his rising-star career destroyed by the corruption he uncovers. From the 1940s, the early period of classic noir, to its waning days of the 1950s, to its resurgence in the early 1980s as neo-noir, the murder of The Black Dahlia has been a constant undercurrent. Though the brutality of the crime no doubt plays a role in its continued relevance, that the murder was never solved is more in keeping with the sensibility of noir. A world where Short could be murdered in such a horrifying way, and that her killer would never be caught, reflects the upside down morality of noir — the meaninglessness of the crime, never solved, is the ultimate vindication of Shakespeare’s Macbeth who laments that life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” 

Ellroy’s novel would appear in 1987, but De Palma would not bring it to the screen until some 20 years later, well past the sell-by date for cinematic representations of the classic noir period. By 2006, most iterations of noir in mainstream American cinema were either self-knowing pulp remixes like the graphic-novel adaptation Sin City (2005) or stylish thrillers firmly in the neo-noir tradition like Collateral (2004), directed by master neo-noir filmmaker Michael Mann, primarily shooting on digital video in the Los Angeles night. In this respect, The Black Dahlia’s relative classicism seems out of step with the deeply modern sensibility of other filmmakers borrowing from noir; De Palma, like his contemporary Peter Bogdanovich, has rarely compromised his interest in classical filmmaking style for the sake of shifting trends. The period setting and deliberate, straightforward evocation of noir style — horizontal blinds cast in shadows on the walls, slow crossfades and wipes, a desaturated color film stock that approaches black and white — combine to make the film, at least on its surface, seem like a museum piece. No doubt, too, De Palma knows how to make The Black Dahlia feel like a classic noir. His scenes recall familiar noir settings: the boxing ring of Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1950); the dimly lit parking lots of Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross (1949); the dead-end diner of Siodmak’s The Killers (1946); the chaotic nightclubs of Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946); the dingy motel rooms of Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947). A theatre marquee advertises The Black Angel (1946), itself a noir classic. And yet, The Black Dahlia’s surface adherence to the style of 1940s filmmaking may obscure the degree to which the filmmaker himself seems determined to investigate his own cinema.

More by Brian Brems: War and Domestic Violence in Fritz Lang’s ‘Human Desire’

The Black Dahlia Movie Film

Cinema is De Palma’s subject — each of his films relies on visual metaphors that represent the act of filmmaking, to greater and lesser degrees. His repeated references to Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1957), Psycho (1960) and others are more than mere glosses on films he likes; De Palma’s obsession with Hitchcock is an effort to speak the language of cinema. Stylistically, his reliance on split-screens, overhead shots, slow motion, split diopter shots, long takes and other ostentatious devices reveals a passion for the power of film as an artistic medium; what may feel like excess to some is really exuberance for the medium itself. De Palma’s detractors have often found these stylistic flourishes to be little more than gimmicks, flash distracting from the essential emptiness at the heart of his work. These critiques often overlook the degree to which De Palma is a highly personal filmmaker who draws upon moments of his own life, restaging them for the camera to create a finely tuned autobiography: the young Peter Miller (Keith Gordon) tinkering with his science project in his room in Dressed To Kill (1980) embodies the young De Palma himself; the sound man Jack Terry (John Travolta) in Blow Out (1981) is forever haunted by the scream of a lost love, the woman (Nancy Allen — De Palma’s real-life partner for many years before they split) he was unable to save from violent death; a cheap horror movie director (Dennis Franz) in Body Double (1984) wears De Palma’s signature cargo jacket on the set. Though not usually given to overt directorial cameos like Hitchcock, whose brief appearances in his own films aided in the lending them the imprimatur of an auteur, De Palma has often manifested versions of himself in his films, using his obsessions with the power of the camera and the act of looking to investigate his own role as a director. In The Black Dahlia, there is a dramatic exception to this general tendency to portray himself at a remove. The police investigating Short’s murder view film footage of her Hollywood screen tests for an unseen director, vacillating between asking probing questions and barking dismissive orders at the aspiring actress — the preening Short (Mia Kirshner), her eyes full of desperation, tries eagerly to impress the off-screen filmmaker. The voice is De Palma’s. 

Though rarely going so far as to appear on screen, De Palma steps into the role of the director who, though he is never seen, is primarily responsible for rejecting Short from the movie business and sending her into a world of pornography and sexual exploitation that ultimately, the film reveals, results in her death. De Palma seems to find little connection with either of the film’s ostensible heroes, the police detectives Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) who become obsessed with solving the Dahlia murder once they are assigned to it, as the Los Angeles Police Department’s celebrity cops. Both Bleichert and Blanchard are protagonists cut from the Hitchcockian cloth, driven by their passionate attachment to a dead woman like Scotty Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) in Vertigo, the film that De Palma references perhaps more than any other throughout his own filmography. Blanchard is consumed by the guilt he feels over the death of his sister at a young age, treating the Short murder case as a kind of personal crusade for vengeance — in the Dahlia, he sees the possibility of getting justice for a loved one taken from him too soon. His single-minded pursuit of the killer leads him to neglect his living paramour, Kay (Scarlett Johansson), a woman he saved from the sexual terror inflicted upon her by a sleazy crook named Bobby DeWitt (Richard Brake). Bleichert, on the other hand, desires Kay but refuses to act on it out of loyalty to his partner; instead, he finds sexual release in the arms of the film’s femme fatale, Madeline Linscott (Hilary Swank), who bears an uncanny resemblance to the murdered Dahlia. Bleichert’s erotic attachment to Madeline allows sexual communion with the dead woman — Blanchard wants to avenge her, and Bleichert wants to possess her. These are undoubtedly Hitchcockian themes — which De Palma has repeatedly borrowed — but they are also suited to noir. The forlorn detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) of Otto Preminger’s 1944 classic Laura stares at a painting of the eponymous woman, whom he thinks is dead, on the wall of her apartment; one of the most disorienting moments in all of noir comes midway through the film, when McPherson awakes from a nap to find Laura herself (Gene Tierney) walking in the door, very much alive after all. 

De Palma’s references to Hitchcock are fewer in number in The Black Dahlia; instead, he riffs more obviously on classic noir. A crucial sequence midway through the film, during which the Dahlia’s body is discovered, borrows the famous long take from the opening scene of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), the film offered by De Palma collaborator Paul Schrader in his essay “Notes on Film Noir” as the last example of the classic period. Though De Palma’s long take does not match the three minutes of Welles’ shot, he overtly references the crane shot acrobatics; in the moments before a shootout between Bleichert/Blanchard and the suspects they are waiting to ambush in a crime unrelated to the Dahlia murder, the camera launches into the air above a storefront, catching a fleeting glimpse of a screaming woman calling for help, running away from a field — this is the discovery of the Dahlia’s body, tossed off as an unrelated detail in the middle of another scene. This choice is the kind of living idea that directors like De Palma are always considering — the implication is that the camera can choose what to show and what to resist. There is another, more important narrative about to begin in the background, one small part of a dramatic camera movement, but because the camera is in the middle of another scene, the revelation of the graphic crime will have to wait another moment. Instead of cutting to this new, more interesting piece of information, the camera follows the trajectory of the screaming bystander as she calls for the police, then descends once again as it picks up the movement of a passing car, which travels slowly around the corner. The camera then tracks to the right to follow a pair of people walking across the street, and then passes them altogether with the entrance of a truck full of oranges, which comes to a stop across the street from the building that Bleichert and Blanchard are watching from their parked car. The take is unbroken for the duration of this movement; in it, De Palma advocates for the power of cinematic staging and the camera’s dynamism, which, when working together, create a kind of harmony. Shots like this argue for the presence of the director behind the camera — it is easy to imagine alternative visions of this scene, executed in a number of shots rather than one. Long takes, especially those with such dramatic camera movement, function as a kind of directorial flex of the muscles. They reflect the vision of the artist — the camera can show the audience what it wants, when it wants. 

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The Black Dahlia Movie Film

Throughout The Black Dahlia, De Palma implicates cinema in the murder of Short, a deviation from the novel’s source material seemingly invented by the director. The key to Short’s murder is the revelation of her killer’s fascination with the silent film version of The Man Who Laughs (1928), starring Conrad Veidt as a disfigured man with a haunting Cheshire smile. In De Palma’s screen test scenes with Short, the woman looks directly into the camera, substituting the audience for the filmmaker himself. As is often the case in Hitchcock’s cinema, De Palma makes the camera a representation of the viewer, adding his own voice to further cement the point of view. The effect is something like a dual confession: Elizabeth, soon to be murdered, expresses a kind of world-weary sadness despite being just 22 years old, breaking down in quiet tears during their third session together; De Palma, as the director who dismisses her, as he has no doubt done with countless other young aspiring stars, blames himself implicitly for her subsequent death. Throughout his career, De Palma has been dogged by criticism for the violence in his films, especially that perpetrated against women. His most virulent rejection of that criticism comes in Body Double, when he depicts a highly exaggerated, almost cartoonishly violent sequence in which a man kills a helpless woman with a gigantic, phallic power drill, penetrating her torso in a scene so perverse that it reads like an intentional act of self-parody. The drill scene in Body Double is De Palma at his most petulant; his subtle cameo in The Black Dahlia offers a more reflective, even apologetic filmmaker who now harbors more uncertainty. “What if the critics were right?” he seems to wonder aloud. 

Though noir contains multitudes — the detective story, the murder plot, the heist, the prison break, the gritty police thriller and more — it is above all about investigation. The non-linear structures of many noir films, supplemented by contemplative voice-over narration, often reveal the narrative’s outcome from the beginning, mining dramatic tension instead from the discovery of the “how” and “why.” Noir films lend themselves especially to investigations of the self. The detective films, taken from hard-boiled crime fiction, foreground this dynamic through the gumshoes at their centers, who not only endeavor to solve the case with which they are tasked, but discover how far they are willing to go in order to find out the truth. However, even the less overtly investigative noir films explore the self: “Am I the kind of person who can commit murder?” the ordinary men and women of noir might ask themselves. Though it bears the surface trappings of noir, De Palma’s The Black Dahlia also offers the director the occasion to reflect on his role in perpetuating on-screen violence against women. The film’s final images reveal the lingering effects of a guilty conscience. Bleichert, having solved the murder and shot the guilty Madeline to death in the motel room that was once the site of their trysts — in De Palma’s deft restaging of the climactic moments of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) — returns to the angelic Kay at the home she once shared with the now dead Blanchard. She opens the door, bathed in an otherworldly white light, but before Bleichert can step in, he glances into the front lawn below, and sees a nightmarish image of the bisected Short, naked and mutilated, picked at by a screeching crow. The violence lingers; the images, no matter how hard he might want to suppress them, have too much power. They will not obey. They will not disappear. 

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.