The Black Dahlia (directed by Brian De Palma) is full of film noir imagery, plotting and characters.
When I google “film noir” this is what pops up:
So going in you know there will be guns, romance, a top hat or two, murder, betrayal and a femme fatale.
In The Black Dahlia, a period piece based on a novel inspired by the real Black Dahlia murder, we follow two cops: Bucky and Lee (played by Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart respectively). They are former boxers who go by the nicknames Fire and Ice.
Lee and his girlfriend Kay (Scarlett Johansson) quickly adopt Bucky into their social life, and the three of them go everywhere together. It’s like the beginning of a new sitcom called 2 Cops and a Dame.
One afternoon the body of Elizabeth Short turns up in a field, dismembered. Lee becomes obsessed with finding her killer. Bucky goes to a club one night, knowing Short may have spent time there. He spots Madeleine Linscott (Hillary Swank) and the two quickly become romantic. Right off the bat Linscott has all the tropes of the femme fatale.
Bucky meets her parents, Emmett and Romana, who are a little unhinged and it’s clear there might be something more going on.
Meanwhile Lee becomes more unhinged himself. He goes after Bobby DeWitt, a criminal who gets released from prison and about whose release Lee receives many warnings.
Bucky realizes Lee might put himself in trouble searching for DeWitt so he heads after him. Lee kills DeWitt, but this leads to an altercation in which an unseen man kills Lee. Soon after, Bucky and Kay become romantic, because this is a film noir so it kind of has to happen.
The action doesn’t stop as Bucky discovers money hidden in Kay’s home. She tells him that DeWitt stole the money, and that she was DeWitt’s girlfriend. Lee saved her and stole the money from DeWitt, and he had to kill DeWitt to protect himself and Kay.
So there’s a lot of plot to burn through, but that feels very familiar with this genre. This is when everything starts to unravel, and the mystery becomes clear.
Bucky heads over to Madeleine to feel better. Kay follows him there and confronts him about his relationship with a girl who, as she puts, looks like the dead girl.
One night Bucky watches an old film and notices the set is the same one as the pornographic film Elizabeth was in. There is also a special thanks to Emmett Linscott at the end.
Bucky heads to the location of the house in the film and discovers clear signs that Elizabeth was murdered there. Now believing he knows what happened, Bucky confronts the Linscotts at their large, large, grand home. He finds Madeleine with her head in her father’s lap (kind of incestual) and accuses them of murdering Elizabeth.
[takes a deep breath]
Okay, so here’s what happens next.
Ramona, Madeleine’s mother, shows up in dramatic fashion and says she was the one who killed Elizabeth. It turns out Madeleine is not Emmett’s daughter but rather the daughter of Emmett’s friend, George. George was apparently on set the day of Elizabeth’s pornographic film shoot and he became infatuated with her. Ramona was disturbed that George might try to have sex with someone who looks so much like his daughter so Ramona killed Elizabeth.
After confessing all of this, Ramona shoots herself.
So everything is pretty calm, right? Yeah, we all learned something, especially Bucky. Well after doing some thinking, Bucky realizes that Lee had discovered the connection between Elizabeth and Madeleine and was blackmailing Emmett to keep it secret. See, this is why it’s important that we know about Lee’s flirting with the law when it came to DeWitt because it establishes that it’s well within his means to do something like blackmail Emmett.
Next thing you know, Bucky confronts Madeleine at a grungy motel and she admits to killing Lee. Then Bucky shoots her.
Bucky goes to see Kay and they get back together.
All of these plot turns are conventional to film noirs. We know the main character will work in law enforcement and that he will slowly unravel a mystery and that he will be betrayed.
Beyond that, the movie is filmed like many noirs. The music, the long shots and the harsh shadows all fit the mold.
On the other hand, most noirs begin with a jaded man of the law. His life isn’t that great before he becomes obsessed with a murder that he must solve. In The Black Dahlia, Bucky is having a grand ‘ol time with his partner and with Kay. He is genuinely happy. It’s not until midway through the film, after Lee’s death that Bucky is who most film noir protagonists are at the beginning of a film. He’s anguished, bitter and sleeping with his dead partner’s girlfriend.
So despite swimming in noir tropes and plot twists, there is some subversion of the genre. Chinatown (1974) is famous for toying with film noir genre conventions, and I’d argue that this film does the same yet it also pays homage to the genre. It’s a parody of the genre rather than a satire.
In these kinds of films there is the truth, and it’s surrounded by weeds and overgrown brush getting in the way. This what the protagonist must hack through with a machete only to discover that truth is probably worse than he could have imagined.
Within The Black Dahlia, everything is hidden. Nothing is clear on the surface, and even the characters all seem to have multiple names. Bucky’s real name is Dwight, and he and Lee are both referred to by their boxing monikers (Fire and Ice). In addition, the press gives Elizabeth the name “The Black Dahlia.”
This film is entertaining and amusing in how it breezes through the plot. Everything exists just to hit the familiar beats and go from one plot point to the next. It’s amazing how much characters learn from just confronting and talking to each other. Everything is very direct. Bucky goes around town demanding something from someone, and they tell him. Oftentimes we don’t even see the reveal, it’s just implied or stated to us in voiceover: “she told me everything.”
So this movie is pretty wild.
I didn’t know much about the real Black Dahlia murder, but I briefly read on Wikipedia that it’s still unsolved. With that in mind I thought this movie might have something in common with Zodiac (2007). Instead, they solve the crime, and I was very confused until I realized it’s based on a book based on a tenuous grasp of reality.
I know this movie, and probably the book too, is a little campy, and it’s just an excuse to make a fun genre film. That being said, something felt off watching the ridiculous explanation for the murder of 23-year old Elizabeth Short. Her murder was so brutal and sadistic, and it looks like the realities behind the killing are much more subtle (somehow) and horrifying than the truth presented in the movie.
Or maybe the author of the book has a crazy theory that this is how it played out. “Okay, okay, just bear with me. There was this family, let’s call them the Linscotts. Well Emmett Linscott, the dad, sold movie sets including one on which a porno was shot……” and on and on until the publisher gave up and said yes.
So there you have it, a movie with Josh Hartnett. Or maybe this is a sequel to Pearl Harbor in which Hartnett miraculously survives and becomes a cop.
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