(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. I was quite out of sorts when I first published this, and there were many errors of grammar that lay extant until it was re-edited on March 27th, 2014. My apologies to anyone who had to deal with it beforehand.)
An example of a movie making small changes in certain details to a book that transform it into something entirely different. This post is an attempt at examining those changes, why I think the novel works so extraordinarily well, and trying to get at the crux of the movie, which may be a failure, but one which I find to be a fascinating, inscrutable, enigmatic one.
Laying a few cards on the table, I think Brian De Palma is a director whose movies are as distinct from others the way a rapturous, frightening dream is different from an unenthusiastic puppet show. He, along with David Lynch, is one of those men who I do not wish to imagine the movies without, any more than I want to imagine a world that never moved past oil portraits. He is, I think, falsely saddled with the reputation of a film-maker who hates women and likes to hurt them on-screen, when he does something entirely different. The taboo De Palma violates is not that of hurting or humiliating women in his movies, for there is no such taboo, it is a commonplace; the taboo he violates is that sympathetic women are hurt or killed, in circumstances that in other movies are usually the basis for heroic fantasy, but here the male hero is unable to prevent her suffering and death, such as Casualties of War or complicit in her suffering and death, such as Blow Out. Again and again, De Palma makes movies which have serious questions about what men expect in movies, the fantasies the movies feed, and each time he receives the same reward for his inquiries, one more variation on the review headline, “Another Sadistic Piece Of Garbage From Misogynist Brian De Palma”.
So, I don’t say cavalierly that I think the Black Dahlia feels like a movie of extraordinary contempt, contempt for the audience, contempt for what movies have become, contempt for the fantasies people have about movies themselves; it is not contempt that is easy or stupid, but one of extraordinary focus and design, of a brilliant craftsman, something akin to Sam Peckinpah in Straw Dogs, a man fulfilling certain fantasies for the audience, hating the audience for those fantasies, and asking, is this the best this vivid mess of images is capable of, fulfilling our cheap ideas of vengeance? Like Straw Dogs, I think it’s possible to consider The Black Dahlia brilliant, as well as a deeply disturbing and repellent movie at the same time.
I don’t think Black Dahlia has the same seamless build of Dogs, yet every shot demonstrates incredible skill, and its conception, including the crucial changes to the novel, has been well thought out, even if this conception is ultimately a failure. The movie takes the single story of the novel, and turns it into two stories, a superficial narrative on top about the chase for a serial killer, and another beneath: if the topmost story were more compelling, the movie would have been a greater box office success; if the secondary story were less subtle, and more obvious to viewers, it would have been praised as an avant-garde masterpiece – instead it received neither laurel. It’s a work of a genius, but I don’t think I like it, though it’s so full of bitterness, I think it would wear my dislike for a crown.
An initial note: it might be the most cynical movie De Palma has ever made, surpassing both Bonfire of the Vanities and Scarface. Scarface at least is quite clearly about an obvious villain, and that he is almost wholely evil may even be a comfort that the wickedness of the world lies entirely with thugs like these, not the petty sins of ordinary men and women. Bonfire is clearly a satire, and we expect any one to be treated cruelly in this form. Dahlia is something different, outwardly the tale of a heroic figure who, though flawed, is ultimately good, doing just work and finding sanctuary in the home of another victim. I say outwardly, because I think through the fiddling of a few details – with very specific intent, not out of clumsiness – De Palma has entirely changed the trajectory of Ellroy’s novel, of protagonists moving from damnation to salvation, to entirely the reverse. He condemns his characters, Lee Blanchard, Bucky Bleichert and Kay Lake, but his condemnation is not just limited to them, but the audience and their naive fantasies as well.
I preface what is a very lengthy analysis by saying it is entirely absent of abstract theoretical language; I find the best, most insightful analysis looks at narrative works in detail, and why their details are there, rather than grouping them from a distance as belonging to this or that category of ideas. Those with a taste for a more theory heavy look can find it with this John Demetry post, at Revolution To Revelation. I also offer a strong caveat: as a book, I think The Black Dahlia is direct in what it is about, while the movie, despite belonging to two genres that are expected to be forthright, the serial killer chase and film noir, is very ambiguous, and I present my hypotheses as tenuous possibilities. Perhaps the closest to come to some of them would be Keith Uhlich, in his piece “Ghost World” at Reverse Shot. If the director Brian De Palma is sincere in his answers in this invaluable interview conducted by Jeremy Smith, then some of these hypotheses are wrong. I start with a long, but necessary, look at the original novel.
The book is a story of redemption, of Dwight Bleichert, whose father is a member of the German Bund and Reich sympathizer, and a man who has betrayed his Japanese American friends, Sam Murakami and Hideo Ashida, in order to get a position with the LAPD. Importantly, he is something of a grotesque: he has buck teeth, the reason for his nickname, and which he has never had the money to fix. He joins up with Lee Blanchard, a cop, who he looks up to as a heroic ideal. When the police department holds a fight to publicize a bond issue, Bleichert betrays bookies and refuses to throw it; he loses anyway, and the payments are made, but this refusal is his first act toward redemption. He now has the money to put his senile father in a group home, taking glee in the fact that this racist man now has to sit together and eat with jews. Blanchard and Bleichert become friends, with Bleichert looking to Blanchard as an older, noble brother. He also starts to fall in love with Blanchard’s wife, Kay, a mysterious, brilliant woman.
The two partners become involved in the Betty Short murder case (named the Black Dahlia by a newspaper for her dark clothes, playing off the title of the contemporary film The Blue Dahlia), with both becoming obsessed with it. For Blanchard, the Black Dahlia is connected with his sister, kidnapped and killed at a young age, and resolving this investigation becomes a way of bringing justice where no justice was done in this earlier, unsolved mystery. For Bleichert, the obsession is erotic: he becomes infatuated not with the Black Dahlia as she lived, but the Black Dahlia as an image, apart from life. Bleichert wishes to somehow re-create this image in life, and his desire is fulfilled when he meets Madeleine Sprague, a woman who consciously re-makes herself into the image of the Dahlia, becoming her living twin*.
As the story progresses, Bleichert gets more and more erotically obsessed with the Dahlia and Madeleine; it also becomes clear that Blanchard is nothing like his heroic exterior, but is a deeply corrupt cop. The book develops into an examination of two illusions and the people who become these illusions, and surpass them. Bleichert ends up a better cop than Blanchard ever was. The Dahlia, who was a lousy actress who had sex as a desperate respite from loneliness, is surpassed by Madeleine, a woman who is a gifted mimic who revels in sex and her new image, that of the dead girl. The attraction of the Dahlia is also an intersection with the now ubiquitous culture of fame, fame exclusively through an image, rather than any achievement. Though Betty Short was entirely unknown as a performer or individual, the image of the Dahlia becomes known throughout Los Angeles, and it is the ubiquity of this image, that so many other men lust for this image, that makes Bleichert want it even more. This is something that plagues every well-known, beautiful actress: a woman who is not just beautiful, but a beauty ever present in the dreams of men, Liz Taylor or Scarlett Johansson. A line from Ellroy’s Dahlia sequel, The Big Nowhere, is apt: “Downtown came and went; the woman stayed.”
The bulk of the book are interviews by Bleichert and associates with those who knew the Dahlia, and are possible suspects. The Dahlia herself never appears as a character; we only get a distant sense of her through the words of others. In this context, Madeleine as the Dahlia creates an uncanny image: the woman is dead, yet here she is, more alive than ever. Whatever the complexities and detours of the plot, which causes Bleichert to move about among possible interviews, it holds together through his obsession with the Dahlia. Despite all the busy plotting, the focus always returns to this point.
A key sequence is when Blanchard disappears in Mexico. It is Bleichert’s search for his partner, his discovery of the body, which mirrors Bleichert’s own unresolved search for his missing sister. For it to properly mirror Bleichert’s search, Blanchard must be missing, he cannot die on-screen, and his body must be found. It serves as another point in Bleichert’s redemption, and his superceding of his flawed mentor.
The search for Blanchard and the discovery of the body is crucial to the book. It is given, rightly, a holy aspect. It’s the best piece of writing in The Black Dahlia, and possibly the best piece of writing in the entire quartet.
Bleichert searches for Blanchard’s body with a private detective he doesn’t trust, Milton Dolphine:
The burial ground was ten miles south of Ensenada, just off the coast road on a bluff overlooking the ocean. A big, burning cross marked the spot. Dolphine pulled up next to it and killed the engine. “It’s not what you think. The locals keep the damn thing lit up because they don’t know who’s buried there, and lots of them have got missing loved ones. It’s a ritual with them. They burn the crosses, and the Rurales tolerate it, like it’s some kind of panacea to keep the great unwashed gun-shy.”
Dolphine got out of the car, walked around and popped open the trunk. I followed, watching him remove a large earth spade. Flame glow illuminated the PI’s old Dodge coupe; I noticed a pile of fence pickets and rags next to the spare tire. Tucking the .38 into my waistband, I fashioned two torches out of them, wrapping the rags around the ends of the posts, then igniting them in the cross. Handing one to Dolphine, I said, “Walk ahead of me.”
We strode into the sand pit, outlaws holding fireballs on a stick. The softness made the going slow; torchlight let me pick out grave offerings–little bouquets and religious statues placed atop dunes here and there. Dolphine kept muttering how gringos got dumped on the far side; I felt bones cracking beneath my feet. We reached an especially high drift, and Dolphine waved his torch at a tattered American flag spread out on the sand.
A putrid smell rose from a big crater at our feet. “Dig,” I said. Dolphine went at it; I thought of ghosts–Betty Short and Laurie Blanchard–waiting for the shovel to hit bones. The first time it did I recited a psalm the old man had force-fed me; the second time, it was the “Our Fathers” that Danny Boylan used to chant before our sparring sessions. When Dolphine said, “Sailor. I can see his jumper,” I didn’t know if I wanted Lee alive and in grief or dead and nowhere–so I pushed Dolphine aside and shoveled myself.
My first blow sheared off the sailor’s skull, my second tore into the front of his tunic, pulling the torso free from the rest of the skeleton. The legs were in crumbled pieces; I shoveled past them into plain sand glinting with mica. Then it was maggot nests and entrails and a blood-mattted crinoline dress and sand and odd bones and nothing–and then it was sunburned pink skin and blond eyebrows covered with stitch scars that looked familiar. Then Lee was smiling like the Dahlia, with worms creeping out of his mouth and the holes where his eyes used to be.
Blanchard took on the quest for the killer of the Dahlia to somehow resolve the loss of his sister, but also to redeem himself for the corruption he engaged in for so long – but his own quest became corrupted. He discovered that Madeleine had a relationship with the Dahlia, and used this information to shake down her father for money. Bleichert takes up the quest now entirely on his own, but he does so with a purity that is another step in his penitence. Brutality and coercion are a common place in the LAPD of the novel’s time (perhaps not only of the novel’s time), but Bleichert breaks from these tactics, putting himself in opposition to one of the most brutal cops, Fritzie Vogel.
Eventually, Bleichert discovers that those behind the Dahlia’s murder are Madeleine’s mother, and the mother’s former boyfriend. The choice of these people for the killers is not arbitrary but vital. Bleichert, as said before, is something of a grotesque, marked by his buck teeth. The Spragues (Linscotts in the movie), Madeleine’s family, are divided between those who are marked by beauty and power, respectively, Madeleine and her father, Emmett, and those who are marked by their lack of beauty. There is Ramona Sprague, the mother, a fat, flaccid woman who was married for her money, Madeleine’s sister Martha, pudgy and marked by bad skin, and, most importantly, Georgie Tilden, her mother’s boyfriend: he was a good-looking man, a heroic veteran of the first World War, and Madeleine’s real father. Emmett, after discovering Madeleine’s paternity, cut up Georgie’s face, turning him into a grotesque, and causing him to lose his mind. So, Ramona and Georgie are like Bleichert in that they are in various ways physically marred, they don’t possess the beauty of Madeleine or the Dahlia. Georgie, obsessed with the image of Betty Short, wanted to sleep with her, just as Bleichert was obsessed with her. Ramona ends up killing this woman for her resemblance to Madeleine because among the men Madeleine sleeps with is Emmett: she hates Betty Short as a romantic rival and for her resemblance to a romantic rival. As grotesques, they are transfixed and envious of this beauty, and want to destroy it. That they disfigure her by cutting at her mouth, and that Bleichert’s disfigurement is in his mouth, I do not believe is trivial.
Bleichert does not kill any of those involved except Georgie; that he shows mercy is part of his path to redemption, and partly, I believe, because he sees some of the same harmful qualities in himself as in the killers. I stress the details of this ending, because, though it is very baroque, it is of a piece with what’s come before, with the obsessions of the hero and the killers converging. Bleichert discovers that Madeleine was behind the death of Blanchard, that she had him killed after he shook down her father for blackmail money; she has already passed through the book earlier while on this mission, in a disguise Bleichert does not unveil at the time, of a beautiful mexican woman.
The book ends with Bleichert redeemed. Kay has left for Massachusetts, leaving the house in Los Angeles bought with money from Blanchard’s corrupt activities, and the last sentences have Bleichert descending from the clouds in his flight to join her.
I mention some of the more prominent details of the book so as to make obvious the small changes the movie makes and why they make such a difference in why the movie does not work in ways the book does, but how the subject of the book and the movie are very different.
* A quote that applies to both Madeleine and the Dahlia is the following, from Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age: “She had the fatal gift of beauty, and that more fatal gift which does not always accompany mere beauty, the power of fascination, a power that may, indeed, exist without beauty.”
Images and Screenplay Copyright Universal Pictures, Millennium Films, Equity Pictures, and associated producers.