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


(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.)


Blanchard and Kay serve as the best examples of the way in which the movie takes elements from the book and entirely inverts them. Much of the dialogue and details of both characters are retained, with enough small edits and additions to make both more mysterious, and radically different from the man and woman of the novel.

Lee Blanchard of the book is a heroic cop burdened with the memory of a sister, Laurie, kidnapped, never found, forever missing. This is a point made early on, and emphatically, throughout the book. Kay, same as in the movie, was rescued by Blanchard from a robber named Bobby De Witt who pimped her out and brutalized her. Kay reveals, near the novel’s outset, that though they live together, she and Lee do not sleep with each other. By placing the story of the missing sister early on and in such detail, the reader assigns this event as the cause for their strange chastity. Blanchard was having sex with someone when his sister was kidnapped, so perhaps sex for him has become a tainted thing. He desires to protect a sister substitute in a way he was unable to with his lost sibling, and Kay fills this role; sex would destroy his seeing her as a sister proxy. That she is a wounded woman, scarred by De Witt, only makes her more fitting for this part. In a newspaper article about Blanchard’s arrest of De Witt and rescue of Kay, we have a telling quote by Blanchard: “She has that waiflike beauty I’m a sucker for.” This detective wants someone waifish, with a vulnerable look, who he can save and protect.

Blanchard’s sister is almost entirely removed from the movie’s story, except a small mention far in, right before Blanchard’s death:

He had a sister.


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

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

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

Well, that explains some things.

No, it doesn’t.

Kay’s answer, that no, it doesn’t explain the obvious question of their platonic union, touches on a key aspect of Blanchard. That this man feels no attraction for Kay, but he perhaps does feel something for Bleichert, and Bleichert feels something back.

I should emphasize that any attraction between the two is unconsummated. Blanchard sublimates his desire two ways, through violence, and the purity of the quest for the Dahlia’s killer. This, I think, is the underlying motif in the boxing match between the two men, physical violence, in close contact, as a substitute for sexual contact. The fight comes right after the following dialogue:

You know shacking up’s against regs. Probably cost him his stripes. Waste of diamonds and bassinets.

Well, you’d have to sleep together for that, Dwight.

It is after the fight that Bleichert and Blanchard becomes partners. They go out together with Kay, she always in the middle, never in between. She, of course, is not the one who both points of the triangle covet, it’s Bleichert; the man of soft, androgynous features, who desires both of them, is desired by both, and whose double is Madeleine, another figure of androgynous features, but who freely travels between both genders.

The movie gives us two pictures of the trinity, one at the theater, the other at dinner, once with Kay in the middle, another with Blanchard. The invisible, unseen picture is the one that hangs over both, Bleichert in the center.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

It is at the New Year’s party where we have the first disconcerting moment in the relationship. This scene is the most vivid in terms of color of any in the movie, bright and rich, filled with red and blue. Kay and Lee stand apart, far from Blanchard, and kiss.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Blanchard blows them a kiss, and then, in an incongruous note, as both turn their backs to him, gives them a stare of poisonous menace:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia: the poisonous stare of Lee Blanchard.

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No explicit answer is given for this. The book provides a sense of an unhappy couple, but the scene is different.

On New Year’s Eve, we drove down to Balboa Island to catch Stan Kenton’s band. We danced in 1947, high on champagne, and Kay flipped coins to see who got last dance and first kiss when midnight hit. Lee won the dance, and I watched them swirl across the floor to “Perfidia,” feeling awe for the way they had changed my life. Then it was midnight, the band fired up, and I didn’t know how to play it.

Kay took the problem away, kissing me softly on the lips, whispering, “I love you, Dwight.” A fat woman grabbed me and blew a noisemaker in my face before I could return the words.

We drove home on Pacific Coast Highway, part of a long stream of horn-honking revelers. When we got to the house, my car wouldn’t start, so I made myself a bed on the couch and promptly passed out from too much booze. Sometime toward dawn, I woke up to strange sounds muffling through the walls. I perked my ears to identify them, picking out sobs followed by Kay’s voice, softer and lower than I had ever heard it. The sobbing got worse–trailing into whimpers. I pulled the pillow over my head and forced myself back to sleep.

Kay is very sad in her union, in love with Dwight, but the feeling of Blanchard angry at the two is absent.

I’ll give further support to this by going to the end of the book. It is from a part of Kay’s dialogue, about Blanchard taking the shakedown money and leaving for Mexico:

“Lee was going to run away no matter what. I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again, and I wanted him to be comfortable, if such a thing was possible. He didn’t trust himself to deal with Emmett Sprague again, so I picked up the money. Dwight, he knew I was in love with you, and he wanted us to be together. That was one of the reasons he left.

The movie does not give us the information that Blanchard would leave through Kay. It gives us this through Madeleine, and she presents it as a taunt. Bleichert is very angry in his reaction:

A murderer? Of Lee Blanchard? You should thank me for Lee Blanchard. If it weren’t for me you wouldn’t have the balls to fuck your partner’s girl.

You don’t talk about them, okay?

Wait…I forgot. You don’t fuck her anymore…because you’d rather fuck me.

You don’t talk about them.

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.

Blanchard feels tremendous anger towards his situation, towards Kay, who can have Bleichert when he cannot, and toward other women as well.

This anger about who he is shows up during the stag film.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

The men are enjoying this movie, which has zero investigative purpose. Only Blanchard is seething with fury. He ends up stomping out of the detectives’ room while the film is playing. In the book, he is more demonstrative, and is given lines making clear why he is angry. His fury lies with the killer of this woman, like the killer of his sister, out there and uncaught:

I wanted to shut my eyes, but couldn’t. Next to me, Chief Horrall said calmly, “Russ, what do you think? You think this has got anything to do with the girl’s murder?”

Millard answered with a hoarse voice. “It’s a long shot, Chief. The movie was made in November and from what the Martilkova girl said, the Mexican doesn’t play as a killer. It’s got to be checked out, though. Maybe the Mex showed the movie to somebody, and _he_ got a case on Betty. What I–”

Lee kicked his chair over and shouted: “Who gives a fuck if he didn’t kill her! I’ve sent Boy Scouts to the green room for less than that! So if you won’t do something about it, I will!”

Everyone sat there, shock-stilled. Lee stood in front of the screen, blinking from the hot white light in his eyes. He wheeled and ripped the obscenity down; the screen and tripod hit the floor with a crash. Betty and Lorna continued their sex on a chalked-up blackboard; Lee took off running. I heard the projector knocked over in back of me; Millard yelled, “Bleichert, get him!”

In the aftermath, the emphasis for the outburst is placed on Blanchard’s drive to find the killer and his missing sister:

Loew had murder in his eyes. It hit me that Lee’s explosion came from his weird chastity, a week of death and dope and its pornographic capper. Safe myself, I put an arm around my partner’s shoulders. “Mr. Loew, it was just that goddamn movie. Lee thought the dykes here could give us a lead on the Mex.”

Loew hissed, “Bleichert, shut up,” then turned his velvet rage on Lee: “Blanchard, I got you Warrants. You’re my man, and you made me look like a fool in front of the two most powerful men in the Department. This is no lesbian killing, those girls were on drugs and hated it. Now I covered for you with Horrall and Green, but I don’t know how much good that will do you in the long run. If you weren’t _Mr.Fire, Big Lee Blanchard_, you’d be suspended from duty already. You’ve gotten personally involved in the Short case, and that’s an unprofessionalism I will not tolerate. You’re back on Warrants duty as of tomorrow morning. Report to me at 0800, and bring in formal letters of apology to Chief Horrall and Chief Green. For the sake of your pension, I advise you to grovel.”

Lee, his body limp, said, “I want to go to TJ to look for the smut man.”

Loew shook his head. “Under the circumstances, I would call that request ridiculous. Vogel and Koenig are going to Tijuana, you’re back on Warrants, and Bleichert, you’re to remain on the Short case. Good day, Officers.”

Loew stormed over to his black-and-white; the patrolman driver hung a U-turn out into traffic. Lee said, “I have to talk to Kay.” I nodded, and a sheriff’s patrol car cruised by, the passenger cop blowing kisses to the lezzies in the doorway. Lee walked to his car murmuring, “Laurie. Laurie, oh babe.”

In the film, Blanchard, while watching the stag flick, gets up and throws a film can to the floor. We have only this line from Lieutenant Green, no dialogue from Blanchard:

What’s that about gentlemen? The boy can’t hold his water?

In the locker room right after, no reference to anything to do with Blanchard’s sister or the murder case:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

I got you warrants. You’re my men. You made me look like a fool in front of the most powerful man in the department. (to LEE) And you. Yeah, you. Look at me. Blanchard. LOOK. AT. ME!

BLANCHARD cannot look at LOEW.

If you weren’t Mr. Fire, you’d already be suspended from duty…you’re a punch drunk, washed up fighter…stay out of it Bleichert!


You’re back on warrants as of tomorrow. I want you to report to me at oh eight hundred with a letter of apology for Chief Green. You. Are. A POLITICAL ANIMAL! And for the sake of your pension, I suggest that you grovel.

The script’s emphasis on Blanchard looking at Loew, and Blanchard unable to meet his gaze, is, I think, a subtle, but important change from the novel. When we look into someone’s eyes, there is the greater possibility of revealing ourselves. Blanchard knows this, and is deeply afraid of what he might reveal of himself, something distinct from the Blanchard of the novel. If there is something histrionic in Loew’s speech in the film, I believe it’s by design, for Loew himself may be playing a part, having his own sense of what Blanchard’s action reveals. By L.A. Confidential, the third book of the quartet, Loew is revealed to clearly be gay:

Ed [Exley] laid a folder on his desk. “Sid Hudgens had a file on you. Contribution shakedowns, felony indictments you dismissed for money. He’s got the McPherson tank job documented, and Pierce Patchett had a photograph of you sucking a male prostitute’s dick. Resign from office or it all goes public.”

[Ellis] Loew–sheet white. “I’ll take you with me.”

The reaction of Blanchard to the movie may be similar to a scene that happens in another book of the L.A. Quartet, The Big Nowhere. Detective Danny Upshaw, as part of his undercover work, is to seduce Claire De Haven, a screenwriter, to get information on a labour union she’s connected with. The only problem is that Upshaw is gay, and De Haven has already figured this out:

Claire took his hand and led him through the kitchen to a room lined with bookcases, the front wall covered by a projection screen. A long leather couch faced the screen; a projector was mounted on a tripod a few feet behind it, a reel of film already fed in. Danny sat down; Claire hit switches, doused the lights and snuggled into him, legs curled under a swell of skirt. Light took over the screen, the movie started.

A test pattern; a black-and-white fade-in; a zaftig blonde and a Mexican with a duck’s ass haircut stripping. A motel room backdrop: bed, chipped stucco walls, sombrero lamps and a bullfight poster on the closet door. Tijuana, pure and simple.

Danny felt Claire’s hand hovering. The blonde rolled her eyes to heaven; she’d just seen her co-star’s cock–huge, veiny, hooked at the middle like a dowsing rod. She salaamed before him, hit her knees and started sucking. The camera caught her acne scars and his needle tracks. She sucked while the hophead gyrated his hips; he pulled out of her mouth and sprayed.

Danny looked away; Claire touched his thigh. Danny flinched, tried to relax but kept flinching; Claire fingered a ridge of coiled muscle inches from his stuff. Hophead screwed Pimples from behind, the insertion close in. Danny’s stomach growled–worse than when he was on a no-food jag. Claire’s hand kept probing; Danny felt himself shriveling–cold shower time where you shrunk down to nothing.

The blonde and the Mexican fucked with abandon; Claire kneaded muscles that would not yield. Danny started to cramp, grabbed Claire’s hand and squeezed it to his knee, like they were back at the jazz club and he was calling the shots. Claire pulled away; the movie ended with a close-up of the blonde and the Mex tongue-kissing.

Film snapped off the cylinder; Claire got up, hit the lights and exchanged reels. Danny uncramped into his best version of Ted Krugman at ease–legs loosely crossed, hands laced behind his head. Claire turned and said, “I was saving this for après bed, but I think we might need it now.”

A black screen; Danny going light-headed from holding his breath, sensing Claire’s eyes on him. Then all color footage, naked men circling each other just like the dogs, going for each other with sucking mouths, 69 close-ups, a pullback shot and Felix Gordean in a red devil costume, capering, prancing.

Danny got hard; Claire’s hand went there–like she knew. Danny squirmed, tried to shut his eyes, couldn’t and kept looking.

A quick cut; then Pretty Boy Christopher, naked and hard, pointing his thing at the camera, the head nearly eclipsing the screen like a giant battering ram, white background borders looking just like parted lips and teeth holding the image intact through rigor mortis–

Danny bolted, double-timed to the front of the house, found a bathroom and locked the door. He got his shakes chilled with a litany: BE A POLICEMAN BE A POLICEMAN BE A POLICEMAN.

This anger is part of why Blanchard chooses the Dahlia case over Raymond Nash; it is not just that the Dahlia is high profile because she is a white victim and Nash’s victims are non-white, it is because Blanchard has some understanding for a man who would hate a woman so much as to disfigure her, specifically to destroy her beauty, a beauty that could attract someone like Bleichert.

This expression of violence shows up near the end as well, and it serves as a good example of how the movie takes almost identical materials and changes them subtly, but radically. In the book, Madeleine’s sister, Margaret, out of hatred of her sibling, calls in a tip to the police, which leads to the blackmail attempt on the family:

I braced myself for the spooky stuff. “Martha, did you call the police with a tip on La Verne’s Hideaway?”

Martha lowered her eyes. “Yes.”

“Did you talk to–”

“I told the man about my dyke sister, how she met a cop named Bucky Bleichert at La Verne’s last night and had a date with him tonight. Maddy was gloating to the whole family about you, and I was jealous. But I only wanted to hurt her — not you.”

Lee taking the call while I sat across a desk from him in University squadroom; Lee going directly to La Verne’s when _Slave Girls From Hell_ drove him around the twist. I said, “Martha, you come clean on the rest of it.”

Martha looked around and clenched herself–legs together, arms to her sides, fists balled. “Lee Blanchard came to the house and told Father he’d talked to women at La Verne’s — lesbians who could tie Maddy in to the Black Dahlia. He said he had to leave town, and for a price he wouldn’t report his information on Maddy. Father agreed, and gave him all the money he had in his safe.”

In the story, when this tip is placed, Blanchard goes directly to this lesbian bar to find out about the film and the Dahlia killer:

Then Lee got out and pushed through the door of La Verne’s Hideaway. Worse panic made me stomp the brakes and fishtail the cruiser into the sidewalk; thoughts of Madeleine and evidence suppression raps propelled me into the dive after my partner.

Lee was facing off booths full of daggers and femmes, shouting curses. I flailed with my eyes for Madeleine and the barmaid I’d rousted; not seeing them, I got ready to cold cock my best friend.

“You fucking quiff divers seen a little movie called _Slave Girls From Hell_? You buy your stag shit from a fat Mex about forty? You–”

I grabbed Lee from behind in a full nelson and spun him around toward the door.

So, the first importance of the tip for Blanchard is information on the murderer of the Dahlia.

The movie takes this same plot turn, but tells it with much greater economy, and a small twist.

In the initial sequence, Blanchard asks for matches, and Bleichert tosses the matchbook from Laverne’s (rather than the book’s La Verne’s), the lesbian bar.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Blanchard sees Madeleine’s name written inside, sees that it is Laverne’s, and deduces that Madeleine and the Dahlia know each other.

When Bleichert replays the sequence in his head, however, there is an additional element, not in the novel:

The Black Dahlia: the secret in the matchbook.

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Blanchard sees that it’s Laverne’s and the name Madeleine Linscott. He knows that the investigation involved lesbian bars. The culmination of these shots should be Madeleine’s name – that would be the most important element, if all that’s necessary for this sequence to convey is Blanchard getting the information that Madeleine, a customer of Laverne’s, might be connected with the Dahlia. Instead, the emphasis falls on Blanchard’s eyes moving back from the name to Bleichert, a focus on his menacing stare, the same stare of the New Year’s Eve party. The name is of importance to Bleichert because he wrote it down, and there must be a romantic coupling, because if this was simply the name of a suspect or witness he came across in one of these bars, he would have shared it with the investigation. Instead, he specifically keeps it out. Blanchard’s anger over this coupling, fulfilling something with Bleichert that he cannot fulfill, is the prime motivation for him going to the Linscott house, and beating Madeleine’s father so badly.

This does not entirely finish the subject of Blanchard, but the rest overlaps with the even more mysterious figure of the triangle, Kay Lake.


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

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