Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia, James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia Part Four

PART ONE PART TWO PART THREE PART FOUR PART FIVE

(This post contains spoilers for the movie The Black Dahlia, as well as the novel by James Ellroy. On March 26th, 2014, the pictures on this series of posts were updated with richer, larger images that were also, unfortunately, no longer theatrical widescreen, due to the cropping on the DVD.)

THE AMBIGUITIES OF KAY LAKE

An auburn haired beauty of the novel is now a blonde. A character of the book that is thin all over, waiflike – as Blanchard likes them – is now bodacious. This last is not, I think, due to any low appetites, but fits with the movie’s schematic. Blanchard loathes himself for what he is, so he seeks a woman who exudes feminity, a buxom, rather than a reedy figure. She should also embody fertility, the wealth and bounty of the food on her dinner table and her pristine house. That there may be an ugliness underlying all this, migrant labor and stolen water for the California agriculture, secret bargains and blood money for the house, are all things that can be thought about later.

She is a wounded woman, branded with scars by her former pimp, Bobby De Witt, and still shaped by her experiences with this man. She is also very, very smart, “always the smarter of the two of us”, says Bleichert in the book, and this, despite appearances, is true in the movie, all the way through. In the book, her major switches from pre-med, psychology, English lit, and then history; in the movie she has a masters in history.

I’ll start with a succinct outline of the movie’s Kay as I see it. She is a woman who has gone through horrific experiences, found a protector, Blanchard, but one who she is deeply unhappy with. She wants to abandon this man, for another protector, Bleichert, but he refuses to betray his partner. She is either directly complicit in having the first man killed, or tries to make sure that it is more likely that he will die. It is convenient that this man die for another reason: he is her romantic rival for Bleichert’s affections.

When this new man takes over, she must make sure that they are bound together, first through sex, then by a secret, that the beautiful home they live in was bought with stolen money. She is throughout this, like I said, very smart, and simply plays stupid in order for her schemes to work, this stupidity accepted without question by Bleichert, but also by the audience, who don’t consider the possibility that a blonde might just be playing at dullheadedness. Kay does not act out of pointless malice, but because she knows first-hand the viciousness of this life. In her audition tape, Betty Short plays on the line from Gone With The Wind: “As god as my witness, I’ll never go hungry again…even if I have to lie…or cheat…or steal…I’ll never go hungry again.” This is something like Kay’s credo. It should also be said that this theory goes entirely against Kay’s image in the film, which is, essentially, a passive victim.

I show here a series of images of Kay from the film, from beginning to end. They give a sense, I think, of a woman who is saucy, witty, with a piercing look, slowly hiding herself, giving herself an exterior of a dull-minded, passive, child-like figure, occasionally a hysteric. This is an exterior society prefers, but it’s also necessary for her own ends.

Our introduction:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

At the gym. This is when Kay reveals that she and Lee don’t sleep together:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

A brief glimpse of the image Kay will become. The night of the shoot-out with Baxter Fitch and associates, and when Bleichert tells her about the return of Bobby De Witt. She freezes up, and her face becomes a mask:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

This is the last scene where we see this old Kay. Her eyes are probing. It’s the moment when she asks Bleichert, “what about us?”, wanting to be with him, and he refuses to betray his partner:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Now, it starts. We, the audience are almost always with Bleichert, moving with him. One of the few exceptions is when the camera pulls away from the detectives prior to the Baxter Fitch shoot-out. The other times are with Kay. Here, we are in the house with Kay for a few seconds before Bleichert arrives. When she hears the door, she arranges her character, touching her eyes, lighting her cigarette.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

During this scene, Bleichert presses her on where Blanchard is. She may have a nervous tic about her mouth, it may be a tell. I don’t think this tic ever shows up again:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

The night they have sex for the first time:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

She asks Dwight to repair the kitchen tile. While he’s there, again, for one of the only times in the film, we are away from Bleichert, and with her. What does she do, after the man who protected and rescued her dies? She pours drinks. Why does she do this at this point, when Bleichert’s removing the tile? Because she knows what he’ll find. Her old protector is dead. She now has a new one, and she wants to celebrate: the money and sex will now make them partners. This makes me think of nothing other than when a femme fatale celebrates after they kill her husband together. She pours the drinks, and ascends the staircase, going up, as characters do in this movie, to damnation:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia: the secret in the bathroom floor.

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But Bleichert surprises her. He is still connected with a very sentimental image of Blanchard. She plays this very stupid:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

This causes Bleichert to bolt from the house, to return to Madeleine. When Kay arrives at the mansion and confronts them, she is a shrieky harridan. Again, she plays the facts about the money very stupid:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Bleichert kills Madeleine and returns to Kay. This is the last image of her, and it is a very different Kay than the one of the beginning:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

I go now through the movie’s scenes that feature only Kay and Bleichert, contrast it with its equivalent in the book, and point how the intent each time has subtly been changed.

The meeting with Kay where she first prompts him about having an affair:

I found Kay in her usual weeknight posture–reading on the living room couch. She didn’t look up when I walked in, she just blew a lazy smoke ring and said, “Hi, Dwight.”

I took a chair across the coffee table from her. “How’d you know it was me?”

Kay circled a passage in the book. “Lee stomps, you tread cautiously.”

I laughed. “It’s symbolic, but don’t tell anybody.” Kay stubbed out her cigarette and put the book down.

“You sound worried.”

I said, “Lee’s all bent out of shape on the dead girl. He got us detached to work the investigation when we should be going after a priority warrantee, and he’s taking Benzedrine and starting to go a little squirrely. Has he told you about her?”

Kay nodded. “A little.”

“Have you read the papers?”

“I’ve avoided them.”

“Well, the girl is being played up as the hottest number since the atom bomb. There’s a hundred men working a single homicide, Ellis Loew’s looking to get fat off of it, Lee’s cuckoo on the subject–” Kay disarmed my tirade with a smile. “And you were front page news on Monday, but you’re stale bread today. And you want to go after your big bad robber man and get yourself another headline.”

“Touché, but that’s only part of it.”

“I know. Once you got the headline, you’d hide out and not read the papers.”

I sighed. “Jesus, I wish you weren’t so much smarter than me.”

“And I wish you weren’t so cautious and complicated. Dwight, what is going to happen with us?”

“The three of us?”

“No, us.”

I looked around the living room, all wood and leather and Deco chromium. There was a glass-fronted mahogany cabinet; it was filled with Kay’s cashmere sweaters, all the shades of the rainbow at forty dollars a pop. The woman herself, South Dakota white trash molded by a cop’s love, sat across from me, and for once I said exactly what was on my mind. “You’d never leave him. You’d never leave this. Maybe if you did, maybe if Lee and I were quits as partners, maybe then we’d have a chance together. But you’d never give it all up.”

Kay took her time lighting a cigarette. Exhaling a breath of smoke, she said, “You know what he’s done for me?”

I said, “And for me.”

The scene in the movie:

KAY
Hello Dwight.

DWIGHT
How’d you know it was me?

KAY
Lee stomps. Is Lee working late? What’s wrong?

DWIGHT
He’s all bent out of shape over this dead girl. He’s getting all squirrely. Benzedrine, I think. Did you read the papers? She’s been played up as the hottest number since the atom bomb. Ellis Loew’s gonna make a career out of this, and Lee’s not far behind.

KAY
What about you?

DWIGHT
What about me?

KAY
What’s gonna happen to us, Dwight?

DWIGHT
The three of us…

KAY
No, us. Just the two of us.

DWIGHT
Kay, there is no two of us. He’s my partner.

KAY
That’s everything.

DWIGHT
He’s done a lot for me.

KAY
He’s done even more for me. There’s food in the fridge. Good night.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

In the book, the relationship wouldn’t be possible because of Kay. She wouldn’t leave this man or this life. The movie shifts the choice entirely to Bleichert who won’t betray this man. “He’s my partner”, and I think we should read a secondary meaning to that, of a union that rivals what he has with Kay.

It is right after this scene that she tries to tempt him in her nightdress. He refuses, and she slams the door on him:

The Black Dahlia: Kay Lake at the top of the stairs.

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Next, a scene whose small changes give an entirely different light to the relationship between Blanchard, Bleichert, Lake.

Blanchard has taken Dahlia case files home, Kay is very upset and throws them out, Bleichert comes along in the middle of the action.

Pulling up, I saw Kay storming out the door and down the steps, hurling an armful of paper onto the lawn, then storming back while Lee stormed beside her, shouting and waving his arms. I walked over and knelt beside the discarded pile; the papers were carbons of LAPD report forms. Sifting through them, I saw FIs, evidence indexes, questioning reports, tip lists and a complete autopsy protocol–all with “E. Short, W.F. D.O.D. 1/15/47” typed at the top. They were obviously bootlegged from University Station–and the very possession of them was enough to guarantee Lee a suspension from duty.

Kay came back with another load, shouting, “After all that’s happened, all that might happen, how can you do this? It’s sick and it’s insane!” She dumped the papers beside the other pile; 39th and Norton glossies glinted up at me. Lee grabbed her by the arms and held her while she squirmed. “Goddamnit, you know what this is to me. You _know_. Now I’ll rent a room to keep the stuff in, but babe, you stick by me on this. It’s _mine_, and I need you . . . and you _know_.”

They noticed me then. Lee said, “Bucky, you tell her. You reason with her.”

It was the funniest Dahlia circus line I’d heard so far. “Kay’s right. You’ve pulled at least three misdemeanors on this thing, and it’s getting out–” I stopped, thinking of what _I’d_ pulled, and where I was going at midnight. Looking at Kay, I shifted gears. “I promised him a week on it. That means four more days. On Wednesday it’s over.”

Kay sighed, “Dwight, you can be so gutless sometimes,” then walked into the house. Lee opened his mouth to say something funny. I kicked a path through official LAPD paper to my car.

Almost entirely the same scene.

KAY
I’m not having this in my house anymore. It is sick and insane. After all that’s happened, all that might happen…

BLANCHARD
Talk to her Bucky, reason with her.

BUCKY (WHISPER)
Jesus.

This is where it departs from the book. The visual aspect is crucial.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

BUCKY
Lee, she’s right. There’s at least three misdemeanours, here. You can’t…

BLANCHARD stares pleadingly at him.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

BUCKY
I promised him a week on this, four more days, and then it’s over.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

KAY
Bucky, you can be so gutless some time, you know that?

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

In the novel, Bleichert holds himself back from rebuking Blanchard because of the impropriety of his liaison with Madeleine, and that he’s arranged sex with her in return for not bringing her name into the investigation. Bleichert hasn’t spoken to Madeleine yet at this point in the movie, so that isn’t what holds him back. It’s entirely his connection with Blanchard, and his movement back and forth between the man and the woman is about the rivalry the two have for his feelings.

The scene ends with Bucky’s voiceover. I bold a part that might have a double meaning.

BUCKY V.O.
Three days since we killed four men. Three days till Bobby De Witt got out. I tried to tell myself that I was the straight leg in this triangle. I was worried it was true.

Now, perhaps the most important moment between Kay and Bleichert. There is no equivalent in the book. Blanchard has gone to meet De Witt.

KAY
You’re famous, Dwight. [about a newspaper headline on the failure of the two cops to capture Raymond Nash]

DWIGHT
Notorious. Where’s Lee?

KAY doesn’t answer.

DWIGHT
Bobby De Witt’s probably in LA right now.

KAY
Lee always said I’d be safe.

DWIGHT
You will be. You will be.

DWIGHT reaches out and holds KAY’s hand.

KAY
He had a sister.

DWIGHT
What?

KAY
He had a little sister. She was killed when he was fifteen and they never caught the guy.

DWIGHT
What? Why didn’t you tell me this before?

KAY
He made me promise never to tell you. He thought it made him too easy to figure.

DWIGHT
Well, that explains some things.

KAY
No, it doesn’t.

DWIGHT
Kay, where’s Lee?

KAY doesn’t answer.

DWIGHT
If you know, you should tell me.

KAY doesn’t answer.

DWIGHT
Kay…Bobby De Witt just got out. Lee’s all hopped up on Benzedrines, what do you think’s gonna happen?

KAY doesn’t answer.

DWIGHT
Where is he?

KAY
Morrie Friedman called a couple of hours ago.

DWIGHT
The guy from New Year’s?

KAY
Bobby’s got a drug deal somewhere…a building Friedman owns, the Olympic I think.

DWIGHT
When?

KAY
Now.

DWIGHT rushes up to leave.

KAY
Dwight.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Kay knows that Lee is going to meet De Witt. She knows that Lee might be in danger. If she wants De Witt killed, it would seem she would have no difficulty telling Bleichert right away about the deal so he can get there immediately to help his partner. But she holds out on the information, delaying as much and as long as possible. My belief is that she does this so Bleichert is not there to help Blanchard. In order that Blanchard be killed.

A contrast now between how the novel treats Bleichert’s return to Kay after he finds out about the death of Blanchard. The novel has Blanchard dying off-scene in Mexico:

Dawn was pushing up over the Hollywood Hills when I knocked on Kay’s door. I stood on the porch shivering, storm clouds and streaks of sunlight looming as strange things I didn’t want to see. I heard “Dwight?” inside, followed by the sound of bolts being unlatched. Then the other remaining partner in the Blanchard/Bleichert/Lake triad was there, saying, “And all that.”

It was an epitaph I didn’t want to hear.

I walked inside, stunned at how strange and pretty the living room was. Kay said, “Lee’s dead?” I sat down in his favorite chair for the first time. “The Rurales or some Mexican woman or her friends killed him. Oh, babe, I–”

Using Lee’s endearment jarred me. I looked at Kay, standing by the door, backlighted by the weird sunstreaks. “He hired the Rurales to kill DeWitt, but that doesn’t mean shit. We’ve got to get Russ Millard and some decent Mexican cops on it . .

I stopped, noticing the phone on the coffee table. I started dialing the padre’s home number. Kay’s hand halted me. “No. I want to talk to you first.”

The scene in the movie is almost entirely non-verbal, has a different reaction from Bleichert, perhaps a response to a different, more intimate, though not physically intimate, bond between the men. Bleichert simply starts sobbing and can’t stop, even after Kay comes out and asks him what’s wrong.

The Black Dahlia: mourning.

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Later, they try to have dinner, without Blanchard. Bleichert blames himself for his partner’s death, that his immobility at a crucial point doomed his friend.

BLEICHERT
I couldn’t move…I couldn’t move. I didn’t move. I never move. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Kay, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. (under his breath) I could’ve saved him. I could’ve saved him.

This, strikes a strange note for me: Bleichert is almost in constant motion on the stairs, trying to save his friend until he’s knocked unconscious. It isn’t Bleichert whose immobility may have led to Blanchard’s death but Kay’s; she is the one who stayed silent, not answering his questions about where Blanchard was, perhaps keeping him from reaching the Olympic till it was too late.

After Bleichert returns from Mexico, the novel has Kay tell him the full story of Blanchard’s involvement in the robbery. That it was he who did the robbery, blaming it on her pimp, De Witt. A lengthy excerpt:

I moved from the chair to the couch; Kay sat beside me. She said, “You’ll hurt Lee if you go crazy with this.”

That was when I knew she’d been expecting it; that was when I knew she knew more than I did. “You can’t hurt something dead.”

“Oh, yes you can, babe.”

“Don’t call me that! That’s his!”

Kay moved closer and touched my cheek. “You can hurt him and you can hurt us.”

I pulled away from the caress. “You tell me why, _babe_.”

Kay cinched the belt on her robe and fixed me with a cold look. “I didn’t meet Lee at Bobby’s trial,” she said. “I met him before. We became friends, and I lied about where I was staying so Lee wouldn’t know about Bobby. Then he found out on his own, and I told him how bad it was, and he told me about a business opportunity he had coming up. He wouldn’t tell me the details, and then Bobby was arrested for bank robbery and everything was chaos.

“Lee planned the robbery and got three men to help him. He’d bought his way out of his contract with Ben Siegel [Blanchard’s boxing contract], and it cost him every cent he’d made as a boxer. Two of the men were killed during the robbery, one escaped to Canada, and Lee was the fourth. Lee framed Bobby because he hated him for what he did to me. Bobby didn’t know we were seeing each other, and we made it look like we met at the trial. Bobby knew it was a frame, but he didn’t suspect Lee, just the LAPD in general.

“Lee wanted to give me a home, and he did. He was very cautious with his part of the robbery money, and he always talked up his boxing savings and his gambling so the brass wouldn’t think he was living above his means. He hurt his career by living with a woman, even though we weren’t together that way. It was like a happy fairy tale until last fall, right after you and Lee became partners.”

I moved toward Kay, awed by Lee as the most audacious rogue cop in history. “I knew he had it in him.”

Kay drew away from me. “Let me finish before you get sentimental. When Lee heard about Bobby getting an early parole date, he went to Ben Siegel to try to get him killed. He was afraid of Bobby talking about me, upsetting our fairy tale with all the ugly things he knew about yours truly. Siegel wouldn’t do it, and I told Lee it didn’t matter, that there were three of us now and the truth couldn’t hurt us. Then, right before New Year’s, the third man from the robbery showed up. He knew that Bobby De Witt was getting out on parole, and he made a blackmail demand: Lee was to pay him ten thousand dollars, or he would tell Bobby that Lee masterminded the robbery and framed him.

“The man said Lee’s deadline was Bobby’s release date. Lee put him off, then went to Ben Siegel to try to borrow the money. Siegel wouldn’t do it, and Lee begged him to have the man killed. He wouldn’t do that either. Lee learned that the man hung out with some Negroes who sold marijuana, and he–”

I saw it coming, huge and black like the headlines it got me, Kay’s words the new fine print: “That man’s name was Baxter Fitch. Siegel wouldn’t help Lee, so he got you. The men were armed, so I guess you were legally justified, and I guess you were damn lucky that no one looked into it. It’s the one thing I can’t forgive him for, the one thing I hate myself for tolerating. Still feeling sentimental, triggerman?”

I couldn’t answer; Kay did it for me. “I didn’t think so. I’ll finish up, and you tell me if you still want revenge.

“The Short thing happened then, and Lee latched on to it for his little sister and who knows what else. He was terrified that Fitch had already talked to Bobby, that Bobby knew about the frame. He wanted to kill him or have him killed, and I begged and pleaded with him to just let it be, no one would believe Bobby, so just don’t hurt anybody else. If it wasn’t for that fucking dead girl I might have convinced him. But the case went down to Mexico, and so did Bobby and Lee and you. I knew that the fairy tale was over. And it is.”

This information, some of this information, is not freely given by Kay in the movie. She only tells it when angrily prompted by Bleichert after he discovers the money in the bathroom:

KAY
I always wondered where he kept it.

BUCKY
Were you ever gonna tell me?

KAY
He’d given all his money to Ben Siegel…he wanted to buy us a home, I didn’t know there was any left.

BUCKY
Were you ever gonna tell me?

KAY
Something’s burning.

KAY rushes down to the kitchen, BUCKY follows.

KAY
Bobby did do the bank job, Bucky, don’t get the wrong idea.

BUCKY
I don’t know what kinda idea I got right now.

BUCKY throws money down on counter with a violent gesture.

KAY moves away and starts putting candles in candle holder.

KAY
Things were getting really bad between me and Bobby and I had to get out. I knew this guy that…Bobby made me be with once. It was a hophead who sometimes snitched to cops for dope money.

BUCKY
And that’s how you met Lee.

KAY
I told him what Bobby was doing, about how he cut me and pimped me to his friends. I told him about the bank job and where Bobby was hiding the money. And then last year…the guy…

BUCKY
The hophead.

KAY
Yeah. Lee had given him a thousand dollars for introducing us. He found that Bobby was getting out, he threatened to tell that we stole from him. He wanted money that we didn’t have, Dwight. He wanted ten thousand dollars. What were we going to do? Promise me, promise me, you’ll forgive him for DeWitt, forgive him for the bank. Please. It doesn’t matter to us.

BUCKY
What’s the guy’s name?

KAY
It doesn’t matter.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

The first thing obvious is that Kay, a very intelligent woman in both versions, is cool-headed and smart in her presentation in the book. The movie has this intelligent woman as a hysteric (my word choice is not arbitrary), who avoids Bleichert’s questions with the ridiculous evasion of “Something’s burning!” It is not an intelligent woman doing stupid things, it is an intelligent woman playing at being stupid. How much Kay is lying in this scene is never resolved, as it’s the last time these details are brought up. If we take Kay’s version in the book as the true version, then she is lying about the major fact that Blanchard was behind the robbery. A further tip-off is the way she mentions this: “Bobby did do the bank job, Bucky, don’t get the wrong idea.” Why expect that Bleichert would immediately get this idea?

I bold part of Bucky’s line that I think can have a double reading:

BUCKY
Kay, tell me the guy’s name…was it Baxter Fitch?

BUCKY V.O.
Baxter Fitch…and then DeWitt. Lee killed them both, and took the bank money. Making me witness. Stooge. Weak point. In a fairy tale triangle.

KAY O.S.
You’re so good at some things.

BUCKY rushes out.

The line “You’re so good at some things” is referenced at the end, and I think both times there’s an irony to it.

KAY
Dwight, he loved you, he loved both of us, so much. This has nothing to do with us, Dwight. DON’T RUN OUT ON US!

This line is important for the reference to love, and what immediately follows this scene. Bleichert returns to Madeleine, and gives us the voiceover.

BUCKY V.O.
Lee and Kay had lived in sin. Not because their shack job was against department regs, but because the ghosts of their past had forced them to choose love over passion. A veneer of a fairy tale. Only a band-aid to cover a fractured life. I didn’t believe in fairy tales. It was a reunion of avowed tramps. Old rutters who knew they would never have it as good with anyone else.

Bleichert never tells us what those ghosts are that force this choice of love over passion. Kay has already said that it’s not the death of his sister that’s behind Blanchard’s chastity. I read Kay’s line, “Dwight, he loved you, he loved both of us, so much”, in juxtaposition with Dwight’s voiceover, and it seems a good fit. Blanchard had to choose love over passion for both points of this triangle, one for whom he could feel no sexual attraction, and the other, for whom he was not allowed to show an attraction.

While at Madeleine’s, Bleichert is confronted by Kay. This is how the scene plays out in the book, the entire focus on the morbid aspect of his sexual obsession with a woman who’s a twin for the Dahlia:

Kay was wearing her Eisenhower jacket and tweed skirt, just like when I’d first met her. I said, “Babe,” and started to ask “Why?” My wife counterpunched: “Did you think I’d let my husband vanish for three weeks and do nothing about it? [in the book, Kay and Bleichert get married after Blanchard’s death] I’ve had detectives following you, Dwight. She looks like that fucking dead girl, so you can have _her_–not me.”

Kay’s dry eyes and calm voice were worse than what she was saying. I felt shakes coming on, bad heebie-jeebies. “Babe, goddamn it–”

Kay backed out of grabbing range. “Whoremonger. Coward. _Necrophile_.”

The movie changes the nature of the confrontation, with Bleichert angry at Kay for her deceptions, all the things she hid, all the things she might still be hiding. She first evades this charge by saying that she did not lie out of her own interest, but for his benefit, their benefit. When he refuses to accept this, only then does she bring up Madeleine, “She looks like that dead girl!”

BUCKY
Kay. The hell are you doing here?

KAY
What am I doing here? How could you, how could you Dwight?

BUCKY
You followed me here after what you’ve done?

KAY
What have I done? Nothing.

BUCKY
You lied to me.

KAY
I lied for you. I lied for us. What could I do, but lie, Dwight?

BUCKY
You could have told me the truth.

KAY
She looks like that dead girl! How sick are you! You’re gonna end up like Lee, you will. But I will not.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

This last line pushes him away from Madeleine and he resumes his investigation. There is, I think, a very important hidden significance to this line, which echoes in voice over as Bleichert resumes work on the Dahlia case.

KAY V.O.
She looks like that dead girl! How sick are you! You’re gonna end up like Lee.

Madeleine, as already said, isn’t the Dahlia’s double, but Bleichert’s. The line implies that his relationship with Madeleine over Kay is a choice of a sexual netherworld, one that will lead him to an entirely different sexual orientation: “You’re gonna end up like Lee.” This frightens Bleichert, just as his first sense of Madeleine as his twin deeply frightened him, and pushes him back onto the case.

After solving the murder, Bleichert kills Madeleine, the end of an actual life, but also the end of a virtual one, the closing of certain possibilities for the man. He does a deep inhale in his car, echoing the same deep inhale he made during the credit sequence, in the locker room before the boxing match with Blanchard, the first a preface to a substitute for “passion”, the second a regret over a “passion” that will never be fulfilled.

The Black Dahlia: regrets.

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He is overwhelmed with sadness, returning to a woman who helped kill a man he loved, a man he himself wanted killed so he could have Kay, but also to end the frightening inconvenience of the love he felt.

He re-unites with Kay in a last, very strange scene.

This is the book’s conclusion, Bleichert heading to Massachusetts where he’ll meet Kay.

On the plane I thought of all the things I’d have to explain to Kay, evidence to keep a new foundation of lies from destroying the two–or three–of us.

She would have to know that I was a detective without a badge, that for one month in the year 1949 I possessed brilliance and courage and the will to make sacrifices. She would have to know that the heat of that time would always make me vulnerable, prey to dark curiosities. She would have to believe that my strongest resolve was not to let any of it hurt her.

The last paragraph is a simple description of what took place in the last month of his investigation of the Dahlia murder, with him discovering the killer, then covering it up so that Madeleine’s mother would not be the one indicted, then having to turn in Madeleine, despite his obsession with her, and knowing that what haunted him then would always haunt him. I don’t think there is anything obscure that makes it difficult to connect with the recent events of the novel that have taken place. Despite this past darkness, the future holds the possibility of great happiness for the man, and it’s about the only upbeat ending for any lead character, ever, in Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet.

Contrast this with the voice over in the film, Bleichert’s last lines:

BUCKY V.O.
Madeleine was wrong. I had others. Ones I’d loved, ones who’d loved me. People I betrayed, and people I needed to protect. And for the first time in my life, I knew that for the briefest of times, in the darkest of places, I had been so so good at some things.

My reaction to this, on first seeing the film was, “What the hell is he talking about?” I’ll just quote the last part of the dialogue with Madeleine to make clear what Bleichert is responding to. It’s in the hotel right before he kills her:

MADELEINE
You chose me over her. You’ll choose me over him. He was going to take Daddy’s money and leave. Leave all of you.

BUCKY points gun at MADELEINE.

MADELEINE
You’ll never shoot me. Don’t forget who I look like.

CLOSE UP of BUCKY.

MADELEINE
Because that girl, that sad, dead, bitch. She’s all you have.

BUCKY
No.

BUCKY shoots MADELEINE.

Visually, Bleichert’s return to the house suggests that he has found an alternative to this dead woman, the Dahlia, and her living incarnation, Madeleine, in his love with Kay. Then the voiceover completely flummoxes this assumption. Bleichert speaks in the plural. More importantly, he speaks in the past tense, except for needing to protect. Bleichert mentions his skills in the last paragraphs of the book because they were crucial for putting the Dahlia case to rest and being able to re-unite with Kay, but why is it important for him to be so good at some things in this context?

My only resolution for this is that Bleichert returns to nothing in the present, that what he loves, protects, and betrays, are only memories now. He loved Blanchard and Kay (“Ones I’d loved”), both loved him back (“ones who’d loved me”). He betrayed Blanchard, by wanting him to die, so he could have Kay and so their inconvenient love could end (“People I betrayed”). The “people”, plural, he needs to protect are the Kay and Blanchard of his memories (“You don’t talk about them, okay?”, he says to Madeleine), a heroic cop and his loyal, pure woman. The “so good at some things”, is a reprisal of something Kay says to him when he asks her about Baxter Fitch (him: “Kay, tell me the guy’s name…was it Baxter Fitch?” her: “You’re so good at some things”). As I said, I think there’s an irony to this line both times. What’s remarkable is not what Blanchard sees, but how much he doesn’t see, such as the fact that a cop with such an expensive house must be corrupt in some way or other. Bleichert is good, not at seeing, but at not seeing. The brief time he turns to, are the memories of Kay and Blanchard, when he was so good at not seeing them as they are, but as he wanted to see them.

Bleichert ascends the steps to the house, ascending to hell. We then arrive at a brief shot, possibly the most striking in the movie, Kay behind the door, only her lips visible in the strip of glass.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

There are a multiplicity of ideas in this image: an isolated part of a woman to be pecked at, of pornography and the voyeur; the woman trapped in a seraglio, as Kay remakes herself, outwardly, into a passive female; soft lips, soft like Bleichert’s, apart from any body of either gender; an inversion of The Man Who Laughs, whose monstrous mouth is hidden while his eyes are exposed, while it is Kay’s eyes, which grow duller and duller through the film, which make her monstrous.

The door opens, the house is filled with a hot, ungentle light.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Suddenly, Bleichert turns round, and behind him it’s the body of the Dahlia; a crow that is feasting on her turns to look back.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

The viewer, as I said before, sometimes glides through the air with this bird’s freedom. Viewers may have come to feed on the carrion of nude women and gore of this film, evil without, and their attention has been mis-directed. They have stayed fixated on this plot, when the true story, the true evil, has already been here in this triangle of Kay, Buckey and Lee. Bleichert turns, briefly, to see the bird, as he turned to look into the camera at the Linscott mansion, and then the image is gone. The hot artificial light disappears, but Kay remains the same cold child self she’s been for half the movie. “Come inside”, she says, but the invitation carries no comfort. The door closes, and for the last time in the film, we, the voyeurs, are left outside.

PART ONE PART TWO PART THREE PART FOUR PART FIVE

Images and Screenplay Copyright Universal Pictures, Millennium Films, Equity Pictures, and associated producers.

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