Tag Archives: Scarlett Johansson

Under the Skin: This Woman’s Work

(What follows contains SPOILERS for the movie and the novel on which it’s based, as well as Jonathan Glazer’s Birth. However, given that this is an in-depth discussion of the movie, no attempt is made to summarize the film’s plot. Some further edits need to be made, and will be done on the 27th of July. While writing this, I found the following to be insightful and helpful: “Under the Skin Takes the Horror Genre in Infectiously Strange New Directions” by David Edelstein, “Under the Skin” by Noel Murray, “Under The Skin’s Alien Seduction Will Get You Where It Hurts” by Charlie Jane Anders, “Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Under the Skin Review” by Tina Hassanmia, and “Under the Skin- Movie discussion including looking at the novel that inspired it”, a reddit thread by dalong75.)

There was a time I was one of a kind
Lost in the world out of me myself and I
Was lonely then like an alien
I tried but I never figured it out
Why I always felt like a stranger in a crowd
Ooh that was then, like an alien

“Alien” by Britney Spears

Jonathan Glazer’s movie is like a fable, like Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête), a children’s fable turned upside down, Cocteau in color. I make this identification, and I immediately hesitate if it’s entirely right. The mix of subject and the approach, a fable told from an adult perspective, but without discarding the surreal imagery of fables, makes me think of Cocteau; the movie itself, with its long takes and frequent stretches without dialogue, make me think of Robert Bresson. The obvious choice not taken here is Stanley Kubrick. The score by Mica Levi reminds one in many places of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Dream of Jacob”, the early part features a breathing effect on the soundtrack that’s like the sound of 2001‘s David Bowman’s breathing in his spacesuit, and the sense of being alone with the movie, as if stranded in the arctic wilderness, suggests Kubrick as well – but his movies tend to hint at the epic, an enigmatic obelisk of larger significance. This story, on the other hand, is relatively straightforward, small in scale, the obvious focus this single character. The lengthy shots allow us the possibility to mine them for nuance, but there is nothing like a riddle we might feel compelled to solve.

We might easily speak of this fable in more traditional (or ancient) terms, to see its connections to the past: this is a story about a witch who lures men to her magical house, where they are transformed into food – just as the witch of Hansel and Gretel would bring in children and cook them into gingerbread. Though she wishes to cease playing the role of a witch, she cannot, and cannot be an ordinary woman either. When this witch abandons her home, she loses her power over men, and now she is vulnerable. She is attacked by a man, loses her human form, and like many witches before her, is burned alive. The images which, for me, most strongly link this fable with those of the past are the witch’s decaying, magical house and the end where she’s destroyed by fire.

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

The movie opens as an object, entirely dark except for a beacon light, moves to dock with a torus, the vast emptiness lit only by a single nearby star. We hear a voice over the soundtrack, the alien (Scarlett Johansson) learning english – except for a football player named Andy, there are no character names in the movie or the credits, but for ease of writing, I’ll give the alien the name she carries in the book, Isserley1. These objects conjoin while Isserley slowly learns this earth language, and then our perspective shifts. The movement of these objects in space becomes an eye, and we’re left uncertain if these two sets of images are separate or identical. The mechanics of the docking ship might imply the underlying mechanics of sight, or it may be more explicit than that – these objects are not in outer space at all, but the various parts of the mechanical eye in Isserley’s human mask locking into place. This entire sequence, ending with the camera pulling back from a tight focus on the pupil, ends with a smash cut of the title in black on white: UNDER THE SKIN. This is a movie about looking and its underlying mechanics. Seeing is a voyage across a distance, it is a mechanical sequence whose inner workings we are unconscious of, and yet there is an aspect that can be considered imprisoning. The cold darkness of space becomes the darkness of the pupil, and the men are lured to the witch’s haven by her looks, and she in turn traps them in a room of infinite blackness. Given this connecting point, we might see the areas of the eye reflected in the movie itself. Isserley first gets her clothes from a dead woman in a room that’s of endless white, like the eye’s sclera2. She is entirely unmoved by the dead body, her curiousity only roused by an insect’s motion, and we are given a close-up of the crawling ant; Isserley is a worker drone and a predatory insect as well. Isserley then goes out to hunt for men, the colored area that is the iris, and brings them home to the confining darkness, the pupil. Whether or not we see the union of the spaceship with the torus as a metaphor for sexual union, this movie is not just about looking, but the sexual gaze. Isserley slowly comes to grips with the sounds of english – “Ba-Ba- T- T- K- Kuh- Ch- Th- V- Th-” – in order to learn this new language while the ship docks and the camera pulls back from the eye; this movie is about learning to look again as if it were an unfamiliar tongue.

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Isserley is now dressed in the other woman’s clothes, and she goes to a mall to pick up a few other things, lipstick and a fur coat. We follow alongside her at waist level as her behind swishes back and forth. We are stalkers, we are hunters, vision is a kind of travel, and now we travel with her; vision is also a trap. She is the one who’ll be doing the hunting. Isserley starts talking up a series of men, and it’s these conversations that make up the overwhelming majority of the movie’s dialogue, and these conversations are entirely superfluous for the traditional purpose of learning something about Isserley or her victim. They are a simple flip of the predatory male who seeks out women for biological release, with the conversation only a tactic for getting to the main action. Isserley talks to a man, and her mouth is a warm and inviting smile; the man walks away, and her face shuts down and goes cold completely.

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

This is a movie where shots are held and held and held, designed so we might examine its multiplicities. Nothing is given away easily, nothing is given quickly, and any observations you make are perhaps uncertain and unresolved. Isserley’s eyes peek through the dark hair that falls over her eyes, and it’s like a sniper peeking out from a foxhole; she’s shot in the rearview mirror, her mouth blank and her eyes absent; she drives along, and her eyes give away nothing except the focused hunt for game; we catch her in the rearview mirror as light and shadow pass over, and her face conveys something, melancholy, regret, exhaustion, something. Isserley looks at her first victim, and there is something unsure in her come hither look, and it might be something like a girl trying out the unfamiliar, alien customs of adult seduction games. Isserley looks on a happy couple at the beach with loathing, and this could be an exile stranded far from home hating the possibilities she cannot have.

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

In the forest sequence at the movie’s end, Isserley moves like a woodland animal given human shape, and this sensibility guides her behavior throughout the first half of the film, an animal whose focus is entirely on hunting, and nothing else. Outside the circumstances in which she might engage her prey, she is suddenly fearful. She travels Glasgow at night, unworried of what might befall her, and on these journeys, she engages in conversations with strange men, indifferent to what will happen next. Yet when she finds herself amongst a group of women, she is suddenly scared. She doesn’t know how to act in these circumstances, she’s worried as if her true form will be found out. They drag her to a club, and the noise scares her, the man who wants to talk to her frightens her. When she realizes that he’s trying for that thing, she is abruptly at ease. This is familiar territory, she knows how to handle this, she’s handled this many times before.

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

In moments when we might expect any woman to feel some kind of fear, she is indifferent to threat. This film is often a horror movie in reverse. She meets The Nervous Man (Adam Pearson), who suffers from neurofibromatosis, and she asks him the kind of intimate questions, without feeling or empathy, that we might expect a man to ask a woman, especially a plain or ugly woman, as if no courtesy is owed. Together, they suggest a monster movie, the disfigured creature and the beautiful woman, though the monster in this movie is very much her. Isserley sits in her van and she sees a possible target up the street. We cut close to Isserley in the van and we have what should be a standard horror scare: suddenly another man appears, right by the driver’s side window. We are not, however, fearful for her, but for him. He turns out to be a group of hoodlums who smash at her car, trying to get in, and Isserley coolly starts up her engine and drives away, barely paying them mind; if you’re a woman, you may well envy and wish for her unflinching nerves in such situations. Yet there’s also a frightening absence in this Isserley. A man attempts to rescue a drowning couple, while Isserley stands by. This is the tradition we expect: the man acts, the woman watches. The man fails in his task, and we expect Isserley to give him a comforting hug and reassure him that it’s okay. She brains him with a rock. The next variation is the most horrific, and perhaps the most disturbing scene in the movie. She drags the man’s body, nothing self-conscious in her bent over figure, ignoring entirely the weeping of the baby nearby: this woman is without any maternal feeling whatsoever, and gender makes a definite difference here: we have become accustomed to this inhumanity from men, but not from women.

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

We are left to read these images however we can for some insight into Isserley, who is an uncompromisingly alien character. When we try to discern what’s there in a look of hers, there’s no possibility of thinking in terms of, say, her relation to her family, the great loves of her life, or her childhood, but exclusively that of an animal struggling to adapt – and yet without the pejorative quality in that word, animal. She has had like experiences, and yet they’re outside our ken, the experiences of alien life, an alien knowledge. She has been placed in a strange landscape of unknown life, and her experience mirrors ours as we watch this movie, lacking any comfort or intimacy we might have come to expect. This character remains distant enough, and this movie remains sufficiently opaque, that we might see these images as not simply connected to this specific character.

From “Director Jonathan Glazer on Under The Skin’s complex honesty” by Scott Tobias:

The Dissolve: This seems to be self-consciously playing with her [Scarlett Johansson’s] image. She’s an icon, like David Bowie is more than just an actor in The Man Who Fell To Earth. She has an otherworldly quality.

Glazer: Well, we use that for sure. We’re using how Scarlett’s objectified, the glamour of her image. And she’s using all of that as well. There’s a deconstruction going on.

In the novel, Isserley attempts to break away from her alien society, and she tries to consume various human foods, often without success. Here, we have Isserley breaking away and the first food she tries is a large slice of chocolate cake, which is given an endless close-up. She spits it out soon after trying the first piece, and this seems not just about Isserley, but a woman’s relationship to cake itself, a toxin that will annihilate her body, that will destroy her entirely. Isserley’s physical appearance is examined from every angle by her supervisor, The Bad Man (Jeremy McWilliams)3, and it’s like a colonel inspecting a recruit’s uniform for dust, or a Pygmalion overlooking his Galatea4. We can place endless Svengalis and Trilbys in these roles, idolmakers and their starlets made of clay. The men are beguiled by Isserley into her dark room, they follow as if in a trance, moving towards her as she undresses, as they sink step by step into a gelatinous liquid that’s like a quicksand. They lust at the sight of her, never actually touching the woman, and this sight entraps them. Isserley walks off, indifferent to their fate. They are kept alive and their bodies prepped and fattened, before their essence is drained, and the husk is left floating behind. We have a variation here on the serial killer who embalms his victims, but we also have a reversal of the starlet industry, where a woman briefly enraptures the world’s imagination, an idealization that is momentarily trapped in amber, and then she’s thrown away.

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

I add here what might be seen as a predecessor to these entrapments, one incongruous and ridiculous, and that’s Monty Python’s “Seduced Milkmen” sketch. There, a woman lures a milkman into her house, where he finds himself locked in a room with a group of other milkmen, some grown old, and one now dead. A brief description is on wikipedia, “Seduced Milkmen”, and the sketch can be found at the moment on youtube, “Monty Python – Milkman”:

Isserley’s questions which she asks without any interest in the answer, and are simply part of her routine to string the victim along, can be likened to those of any pick-up artist, but they also suggest the endless questions any celebrity is asked, which are given a calculated answer, and which seemingly give no sense or depth to the person. We might take some of the questions Isserley asks, and those asked of Scarlett Johansson at various interviews, and their banality blends together:

“Am I keeping you from something?” “Where are you going?” “Where are you from?” “You have family here?” “Do you have a special connection with your twin?” “So you live alone?” “How are you different now?” “And you love it?” “Where do you call home?” “What do you love about living alone?” “So you all go out in your sneakers?” “What about your friends?” “So you don’t have any friends?” “How about a girlfriend?” “Do you have a boyfriend?” “How old were you when you had your first real boyfriend?” “How old are you?” “What is the major difference between men and women?” “So don’t you get lonely then?” “You mean something fungal?” “Have you spoken to any skincare professionals about your interest in dermatology?”5

Isserley begins in the city and, after leaving behind her master, The Bad Man, goes to the country. This, I think, is obvious and necessary because the communion she seeks out is not with humanity, but what might be called the natural world, the untrammelled landscape outside humanity. She is already outside of humanity, for good and for ill: it’s why she walks by the wailing baby entirely indifferent, but it’s also why she doesn’t notice at all the disfigurement of The Nervous Man. She knows that there’s something which places this man outside of humanity as well, but she doesn’t know what exactly it is – the species is an undistinguished blur of strangeness to her. She brings The Nervous Man to her house, and she lets him sink into the pit. One of the aliens without his human covering (not The Bad Man, but one who will be part of the crew that will hunt down Isserley) is there at the pit, looking on. The alien blends with the image of Isserley, grouping her with them, and then she’s not with them at all. She walks down the stairs, and catches sight of herself in the mirror. We might guess she sees her alien surface, but also how alike she is to this man she just imprisoned. A fly buzzes against the glass, trapped, like the man in the pit. We see a close-up of her eye, something changes in her, and then the feet of Isserley and The Nervous Man together; she’s released him. She began in the white room, and now she is re-born in white, a long transitional moment in the fog.

Another man (Krystof Hadek) now gives her comfort and shelter. She leads men into a pit of liquid; when this man and Isserley reach a pool of water, he lifts her up and over it. They are on their way towards a castle, another touchstone of fables. They go back to his house to have sex, but something goes wrong: though Isserley is designed to attract men, she is not designed for actual sex, and her genitalia are for appearances only – there’s something missing. She flees into the forest, and where before we saw the dissolve which paired her with the alien, now an image blends her face with the trees. The Woodsman (Dave Acton) holds her down and starts to rape her, and Isserley looks up and finds consolation in the vast sky. The Woodsman sees the tear in her skin, and runs away. She holds her own head, entirely outside of her physical self, the beauty that is apart from her. This a movie where the human landscape is made alien, which moves further and further outside of human codes and judgements – the nude body of Scarlett Johansson becomes just one more nude body like that of the football player and The Nervous Man. The Woodsman returns and lights Isserley on fire. She began in a white room, was re-born in the white fog, and now she is re-born in the white snow-filled sky. This movie opens with a union, and in the closing moments, Isserley burns into ash, drifts into the sky, and unites with the pastoral world forever.

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

A HEART THAT’S FULL UP LIKE A LANDFILL

This is a movie that emphasises film’s power outside of language, on creating a world of sound and images where things have nothing of the explicitness that we associate with words. Jonathan Glazer’s movie before this was Birth, and that felt as if it wanted to move towards something closer to this, something smaller, more intimate, more cryptic. That movie opened with an upbeat whimsical theme as a man jogged in a park, then collapsed in death. What followed was a sick twist on the kind of romantic comedy that might accompany such a buoyant piece of music, a boy telling a woman he’s the reincarnation of her dead husband after he finds a pile of their old love letters. The boy later reveals that he lied, that it’s all a hoax, but the woman now believes in the idea obsessively. If the obvious subtext of Under the Skin are images and fantasies of women, then the obvious subtext of Birth is the impossible fantasy of Hollywood romance, and movies in general, where all that is required is for you to belive. Anna (Nicole Kidman), the dead man’s wife, does believe in her movie’s fantasy, more and more fervently, and we see her as a disturbed obsessive, unhinged from reality. That the boy, Sean (Cameron Bright), is from a background that is commonly described as “working class” while Anna and her husband are wealthy lawyers who live in a coveted skyscraper apartment, only gives further emphasis to the point: somehow belief in these impossible Hollywood dreams of wealth and happiness is sufficient to bring us into such a life. This is a common part of any get rich pitch in any self-empowerment seminar or infommercial: do you believe in getting rich? Can you see a future where you are massively wealthy? Do you believe enough?

The power of the fantasy is such that it overwhelms both Anna and Sean. By the movie’s end, she runs away from her wedding because of this better possibility, while he, knowing best of all that the story is entirely false, returns to believing in it; we hear his voiceover of a letter he writes her, and it doesn’t suggest someone who no longer believes, but someone who’s had to stop expressing belief out of practicality and under pressure: “I’ve been seeing an expert. They sure talk a lot. They say I’ve been imagining things…They said they still haven’t figured out what was wrong with me, but the good thing is, nothing really happened. Well, I guess I’ll see you in another lifetime.” The voiceover plays as he gets his school photo taken, a smiling pose, a posed artifice like so many movies. The issue is not whether there should be any more school photos or Hollywood movies, but how much we should consider them close to anything like the true essence of life.

As said, Birth seemed too big for what was at its heart, with too many characters (the enviable supporting cast included Ted Levine, Arliss Howard, and Lauren Bacall) hanging on its vital center. The movie felt as if there should have been a culminating third act, when there wasn’t. Under the Skin avoids all this, paring away any superfluous parts of its story, keeping the focus on its lead, and slowing the pace down so that the final act follows naturally from what came before. Under the Skin derives its power from prolonged shots where the audience must simply pause and look, rather than move on to the next event or plot point, and we see this approach already in Birth‘s most bravura moment, when the camera stays on a close up of Anna for a minute and forty five seconds (from 26:15 to 28:00 on my copy) a little while after Sean has revealed that he’s the reincarnation of her dead husband:

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Under the Skin, the movie, makes the most of film as a non-verbal medium, something closer to painting or photography, something that too few films do, and making it a very different creature from Under the Skin, the novel by Michel Faber. The movie appears to take a lesson from Birth, viewing the obligations of narrative itself as an impediment to its effects, by extracting only a fragment of the book’s plot and growing it in a separate plot of soil. I think the book is a separate treasure that gets somewhat discounted in the reviews I’ve read of the movie. “The film is quite a departure from Michel Faber’s novel, which is grisly, chatty, borderline satirical,” is the description in David Edelstein’s Under the Skin Takes the Horror Genre in Infectiously Strange New Directions”, and I wish this gifted writer had included at least one adjective of praise. The book is science fiction and an easy read, so perhaps these things count against it, but its ease stems largely from being cleanly and clearly written, the narrative never weighed down by pretense. Isserley is enraptured by the beauty of the Scottish landscape, and its virtues are conveyed well, without faux lyricism. Where the movie is opaque, the book is explicit, but never head-thuddingly so, and though in other hands we might call the novel preachy, the story and characters are never contoured for the message and life is never made simpler than it is for the necessity of a thesis.

We might see the skill of the writing in the very first passages. Isserley appears to be looking for men, but she’s just looking for grades of meat. There’s a paragraph about the road that is especially well done – the hitchers are like the forest creatures run over by passing cars, thinking they are in a safe place, when they’re near nothing of the kind. An atmosphere is conveyed well of the Scottish countryside in the last paragraph (she hunts there, while the movie’s Isserley sticks to Glasgow), but it’s also the earth as seen by an alien, a primitive, uncivilized, newly born place:

Isserley always drove straight past a hitch-hiker when she first saw him, to give herself time to size him up. She was looking for big muscles: a hunk on legs. Puny, scrawny specimens were no use to her.

At first glance, though, it could be surprisingly difficult to tell the difference. You’d think a lone hitcher on a country road would stand out a mile, like a distant monument or a grain silo; you’d think you would be able to appraise him calmly as you drove, undress him and turn him over in your mind well in advance. But Isserley had found it didn’t happen that way.

Driving through the Highlands of Scotland was an absorbing task in itself; there was always more going on than picture postcards allowed. Even in the nacreous hush of a winter dawn, when the mists were still dossed down in the fields on either side, the A9 could not be trusted to stay empty for long. Furry carcasses of unidentifiable forest creatures littered the asphalt, fresh every morning, each of them a frozen moment in time when some living thing had mistaken the road for its natural habitat.

Isserley, too, often ventured out at hours of such prehistoric stillness that her vehicle might have been the first ever. It was as if she had been set down on a world so newly finished that the mountains might still have some shifting to do and the wooded valleys might yet be recast as seas.

The novel’s Isserley might be one of the best and most memorable fictional characters I’ve come across in a while. Her appearance is very different from that of the movie’s, as well as an example of the book’s expertise at working in several modes at once without abrasion or discomfort. The central idea of the movie remains the same, with Isserley luring men to her car so they might be processed as food for her species. One key difference is that in the book, Isserley’s species is not bipedal, but a furred race which navigates on all fours with a powerful tail. Various surgeries have been made on her so she might walk on two legs and have human form. She is in almost constant pain when upright – the swish swish walk on heels that the movie’s Isserley does in the mall would be impossible for the book’s. This Isserley regards her human form as a horrible, humilating disfigurement. Her appearance features two striking physical details. There are the massive eyes of her species which have not been corrected by surgery, so she must wear glasses several inches thick to make their size appear to be a distortion of the lens. The engineers have also been crude and direct about what might attract men, so her own breasts have been sheared off, and massive human teats been implanted. At the same time, neither she nor anyone else in her species has any astuteness about human fashion sense, so we have oversized glasses, rather dowdy clothes, and a blouse with a plunging neckline. Isserley is both a frightening serial killer and utterly ridiculous in appearance.

The book uses more practical mechanics for the capture of these men, nothing like the magical darkness of Isserley’s house in the movie. After she’s certain from their conversation that the hitcher has no family or mate that might notice they’ve gone missing, she flips a switch and needles in the seat jump up and pierce their body, injecting them with an alien sedative called icpathua, and then she takes them to a farm where others of her species process them into food. We get some sense of Isserley’s comical look from two good descriptions in the book from two different hitchers. Details that might need explaining are that her short legs are, of course, a result of being from a quadrupedal species, that she has to blast the heat in the car because her missing fur makes her feel the cold acutely, and that the bodies of her species sweat far more than ours do, something that Isserley’s always does excessively in her excitement in the moments before she injects her passengers with icpathua. Description one, from the first hitcher:

Fantastic tits on this one, but God, there wasn’t much of her otherwise. Tiny – like a kid peering up over the steering wheel. How tall would she be? Five foot one, maybe, standing up. Funny how a lot of women with the best tits were really really short. This girl obviously knew she had a couple of ripe ones, the way she had them sitting pretty on the scoop of a low-cut top. That’s why this car was heated like an oven, of course: so she could wear a skimpy black top and air her boobs for all to see – for him to see.

The rest of her was a funny shape, though. Long skinny arms with big knobbly elbows – no wonder her top was long sleeved. Knobbly wrists too, and big hands. Still, with tits like that …

They were really odd, actually, those hands. Bigger than you’d think they’d be, to look at the rest of her, but narrow too, like … chicken feet. And tough, like she’d done hard labour with them, maybe worked in a factory. He couldn’t see her legs properly, she was wearing those horrible flared seventies trousers that were back in fashion – shiny green, for Christ’s sake – and what looked like Doc Martens, but there was no disguising how short her legs were. Still, those tits … They were … like … they were like … He didn’t know what to compare them to. They looked pretty fucking good, nestled next to one another there, with the sun shining on them through the windscreen.

Never mind the tits, though: what about the face? Well, he couldn’t see it just now; she had to actually turn towards him for him to see it, because of her haircut. She had thick, fluffy hair, mouse-brown, hanging down straight so he couldn’t even see her cheeks when she was facing front. It was tempting to imagine a beautiful face hidden behind that hair, a face like a pop singer or an actress, but he knew different. In fact, when she’d turned towards him, her face had kind of shocked him. It was small and heart-shaped, like an elf in a kiddie’s book, with a perfect little nose and a fantastic big-lipped curvy mouth like a supermodel. But she had puffy cheeks and was also wearing the thickest glasses he’d seen in his life: they magnified her eyes so much they looked about twice normal size.

She was a weird one all right. Half Baywatch babe, half little old lady.

Description two, from the middle of the book:

Her hair was matted, with streaks of something that looked like axle grease slicked through it, and tufts sticking out at odd angles. Here was a woman who hadn’t looked at herself in a mirror for a while, that was for sure. She smelled – stank, really, if he could be so judgemental – of fermenting sweat and seawater.

Her clothes were filthy with dried mud. She’d fallen, maybe, or had some sort of accident. Should he ask her if she was all right? She might be offended if he commented on the state of her clothing. She might even think he was trying to harass her sexually. It was so hard to be friendly, in any genuinely human way, towards female strangers if you were a male. You could be courteous and pleasant, which wasn’t the same thing at all; it was the way you’d treat the staff at the Job Centre. You couldn’t tell a strange woman that you liked her earrings, or that her hair was beautiful – or ask her how she came to have mud on her clothes.

The more he looked at this girl, the weirder she appeared. Her green velveteen trousers were very seventies retro-chic, if you disregarded the muddy knees, but she definitely didn’t have the legs of a nightclub babe. Trembling slightly under the thin fabric, so short they barely reached the pedals, they might have been the legs of a cerebral palsy sufferer. He turned his head to glance through the space between his seat and hers, half expecting to see a foldable wheelchair wedged into the back. There was only an old anorak, a garment he could well imagine her wearing. Her boots were like Doc Martens, but even chunkier, like Boris Karloff clogs.

Strangest of all, though, was her skin. Every part of her flesh that he could see, except for her pale smooth breasts, had the same peculiar texture to it: a downy look, like the hide of a cat recently spayed, just beginning to grow back the fur. She had scars everywhere: along the edges of her hands, along her collarbones, and especially on her face. He couldn’t see her face now, hidden as it was behind the tangled mane of her hair, but he’d got a pretty good glimpse of it before, and there was scarring along the line of her jaw, her neck, her nose, under her eyes. And then the corrective lenses. They must have the biggest magnification known to optometry, for her eyes to look that big.

We have perhaps here the biggest difference from the movie, one perhaps impossible to transfer over. Each pick-up of a hitch-hiker has the same structure, with us first hearing the thoughts in Isserley’s head as she evaluates the new victim and gives him a lift, then we shift to the thoughts of the hitcher. As the conversations go on, some men are allowed to simply get off at their destination because they reveal a wife or girlfriend is waiting for them, and therefore they’ll be noticed when they go missing. There is no justice to this: easily the most sympathetic of the hitchers, the man who makes the observations in the second excerpt, is sedated even though he has a girlfriend – he doesn’t start talking to Isserley because he doesn’t want to cause her any fear. Another hitcher carries a knife with him and attempts to rape her, and this man has more of a chance of escaping than the kind, silent man. She picks up louts, but good men as well, a brutal dog trainer followed by a melancholy figure devoted to his dog; both end up at the farm. The reader is allowed no satisfaction that any rough justice is done.

That Isserley traps and sedates a series of men, often sympathetic, after which they’re held captive in inhuman conditions and eventually killed, should alienate the reader from her, but it doesn’t. One reason is that Faber never attempts to be sentimental, or plead sympathy for this protagonist, but simply presents her as she is. She is placed as part of a larger alien society that is briefly but sufficiently detailed, and the comic aspect is this: though Isserley has contempt for the primitives of earth, her culture mirrors entirely that of contemporary British society, now. On her own world, she was a beauty born to a low caste, and she’s still bitter about all the false promises made to her by higher born men, instead being left behind to work deep underground in the abysmal conditions of the oxygen factories of her home planet, her only escape this job for which she had to suffer such disfiguring surgeries:

What about all the men who’d promised to keep her safe as she neared the grading age? ‘The Estates? A beautiful girl like you? Just let them try, Iss, and I’ll have a word with my father.’ Spoilt little poseurs, the lot of them. Fuck them, fuck them all.

But then no linguist would ever have applied for her job, that was for sure. Only desperate people with no prospects except being dumped in the New Estates would have considered it.

And even then, only if they were out of their minds.

She had been totally crazy, looking back on it. Deliriously insane. But it had all turned out for the best, after all. The best decision she’d ever made. A very small personal sacrifice, really, if it avoided a lifetime buried in the Estates – a brutishly short lifetime, by all accounts.

In fact, whenever she found herself grieving over what had been done to her once-beautiful body in order for her to be sent here, she reminded herself what people who’d lived in the New Estates for any length of time looked like. Decay and disfigurement were obviously par for the course down there. Maybe it was the overcrowding, or the bad food or the bad air or the lack of medical care, or just the inevitable result of living underground. But there was an unmistakable ugliness about Estate trash, an almost subhuman taint.

Most crucially, Faber never has Isserley transcend her society’s perspectives. She despises the system she’s in, but she does not question it. She never stops seeing the sentient species of earth as primitives, and in one of the novel’s most insightful touches, Isserley and her species refer to themselves not by some alien name, but as human, and it’s the humans of earth who are given the alien name, vodsels. The following is one excerpt of Isserley’s observations:

The thing about vodsels was, people who knew nothing whatsoever about them were apt to misunderstand them terribly. There was always the tendency to anthropomorphize. A vodsel might do something which resembled a human action; it might make a sound analogous with human distress, or make a gesture analogous with human supplication, and that made the ignorant observer jump to conclusions.

In the end, though, vodsels couldn’t do any of the things that really defined a human being. They couldn’t siuwil, they couldn’t mesnishtil, they had no concept of slan. In their brutishness, they’d never evolved to use hunshur; their communities were so rudimentary that hississins did not exist; nor did these creatures seem to see any need for chail, or even chailsinn6.

The member of her society who has transcended its attitudes, who is able to offer a critical perspective, is Amlis Vess, the son of the head of the corporation that runs the meat processing operation. He visits the Scottish farm where the processing operation takes place, and she is very attracted to him – attracted to his rich fur, his regal stature, all the marks of privilege:

Like all of Isserley’s race (except Isserley and Esswis [a male alien on the farm who’s also had surgery in order to appear human], of course) he stood naked on all fours, his limbs exactly equal in length, all of them equally nimble. He also had a prehensile tail, which, if he needed his front hands free, he could use as another limb to balance on, tripod-style. His breast tapered seamlessly into a long neck, on which his head was positioned like a trophy. It came to three points: his long spearhead ears and his vulpine snout. His large eyes were perfectly round, positioned on the front of his face, which was covered in soft fur, like the rest of his body.

In all these things he was a normal, standard-issue human being, no different from the workman standing behind him, watching him nervously.

But he was different.

He was almost freakishly tall, for one thing. His head was at the level of her breast; were he to be surgically made vertical, as she had been, he would tower over her. Wealth and privilege must have excused him from the typically stunted growth of Estate males like the one who was guarding him now; he was like a giant, but slender with it, not massive or lumpish. His colouring was unusually varied (gossips sometimes suggested it wasn’t natural): dark brown on his back, shoulders and flanks, pure black on his face and legs, pure white on his breast. The fur was impossibly lustrous, too, especially on his chest, where it was thicker, almost straggly. In musculature he was lean, with just enough bulk to carry his large frame; his shoulder-blades were startlingly prominent under their satiny layer of fur. But it was his face that was most remarkable: of the males Isserley worked with, there was not one who didn’t have coarse hair, bald patches, discolorations and unsightly scarring on the face. Amlis Vess had a soft down of flawless black from the tips of his ears to the curve of his throat, as if lovingly tooled in black suede by an idealistic craftsman. Deeply set in this perfection of blackness, his tawny eyes shone like illuminated amber. He breathed, preparing to speak.

The book is about the objectification of women7, but it’s also about objectification itself. She is the only woman who is part of the processing operation at the farm and she looks upon the other men and a physical appearance marked by rough and poor living with revulsion, because these are markers of a lower caste, even as she is able to perceive the vast process which brought them all to this place. The vodsels are fodder for this industry, and they are fodder as well:

Isserley’s arrival in the dining hall caused much guttural murmuring among the men. They obviously hadn’t expected her to reappear so soon after her humiliation, but that was because they were stupid and understood nothing. Wouldn’t they just love to have had a bit longer to gossip about her! What a stir her breakdown and her expulsion from the Processing Hall must have made in their stagnant little world! How the legend would have grown if she’d hidden away for days in her cottage, paralysed with shame, until at last she was so weak with hunger she was forced to crawl down to them! Well, she refused to give them the satisfaction. She would tough it out, show them what she was made of.

She cast her eyes disdainfully over the entire herd of them. Compared to Amlis Vess, they were scabrous grotesques, pea-brained savages. She should never have felt shame about her own deformity; she was no uglier than they were, surely, and infinitely better bred.

Isserley looked down at him, as he grinned back at her with decayed teeth and a glisten of gravy on his snout. Yet despite her distaste, she understood all of a sudden that he was harmless, an impotent drudge, a slave, a disposable means to an end. Imprisoned underground, he was living out an existence scarcely better than what he would have known if he’d stayed in the Estates. To be brutally honest, all these men were falling apart, hair by hair and tooth by tooth, like over-used pieces of equipment, like tools bought cheap for a job that would outlast them. While Isserley roamed the airy spaces of her unrestricted domain, they remained trapped below the barns of Ablach, labouring mindlessly, grubbing in tungsten-lit gloom, breathing stale air, eating whatever offal was too gross to be of value to their masters. Amid much fanfare about escape and pioneering, Vess Incorporated had simply dug them out of one hole and buried them in another.

One of her co-workers has a skin condition, “he had some sort of disgusting skin ailment that made half his face look like mouldy fruit,” and Isserley refers to him forever afterwards as the mouldy man, the way a man in another novel might refer to a woman as french smalltits, or some such thing. When Vess suggests the possibility of looking beyond these things, she rejects it, one more opinion of Vess that he’s privileged to have, the way the wealthy can declare that money doesn’t matter:

‘Of course I can see what’s been done to you, but what I’m really interested in is the inner person,’ he pressed on.

‘Oh please, Amlis: spare me this shit,’ groaned Isserley, looking away from him as the tears squirmed out of her eyes and ran down one cheek to disappear inside the ugly stoma of her mutilated ear.

Isserley is drawn to Vess because he is high born, yet she is repelled by the know nothingness of her own life that this high born man has. Vess does not manage to persuade her to take his view, but rather she despises him for having the luxury of this opinion – only a scion from the wealthiest class has the ability to laze around and examine the system. Vess’s opinion is, of course, entirely right, and yet we identify utterly with Isserley and how his righteousness is so connected with a particular pet cause, rather than remedying the immediate realities of a life like hers. He has the privilege of not having to partake in the brutalities of the system, while she must, and she despises the fact that he cannot see that participation in the system has nothing to do with moral choices, and everything to do with practical need. He has the luxury of having the power to change the system, where she feels as if she is only a prisoner within it. “That meat you’re eating,” Amlis Vess says to her of the food they process, “is the body of a creature that lived and breathed just like you and me.”:

With Amlis’s words still ringing in her ears, Isserley took courage, as she had done last time, by focusing on his upper-class accent, his velvety diction groomed by wealth and privilege. Deliberately, she recalled being petted and then discarded by the Elite; she pictured the authorities who’d decided she would be more suited to a life in the Estates, men with accents just like Amlis Vess’s. She invited that accent in, listening to the sharp chord of resentment it struck deep inside her, letting it reverberate.

A few fragments from their conversations together:

‘I had to see for myself what’s going on here,’ he growled.

Isserley tried to raise herself again, and covered her failure with a sigh of condescension.

‘There’s nothing so unusual going on here,’ she said. ‘Just … supply and demand.’ She spoke these last words in a sing-song, as if they were an eternal, inseparable pairing like night and day, male and female.

‘Well, I’ve confirmed my worst fears,’ he went on, disregarding her claim. ‘This whole trade is based on terrible cruelty.’

‘You don’t know what cruelty is,’ she said, feeling all the places on and inside her body where she had been mutilated. How lucky this cosseted young man was, to have a ‘worst fear’ that concerned the welfare of exotic animals rather than any horrors he himself might have to face in the struggle for survival.

‘You know,’ he said, almost dreamily, ‘I sometimes think that the only things really worth talking about are the things people absolutely refuse to discuss.’

‘Yes,’ snapped Isserley, ‘Like why some people are born into a life of lazing around and philosophizing, and others are shoved into a hole and told to fucking get busy.’

The processing of the humans, or vodsels, is exactly like that of any factory farm. The reader is warned that the following passages involve content more disturbing than anything in the movie adaptation. The alien Unser is their butcher:

The Cradle, constructed from pieces of farm equipment, was a masterpiece of specialized design. Its base was the cannibalized mechanism of an earthmover, welded to a stainless-steel drinking trough. Mounted on top, chest-high to a human, was a two-metre segment of a grain chute, artfully beaten into an amended shape so that its sharp edges were curled harmlessly in on themselves. Gleaming and elegant like a giant gravy boat, the chute was being tilted mechanically on its unseen fulcrum, assuming a perfectly horizontal position.

The person adjusting the balance of the Cradle was Ensel, smug in his responsibility of personally assisting the Chief Processor; his two cronies were engaged in the less precise task of undressing the vodsel, lying nearby.

Real music, human music, was being piped into the hall by loudspeakers nestled in the walls. Soft singing and the strumming of instruments imparted a reassuring flavour of home, a pervasive smell of melodies half remembered from childhood. They hissed and hummed soothingly.

‘Careful, careful,’ muttered Unser as the men scrabbled clumsily at the vodsel’s ankles to remove tight woollen socks. An animal’s shanks were close to where its faeces would fall once it was in the pens; any lacerations would be liable to fester.

Isserley strained to see, but Unser’s big wrists and the twisting motion of his fingers obscured the view as he carved out the vodsel’s tongue. Blood began to gurgle out onto the vodsel’s cheeks as Unser turned to drop his tools on the tray with a clatter. Unhesitatingly he snatched up an electrical appliance resembling a large star-point screwdriver and, squinting with concentration, guided it into the vodsel’s mouth. Flashes of light glowed through the gaps in Unser’s nimble fingers as he searched out the incontinent blood vessels and fried them shut with a crackling buzz.

He was already busy sluicing out the vodsel’s mouth with a suction pump by the time the smell of burning flesh had permeated the air. The vodsel coughed: the first real evidence that, far from being dead, it was suffering from nothing more serious than icpathuasi.

‘That’saboy,’ murmured Unser, tickling the Adam’s apple to make the creature swallow. ‘Uhr-rhum.’

As soon as he was satisfied with the state of the animal’s mouth, Unser turned his attention to the genitals. Taking up a clean instrument, he sliced open the scrotal sac and, with rapid, delicate, almost trembling incisions of his scalpel, removed the testicles. It was a much more straightforward job than the tongue; it took perhaps thirty seconds. Before Isserley had registered what had happened, Unser had already cauterized the bleeding and was sewing the scrotum closed with an expert hand.

The experiences of Isserley do not make her more sympathetic to the brutal experiences of the vodsels, but less so. She enjoys being superior to them, and the anger she feels towards the system itself and what it’s done to her she channels against the vodsels. When a vodsel has his throat sliced in front of her, a sentimental type might expect Isserley to be aghast or scream in horror, but she cries out in joyful catharsis. That the powerless find the only pleasure they have in dominating those with even less power is not, to say the least, an uncommon theme in history:

So intently was the vodsel striving now to retrieve his memory of Isserley that he seemed not to notice something being lowered towards his forehead that resembled the nozzle of a petrol pump, attached to the base of the Cradle by a long flexible cable. Unser touched the metal tip of the instrument to the unwrinkled flesh of the vodsel’s brow, and squeezed the handle. There was an almost imperceptible dimming of the lights in the building. The vodsel’s eyes blinked just once as the current travelled through his brain and down the filament of his spine. A subtle plume of smoke curled up from a darkening smudge on his brow.

Unser yanked the chin up to expose the neck. With two graceful flicking motions of his wrist, he slashed open the arteries in the vodsel’s neck, then stood back as a jet of blood gushed out, steaming hot and startlingly red against the silvery trough.

‘Yes!’ screamed Isserley involuntarily. ‘Yes!’

That this is pleasure in a violence re-directed, that she wishes violence, unremittingly cruel violence, on those who have power over her, is made explicit in one of the last chapters, when she speaks of her surgeons:

She crawled out of bed, crippled as usual. What heaven it would be to get revenge on the surgeons who’d done this to her! She’d never even seen their faces: she’d been drugged into oblivion by the time they’d stuck their knives in. And now they were probably boasting to Vess Incorporated how much they’d learned from their mistakes, how there was no comparison between the miracles they could perform now and the crude experiments that had been Esswis [a male alien on the farm who’s also had surgery in order to appear human] and Isserley. In a fair world, she would be given the opportunity, before she died, to tie those surgeons to a slab and do a bit of experimenting of her own. They could watch, tongueless, as she carved their genitals away. To keep their noise down, she’d give them big chunks of their own severed tails to chew on. Their anuses would clench as she penetrated their spines with iron skewers. Their eyes would blink blood as she sculpted brave new faces for them.

There is no Nervous Man in the book, and it is not Isserley who releases any vodsels, but Amlis. In fact, it is Isserley who helps to hunt down these vodsels and kill them, and she takes pride in her ability to do so. That the gesture of freeing these vulnerable naked vodsels out into the open is an entirely futile one, is to be expected from privileged creatures like Amlis who have no practical sense, and who are enraptured by the virtuousness of their gestures. At the very same time, Isserley knows there is something unnecessarily brutal in this life, one lacking in an essential quality even though her own language may have no word for it. Amlis and Isserley visit the prison in which the various hitchers are kept before they are processed, and one of them writes something in the dirt:

‘Look!’ Amlis urged.

Isserley watched, disturbed, as the vodsel scrawled a five-letter word with great deliberation, even going to the trouble of fashioning each letter upside down, so that it would appear right-way-up for those on the other side of the mesh.

‘No-one told me they had a language,’ marvelled Amlis, too impressed, it seemed, to be angry. ‘My father always describes them as vegetables on legs.’

‘It depends on what you classify as language, I guess,’ said Isserley dismissively. The vodsel had slumped behind his handiwork, head bowed in submission, eyes wet and gleaming.

‘But what does it mean?’ persisted Amlis.

Isserley considered the message, which was M E R C Y. It was a word she’d rarely encountered in her reading, and never on television. For an instant she racked her brains for a translation, then realized that, by sheer chance, the word was untranslatable into her own tongue; it was a concept that just didn’t exist.

Isserley does not want to try to pronounce this word for Amlis, because she feels this act would debase her:

She considered trying to pronounce the strange word with a contortion of her lips and a frown on her brow, as if she were being asked to reproduce a chicken’s cackle or a cow’s moo. Then, if Amlis asked her what it meant, she could honestly say that there was no word for it in the language of human beings. She opened her lips to speak, but realized just in time that this would be a very stupid mistake. For her to speak the word at all dignified it with the status of being a word in the first place; Amlis would no doubt go into ecstasy over the vodsels’ ability to link a pattern of scrawled symbols with a specific sound, however guttural and unintelligible. At a stroke, she would be dignifying the vodsels, in his eyes, with both writing and speech.

Shortly afterwards, in perhaps the book’s most powerful scene, Isserley gives a ride to the hitchhiker who rapes her, and she pleads for this same concept. We have here again the book’s casual, expert use of a variety of tones, none of which undercut the other; the horror of the scene alongside the comic mispronunciation which is also a heartbreaking plea for some relief from not just this moment, but her whole existence:

Without warning, he grabbed her elbow and pulled it upwards. Isserley didn’t have time to tense her muscles into a characteristic vodsel shape, and her arm bent freely at several joints, a zig-zag of unmistakably human angles. The hitcher did not appear to notice. This, more than anything else so far, filled Isserley with nauseous terror.

Once she was standing, the hitcher nudged her further along the car until she was against the bonnet.

‘Turn around,’ he said.

She obeyed, and he immediately grasped her green velvety trousers and tore them down to her knees with a single jolt.

‘Jesus,’ he growled from behind her. ‘You been in a car accident?’

‘Yes,’ she whispered. ‘I’m sorry.’

For a heady moment she thought he was discouraged, but then she felt the flat of his hand on her back, pushing her forward onto the car’s bonnet.

Desperately, she searched for the right word, the word that might make him stop. It was a word she knew, but had only ever seen written – in fact, only this morning, a vodsel had spelled it out. She’d never heard it spoken.

‘Murky,’ she pleaded.

Isserley escapes this by knocking out the man’s eyes through the powerful distorted arms of her race, but there is no happy end for her. She and Amlis never draw close into anything like sexual union or love, and he returns to his home planet. Her work exhausts her, and though she does not acknowledge it, her work is slowly destroying her: again and again in the book, tears fall from her eyes, and she’s unable to account for why. She lives in a morally indifferent universe where the kindest of souls end up trapped in the cages of her farm, and yet the book’s perspective is not itself indifferent to the fates of its characters. We see the juxtaposition of the two in the book’s ending, where a gesture of consideration leads to her destruction. Isserley stops for a hitcher whose wife is pregnant and he urges her to speed up, and she does so, but she is as clumsy at driving as she is at other human behaviors, and the car swerves off the road into a tree. The hitcher is thrown from the wreck and badly injured, while the steering column slices into Isserley, destroying her human bosom:

She looked down. Her green velvet trousers were sprinkled with broken glass and saturated with dark blood, and a twisted wedge of metal was taking up all the space where she would have expected her knees to be. She felt very little pain, and she guessed this must be because her spine was shattered. The crescent of the steering wheel had penetrated her breasts, leaving her torso uninjured. Her neck, though, felt better than it had for years, and this realization jerked a hysterical sob of laughter and grief from her. Something warm and gelatinous, trapped inside her top and Pennington’s pullover, slid down her abdomen and into her lap. She shuddered in revulsion and fear.

The Isserleys of the novel and movie both have a devotion to the earth’s landscape, perhaps the only love they can feel deeply, the only one undamaged by malice or distrust for the book’s protagonist. She joins this world in the movie as her body burns to ash and drifts into the sky, and the novel’s Isserley achieves the same transcendence through self-annihilation in what is probably the book’s best moment, an ending for this essay which I cannot improve on:

Isserley removed the spectacles and dropped them into her lap, where they landed with a patter of windscreen glass. She blinked, wondering why things were still out of focus. Tears ran down her cheeks, and her view through the shattered windscreen cleared.

Isserley checked the top of the dashboard, where Yns [an engineer], at the same time as he’d set up the icpathua network, had installed the other little alteration to the car’s original design: the button for the aviir. Unlike the icpathua connections, which involved fragile electrics and hydraulics that had obviously been damaged in the accident, the connection between the dashboard button and the cylinder of aviir was one simple, sturdy tube, waiting only for a squirt of something foreign into the oily liquid.

The aviir would blow her car, herself, and a generous scoop of earth into the smallest conceivable particles. The explosion would leave a crater in the ground as big and deep as if a meteorite had fallen there.

And she? Where would she go?

The atoms that had been herself would mingle with the oxygen and nitrogen in the air. Instead of ending up buried in the ground, she would become part of the sky: that was the way to look at it. Her invisible remains would combine, over time, with all the wonders under the sun. When it snowed, she would be part of it, falling softly to earth, rising up again with the snow’s evaporation. When it rained, she would be there in the spectral arch that spanned from firth to ground. She would help to wreathe the fields in mists, and yet would always be transparent to the stars. She would live forever. All it took was the courage to press one button, and the faith that the connection had not been broken.

She reached forward a trembling hand.

‘Here I come,’ she said.

(All images from Under the Skin copyright A24 Films and associated producers; images from Birth copyright New Line Cinema.)

(On July 27, 2014, some edits for aesthetics, grammar, and clarity were made; footnote #4 was added, as was a new footnote #1, on the name of the film’s protagonist; the section on how Isserley sees her co-workers only in terms of their physicality was added as well. On August 25th, 2014, the section on Monty Python’s “Seduced Milkmen” was added.)

FOOTNOTES

1 Though it’s never said in the movie, a number of sources state the protagonist’s name as “Laura”, such as Grantland‘s “‘Skin’ Deep: Jonathan Glazer, Scarlett Johansson, and the Incurious State of Sci-Fi in Hollywood” by Sean Fennessey – “Glazer’s movie follows Laura, an alien played by a bewigged Scarlett Johansson” – and The Dissolve‘s review, “Under the Skin” by Scott Tobias: “Glazer’s main character—now named “Laura,” and played by Scarlett Johansson—reveals nothing of herself directly.”

2 Though I originally thought this first woman was simply a human The Bad Man had killed so they could use her clothes, I think this observation from SpaceMonkey23101 in “Under the Skin- Movie discussion including looking at the novel that inspired it”, a reddit thread by dalong75, is very solid, and in fact the best interpretation.

SpaceMonkey23101 (link):

I like to think that the first woman (who Scarlett gets her first set of clothes from) is her predecessor, and that she died by committing suicide. This is why she sheds a tear during the scene where Scarlett undresses her. She did it by drowning herself in the ocean, since she had seen so many men go into the black pool, and her limited intellect could only conceive of that as a method of suicide. She was driven to do this by her guilt for what she had done, luring so many innocent men to their deaths. It shows that she achieved the same sense of compassion that Scarlett does during the film. It basically turns the film into a much more optimistic story, since it suggests that the drones always develop empathy. This is what her supervisor (motor bike guy) is checking for when he’s staring at her so intently in her house. He is searching, in a strange alien way, for a sense of empathy or compassion within her. It’s almost as if the drones always fail because maybe living beings always grow towards compassion. It actually kind of suggests an ultimate – almost spiritual – morality and justice behind the film. Just a thought.

dalong75 (link):

Love it.

8th_Dynasty (link):

This is pretty close to my interpretation as well – however, and maybe it was just my eyesight, but I took the first girl to be “the same model Alien”, having the same skin. The Alien of our story that we watched was a sort of replicated replacement to pick up where the first one left off after she ultimately started to feel emotions. Sort of like a defective model that will work for a certain amount of time before breaking down and the Motorcycle Boss was constantly checking for signs of inevitable failure.

I feel like that first female character was also played by Scarlett [though there is a strong resemblance, the girl on the floor of the white room is played by Lynsey Taylor Mackay].

3 McWilliams is actually a “world champion motorcycle ace.” The short profile, “McWilliams is ‘bad man on mission for Scarlett Johansson'” details his background.

The name of this character as well as The Woodsman I got from “Under The Skin: Casting”, an interview with the movie’s casting director, Kathleen Crawford.

4 Again, “Under the Skin- Movie discussion including looking at the novel that inspired it”, a reddit thread by dalong75, contains valuable insights on this matter, from tesla86, EnsignMorituri, and dalong75.

tesla86 (link):

I was thinking about this movie for some time after seeing it, the affect of any momentous movie wether good or bad i might add.

I was particularly drawn to the ‘inspection’ scene, it was as though they (the aliens) are drone-like creatures, with the Motorcyclist as a soldier bee inspecting the worker bee (Johnansson) even the way ‘he’ articulates and postures around her is akin to their behaviour. Just a thought but the motorbikes themselves are quite bee/wasp like; driving handles = antennae , fuel tank = thorax, engine hums like wings etc

EnsignMorituri (link):

Absolutely. I think the closeup of the ant reflects the colony insect theme as well. To use a wasp or bee in that scene would have been too on the nose.

dalong75 (link):

Good point. I liked how mechanical it was. A simple four point inspection of her. Not at all how humans would inspect each other. Also perhaps looking for any breaks in her skin.

5 Questions were taken from “The Scarlett Johansson Interview” by Alex Bilmes, “Scarlett Johansson Interview” by Holly Millea, and “Scarlett Johansson 2.0: Glamour’s May Cover Star on Finally Knowing What She Needs in a Relationship” by Logan Hill.

6 These terms of alien vocabulary are never given an explanation.

7 The book is more explicit about this than the movie, as seen in these excerpts from a conversation Isserley has with one hitcher:

‘You know what gets me?’ he said, slightly more animated now.

‘No, what gets you?’ Isserley was sagging in relief, gratefully feeling the air grow less dense, the molecules moving more calmly.

‘Them supermodels,’ he said.

Isserley thought first of sophisticated automobiles, then thought he must mean the animated drawings which flickered on television early in the mornings: stylized females flying through space wearing elbow-length gloves and thigh-high boots. Just in time, as she opened her mouth to speak, she remembered the true meaning of the term: she’d glimpsed one of these extraordinary creatures on the news once.

‘What mystifies you?’ said Isserley, quite lost.

‘Where’s the tits on ’em, that’s what I want to know!’ he exclaimed, cupping one huge hand in front of his own chest. ‘Supermodels, and they got no tits! How’s that work?’

‘I don’t know who decides these things,’ conceded Isserley miserably, as the atmosphere in the cabin swarmed once more.

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

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 UPSIDE OF CAMP

The tropes of Black Dahlia are those of noir, a genre native to american film and Los Angeles, with such standards as vertical blinds, smoking, a femme fatale, the rich sisters of The Big Sleep, a love triangle, no doubt others. These are all ritual elements, as recognizable as aspects of a christian painting, and they are supposed to be given proper veneration, homage to mystic relics. De Palma does something different, not openly desecrating for cheap laughs, but bending them through camp elements. The noir elements do not make a film great any more than a 19th century sitting room makes for a serious film, anymore than anything that features a harpsichord is “serious” music. The movie Dahlia takes in noir elements and upends each of them.

Consider the possibility that the hypotheses of the previous posts are true. Then this film is about an alpha male, Lee Blanchard, who is actually gay; Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert, a bisexual man attracted to both Blanchard and his appearances only girlfriend, Kay Lake; she is a woman of moral purity who tries to make sure that her male rival for Bleichert’s affections is killed, so they can both live happily after together on his stolen money. The story also features the classic trope of a femme fatale, Madeleine Linscott, as well as another classic trope (around since Laura), the girl who is a double for a dead woman. In this movie, however, Madeleine looks nothing like her double, but she does seem like a double for Bleichert, and shares his bisexuality. The dead woman, the Dahlia of the title, is an afterthought to the whole story, which is eventually solved through a baroque solution, and given a baroque presentation. This dead woman, a brutalized victim, is supposed to be the centerpiece of the plot, but she’s overshadowed by Kay and Madeleine, who seem to be smarter than almost all of the men of the story, and are very good at manipulating them. Madeleine sees very clearly the corruption of Kay and Blanchard, as well as the sexual identity of Bleichert. The detective, threatened by all this, kills her. So, the expected noir story, though outwardly little different and carrying all the identifying details, is turned entirely on its head.

Probably the best, most obvious place to start this discussion is near the ending, when Ramona Linscott confesses to the murder. From here on I rely, and perhaps overrely, on Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” for reference. Sontag throws a very wide net over what she considers camp, including Caravaggio and The Maltese Falcon, but her essay is very useful for the expected thoughtfulness, but also for being so well-known that it serves as an easy touchstone on what is broadly considered camp, even if we disagree with some of its inclusions and exclusions. The essay warns against intentional attempts at camp, and here, I think De Palma is very effective, because the camp effects of the film prompted reviewers to ask the wanted question: “was that done on purpose?”

The Ramona Linscott scene is helped with this “Camp” quote on high art, which I think is important here as a counterpoint for what the movie tries to avoid:

35. Ordinarily we value a work of art because of the seriousness and dignity of what it achieves. We value it because it succeeds – in being what it is and, presumably, in fulfilling the intention that lies behind it. We assume a proper, that is to say, straightforward relation between intention and performance. By such standards, we appraise The Iliad, Aristophanes’ plays, The Art of the Fugue, Middlemarch, the paintings of Rembrandt, Chartres, the poetry of Donne, The Divine Comedy, Beethoven’s quartets, and – among people – Socrates, Jesus, St. Francis, Napoleon, Savonarola. In short, the pantheon of high culture: truth, beauty, and seriousness.

The Linscott confession scene starts out like most such scenes in a conventional noir: the detective has the suspects at the point of a gun, and he threatens them to confess. In the book, Bleichert starts destroying works of art by shooting some of them as a way of getting answers. The novel, as it treats many things, treats this very seriously. In the film, it is given such a ridiculous, heightened quality that it’s laughable. Various high art objects are destroyed, valued not for their qualities themselves, but their “seriousness”, and most important for a family whose fortune was built on firetraps, for their “respectability”. So, Bleichert shoots these various pieces, the movie defiantly avoiding formal seriousness. A chandelier falls to the ground, the high art is destroyed, and the camp really starts.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

The novel’s confession contains many of the same elements as Ramona’s, but even more elaborate and morbid. It is all given in a sober tone, an inquiry into the darkness of the soul, very much serious art. I enjoyed most of the book, but found the final revelation to be so complex and gory I kept trying to reshuffle things in my head to make it more effective. De Palma seems to have found it unworkably baroque, and given it an appropriate delivery. Rather than a serious monologue, it’s delivered from the top of the stairs like an aria without music. Various pieces of high culture lie smashed about the players, and only camp remains. I have no doubt that some review made reference to Goebbels’ line about “when I hear the word culture”, and, hopefully, gave credit to someone other than Goebbels, since the intent here is not against high culture, only an opposition to the idea that certain forms or tropes are inherently great or serious. The destruction of the serious art and the lurid monologue are about this movie’s sensibility, but also a manifesto for De Palma’s career, a non-deference for respectable stories, the nineteenth century romance, someone or other dying of cancer etc., in favor of work in “trashy” popular genres.

Moving on, this “Notes on Camp” point, I think, is very relevant to this film:

15. […] To camp is a mode of seduction — one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders. Equally and by extension, when the word becomes a noun, when a person or a thing is “a camp,” a duplicity is involved. Behind the “straight” public sense in which something can be taken, one has found a private zany experience of the thing.

But most importantly, this:

The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility. Examples: the swooning, slim, sinuous figures of pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry; the thin, flowing, sexless bodies in Art Nouveau prints and posters, presented in relief on lamps and ashtrays; the haunting androgynous vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Greta Garbo. Here, Camp taste draws on a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s sex. What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine. . . . Allied to the Camp taste for the androgynous is something that seems quite different but isn’t: a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms. For obvious reasons, the best examples that can be cited are movie stars. The corny flamboyant female-ness of Jayne Mansfield, Gina Lollobrigida, Jane Russell, Virginia Mayo; the exaggerated he-man-ness of Steve Reeves, Victor Mature. The great stylists of temperament and mannerism, like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Tallulah Bankhead, Edwige Feuillière.

This idea, I think, dominates the film, and we are given a quick image which embodies the way the film’s camp undermines the seriousness of the noir form in a crucial scene.

There is the bust of a man which, frankly I can’t identify (my only guess is Thomas Jefferson), but no doubt a possible member of the group of serious individuals (Socrates, Jesus, St. Francis, Napoleon, Savonarola, etc.) mentioned in the previous “Camp” note, in the sequence at the Olympic:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Then, from behind this piece of serious art, appears the androgyne, “one of the great images of Camp sensibility”, Madeleine in her man’s suit.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Two other moments where the picture clearly tips its hand. Bleichert walks into a room after showing off his behind to the camera, and looks at the audience, as if aware he’s in a movie and they’re looking at him.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

He goes about the business of exposition in the scene, necessary for the later confession, before arriving at a picture that catches his attention. It’s a picture of The Man Who Laughs, laughing at whoever looks at it.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

In this case, it is, literally, laughing at these characters and the noir ritual of exposition. “I don’t get modern art,” says Bleichert. “I doubt modern art gets you either,” replies Madeleine.

The last, and my favorite, wink would be the scene at the dinner table. In the book, Martha, Madeleine’s sister, is an unattractive, malicious girl who is silent during dinner while she sketches Bleichert. Martha of the movie is a bright, vital, attractive woman (the excellent Rachel Miner) who carries on a normal conversation, one might call it a small investigation, with Bleichert.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

On the surface, it is entirely an ordinary conversation. At the same time, Bleichert and Madeleine are being rendered into parody figures.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

The characters of the movie are not parodies, and if they were, camp wouldn’t be possible. Yet they all have an exaggerated note to them, that may not entirely be noticed, since noir is full of these exaggerated notes.

THE DOWNSIDE OF CAMP

By treating his characters as surfaces, individuals who correspond outwardly to noir types but are very different underneath, De Palma makes a fascinating movie, but by doing so, something compelling is lost from the book.

I struggled to put what this is into words, but this fragment from “The Dragon’s Egg”, by Adam Gopnik, which discusses the compelling qualities of young adult fiction, is a good starting point:

Books win their audiences for a reason. Most popular books wear their artlessness on their sleeve: Stephenie Meyer, the author of the “Twilight” series, is an awkward writer with little feeling for construction, but the intensity of emotion with which she imbues her characters is enviable. You never doubt her commitment to the material, which is half the battle won.

Ellroy is a better writer than Meyer, though not, despite his claims, as good as Tolstoy. Whatever the weaknesses of his books, his commitment to the Dahlia is complete and unfeigned, his belief in the writing of books as a penitence through which damned individuals expose the authors own damnations, and redeem themselves through heroic acts the author himself wishes for, is complete, a quality of extraordinary importance in a writer, one unlearned and unlearnable. The obsessions of Bleichert and Madeleine are either Ellroy’s own, or felt to be Ellroy’s own, and like Meyer this gives Dahlia an intensity of emotion that is enviable. De Palma has had no difficulty with commitment to characters of similar obsessions, whether in Blow Out or Casualties of War, but in this case, he does not connect with these men and women. It may be because that there is something inherent in the material that does not allow him this commitment, that in his movies he always skeptically questioned his own obsessions, while in Ellroy’s Dahlia one is given nothing but the man’s obsession, unquestioned. Such examination of the motives of those who make movies and books is always an unreliable business, I like to avoid it, and I end it here.

What is best examined are the effects of books and movies, what they attempt to achieve, and how they do so. On those terms, I think the approach of both is very different. De Palma’s Dahlia is ostensibly about a man possessed by a woman, with every element subverting this very story, with the movie ultimately about the false aspects of these heroic fantasies, the roles it forces women to play, the roles men dearly want to play in these fantasies, and makes camp of both. Ellroy is so deep inside his obsessions in Dahlia that he has no possibility of skepticism, and his belief in this world allows for our belief as well, locating our obsessions, however different, in Bleichert and Madeleine. The distance of camp does not allow this, and this is what causes some to despise the camp and ironic approaches. In some contexts, camp and irony are seen as a diminishment of possibility, the empathy any reader or viewer has with some characters. It is possible to cherish the characters of Jane Austen; I’m unsure if it’s possible to cherish the characters of John Barth. De Palma’s Dahlia has such sympathy for one character only, looked at entirely without any bend or slant, and that’s Elizabeth Short, a troubled young woman of luminescent beauty who conveniently dies, allowing her image to persist for the machineries of obsession, fantasies of the characters and our own. Again, the quote from Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere is apt: “Downtown came and went; the woman stayed.”

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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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

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:

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.

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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.

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

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 LEE BLANCHARD

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:

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.

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:

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

KAY
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

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:

MADELEINE
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.

BUCKY
You don’t talk about them, okay?

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

BUCKY
You don’t talk about them.

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.

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:

LIEUTENANT GREEN
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

ELLIS LOEW
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.

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!

RUSS MILLAND
Ellis!

LOEW
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:

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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.

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

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.)

WHAT MEN MIGHT WANT, OR: VOYEURS WILL BE DISAPPOINTED

Where the book is about obsession with a single image, the Dahlia, the movie is about what men want from movies, and how the form and the characters are not exclusively developed for narrative purposes, but to satisfy these tastes. An example of this from another movie would be making some character a strip club owner, so we can have a scene in a strip club, which will have naked women running around. Another would be a beautiful actress taking her shirt off before a love scene, or other purposeless context – only for the edification of the men. I don’t give citation for these examples because they’re so ever present. Black Dahlia is about a murder victim who slept around and made a stag film, with another woman, her supposed double, who also sleeps around, and a good looking detective who has sex many times with both. It would be very easy for this film to use this as a context to sate simple appetites; instead, the movie turns things on their head, using the context as a vehicle to examine and play games with these same desires.

Let’s start with one of the first important changes in the movie. As said, in the book, Bleichert is something of a grotesque, having massive obvious buck teeth. In the movie, these are visible in the opening shot before the fight when he does a deep inhale:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Then, during the fight, these front teeth are graphically knocked out.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

New, proper teeth are put in.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

That his buck teeth make Bleichert into something of a grotesque comes up several times in the book:

I danced and counterpunched and hooked to the liver, always keeping my guard up, afraid that catching too many head shots would ruin my looks worse than my teeth already had.

“My girlfriend saw you fight at the Olympic and said you’d be handsome if you got your teeth fixed, and maybe you _could_ take me.” [Blanchard talking]

“You’d be very handsome if you got your teeth fixed.” [Kay talking]

Smiling without exposing my teeth, I said, “Hello.” [at the Sprague family dinner]

The kids noticed me first. I flashed my teeth at them until they started laughing. [at the school where Kay teaches]

So, the fight carries some of the fantastic, ridiculous qualities of movie violence. Not only do the effects of these blows disappear within days, but they make Bleichert better looking. He moves from a grotesque to a very handsome man without aberration.

As an actor for this role, Josh Hartnett was criticized as mis-cast and too blank. I think this misunderstands a critical quality of this part. He is supposed to be blank, so that a man might better project himself onto this figure, and so that he might better serve as a proxy for heroic deeds and sexual feats. It might be argued that this slight blankness, in combination with great looks, is a necessary part of being a leading man, because what is wanted is this projection, something not possible with faces of too distinct or eccentric feature, where the actor is that character, and it is impossible to imagine oneself as that man. Bleichert is our proxy, with a man perhaps imagining with some small step, some teeth fixed or small physical error repaired, he might well be this person.

Bleichert has the traditional role of an avatar, allowing the men in the audience the possibility of vicarious sexual conquest. The movie plays a simple game with this. Each time there is a scene involving sex, the audience is brought close before being reminded that we are outsiders, not Bleichert at all, simple voyeurs to this image:

The first scene with Madeleine, we follow Bleichert and her to the hotel, before the smeared glass comes between us:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

The scene between Bleichert and Kay, they start to have sex on a table, and suddenly, we are outside the house, looking in:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

And when Bleichert returns to Madeleine, we look on through the glass of the door.

In each of these scenes, the violence of the motions of caressing and removing clothes approaches, intentionally, camp. The gestures are ostentatious because they are acted out for the benefit of the audience, not out of any necessity to present something of the characters.

After the last mentioned scene with Madeleine, the viewer is again placed behind a barrier, looking down on Bucky and Madeleine through a veil:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Here, De Palma plays another little trick. There are countless movies where a nude woman turns over and gets up for no purpose other than to show some appetizing part of her body. Perhaps there is the expectation that something like this will happen here. But, no, it is not the woman, but Bleichert, naked, in a shot that adds nothing to the movie, other than the pleasure a body part might give, who gets out of bed and walks around. De Palma emphasizes that the only point of this is titillation, though not for straight men, by moving his camera to a conveniently located mirror. There is one other subtle visual point made here: De Palma rudely mooning the wants of a straight man.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

In the mirror, he looks at his reflection, but also at us:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Subsequent to this scene, at the beginning of the next, Bleichert walks into the room and is looking off at something, but ends up looking straight into the camera. Both moments I read in one way: a character briefly wondering, am I being watched?

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

A similar game is played in the Lorna Mertz sequence. In the book, Lorna Martilkova (Mertz in the film), a past associate of the Dahlia, is spotted by a barman who calls it in to police, she runs out of the bar, the police give chase and Bleichert pins her to the ground, saying nothing in response to her protests. The scene, is very different for the movie, and I think the changes are, again, about the way men look at a movie.

It opens with Bleichert at the park reading a paper.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Something catches his attention.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

However, it is something where he does not want the object to know he is looking at them, so he puts up the paper and lowers his hat.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

We now get his perspective, that of a girl in a juvenile’s sailor costume. She is eating ice cream, and in one of those gestures that seem entirely designed for the edification of men, she lifts up her skirt to lick some ice cream that’s spilled on her leg.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

I think there’s an obvious reason why Bleichert might have been staring in the first place, and why this image is there. I don’t think it’s for police purposes, because now the cast of his face shifts, and only then is there recognition that this girl is of importance to the investigation.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Another image that seems designed for our appetites, she licks off some ice cream that’s fallen under her shirt:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Now, Bleichert rises up from his seat:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

She, not knowing him, is suddenly frightened of this man and starts to run:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

He chases her about and holds her down:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

His line after the chase, that gives this the observation of the girl the all-clear, is “I’m a police officer!” I don’t think this is some criticism of the power of police in society. It’s very much about the audience being given license to do certain things. Were Bleichert to look at this girl and he were a pedophile or other aberrant, the very possibility of edification would not be possible, because it would be through a deviant’s perspective. Here, the voyeurism is part of a criminal investigation, not for any essential part of the inquiry, but solely for the voyeurism itself.

De Palma explicitly states this when the stag movie is screened. It features Lorna and Betty topless and engaged in sex play, of which the audience is given a few seconds sight. We then move to the detectives looking at the film and get this dialogue.

LIEUTENTANT GREEN
What do you think, Russ? This got anything to do with the girl’s murder?

RUSS MILLARD
Long shot, chief.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

The joke, of course, is that there is no purpose to what we just looked at. The detectives are not watching this for its critical importance in the investigation, and the audience has not been given a look at it for any need of story or character, but only to watch some women with their tops off roll around.

This stag film also has a visual punchline. The movie, as said, is told almost entirely from Buckey’s perspective, and we, as voyeurs, always travel with him, looking from his view or over his shoulder at the beautiful women he encounters. We associate ourselves with Bucky, in wanting to see the same things he wants to see, and we have no problems with associating ourselves with this handsome man. Whatever nudity we see, we see not as voyeurs, but as a natural part of the journey of his character. At the very end, however, we’re given a brief, unwelcome shift. We move to a flashback of the making of the stag film, and again, we are looking over someone’s shoulder at the nude women. Again, we immediately associate ourselves with the viewer, because we share wanting to see these things:

Brian De Palma's Blow Out

Then suddenly the angle shifts, and the figure who is our proxy is the disfigured grotesque Georgie. The erotic view is no longer that of a handsome detective, but an outsider scarred degenerate murderer. We are suddenly him, just as before, we were Bleichert:

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The Black Dahlia: the monstrous voyeur.

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The culmination of this, the most explicit examination of men looking at women in film, are the audition clips of Betty Short, conducted by an unseen director, voiced by the same Mr. De Palma who directed the movie we’re watching. They are the only points when we see her, they are entirely of the movie, with nothing of the kind in the book, serving no simple expository purpose. The clips do not give anything like the fuller sense of Short we have in the book through various witness interviews. They serve as a fractional view of her, but one that contrasts with the roles that Kay Lake and Madeleine Linscott play in the film. The interviews serve as an indictment of the audience, but also a self-indictment of the director. The sets of The Man Who Laughs serve also as the sets for the stag film, and De Palma presents himself as the worst sense of what directors can be, simple pimps procuring beautiful women for the delectation of their clientele. The doubling of the stag film and Man Who Laughs feels like an indictment of contemporary film itself, a question of: at what point the medium becomes so debased, so simple a mechanism for sating the dullest tastes that it becomes indistinguishable from the artlessness of pornography?

A digression: we see the debased role of other actresses in the brief scene with Sheryl Saddon, Betty Short’s roommate. She waits in her room, looking out, the blinds like prison bars:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

She is waiting for the casting truck, or cattle car, filled with female extras:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Of course, she is dressed as a slave girl.

The anonymous director procures these women for us, but he also performs another task: to reprimand them for being so beautiful – so distant from the men in the audience – he also punishes them by humiliating them, all in the guise of acting, or getting some insight into them. Betty Short gives a terrible performance as Scarlett O’Hara, then is made to crawl on the floor till she is close to tears, then finally, provides a personal story that is sneered at. This is all difficult to watch, but how different is it from the desire and counter desire in the entertainment industry then and now, which both demands attractive women, and then demands that they be humiliated or destroyed, a reprimand for the audacity of their beauty and fame. The audition clips are also a study in contrast, with Mia Kirshner luminescent in every frame, something like a silent movie actress, all while her character is laughed at for her shoddy acting.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

MORAL HEIGHTS: STAIRS, CRANE SHOTS, AND CROWS

A key visual theme that runs through the movie is ascent, and movement from a great height. There is, again, a slight trick played here. We associate a position at great height with something unreachable, but also with the great moral purity, the divine. Here, the point of great height is the very opposite of some moral peak, but rather, the pit of damnation. That the viewer of the film often has the perspective of one on a mountain top looking down does not provide any moral distance, but indicts him as equally culpable as those damned.

The best example of this would be the best known sequence of the film, where, for the only extended period, the camera leaves Bleichert’s perspective and travels on its own.

We start at the base of the Holden Pet Food store:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Then move to the top of the building. We, the audience, have the power of flight, just like the crows that caw on this roof.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

We then move out from the roof, to the field where a woman has come across the body of Betty Short, then follow a car, then a bike, then Baxter Fitch and his girlfriend.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

As a brief digression, the following quote by Joan Didion from her novel Democracy was appropriate for De Palma’s Femme Fatale, and it is appropriate here:

I know the conventions and how to observe them, how to fill in the canvas I have already stretched; know how to tell you what he said and she said know above all, since the heart of narrative is a certain calculated ellipsis, a tacit contract between writer and reader to surprise and be surprised, how not to tell you what you do not yet want to know.

The camera has given us this extraordinary freedom, that no other character has, to move about the neighborhood, but when it turns back to the car it leaves out the simple fragment of what is going on at the Pet Food store when Blanchard pulls out his gun: is someone firing at him, or did he fire first? We, the viewer, have been granted extraordinary power, yet it is arbitrary, with vital, simple images withheld, ones that we wish withheld for suspense.

Returning to that uninterrupted shot: that we pass over the building and the crows sound is not, I believe incidental. The viewer’s power of flight, to wish to swoop down on parts of this landscape is connected to the most vulgar aspect of the crow, which can also move about and land where it wishes.

The next time the crow appears in this sequence is here, after the discovery of Betty Short’s nude body when it lands and starts to peck at it. Not unlike some men, perhaps us, is how this crow travels, searching for some nude part to sight and feed on.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

The position of the camera here makes obvious that our perspective of great height has nothing to do with some enlightened moral distance; it is entirely at the whim of the director. Before, we sailed freely through the air, far above the detectives and pimps. Now, we look up at the police from the perspective of Betty Short’s body, where, even crouched, they tower above us.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

To make the association clear, the visual theme is repeated during the autopsy. We look down at the body at great height, just like one of the crows. Then we move closer and closer till we reach near where one of the crows pecked, then our view shifts, and we are looking up at the detectives, again level with Betty Short. That the gore of the Dahlia’s corpse is close within reach, but always kept away from our eyes, may be another game played on those who desire to look on such morbid things in a movie about a serial killer.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Two major sequences are set on winding stairs, the killing of Lee Blanchard at the Olympic, and the confession of Ramona Lincott. They continue the theme of ascent as descent, stairways to inferno that run up, rather than down.

Bobby De Witt starts at the bottom, then steadily moves up. At the very top of the stairs is Lee Blanchard, Georgie, and Madeleine Lincott.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

At the Lincott mansion, Bleichert is at the base, Madeleine and Emmett are a landing up, with Ramona at the very top.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

The killing of Baxter Fitch and associates takes place in a house with stairs, which the partners ascend.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

The men take on the Black Dahlia case, which will take them away from Raymond Nash, when Blanchard lies that it’s being covered. It is after this that we see the men on the police station’s stairs mid-point. Bleichert protests here, but ultimately does nothing.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Finally, there is the theme of ascendance as damnation in the Blanchard house. The home is purchased through sinful works, blood money, corrupt acts, bribes and possibly even a bank robbery. In the novel, Kay relinquishes it because she cannot bear to have it on her conscience. Kay, as we’ll later look, is a different character in the movie than the book. Bleichert acquiring the house, Kay Lake, and the funds that come with it, completes his damnation, though visually, it’s entirely an ascent.

Kay, a deeply ambiguous figure, is a woman Bleichert badly wants. Both times when he sees her partially nude form is when she is in the bathroom at the top of the stairs.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

That the bathroom is at the top of these stairs is not incidental. The bathroom is where money that Blanchard either stole from De Witt, or stole from the bank itself, is buried.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

The house has a set of stairs which he must climb.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

The very last shot involves him walking up this set of stairs. The viewer has no sense of superiority over Bleichert; the camera’s perspective, the audience’s perspective, is already at the top of the steps as he makes this climb.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

THE FIGHT

In the movie, the fight is set aside as an act of central importance. The entire opening scene of Bleichert in his training room is a lead-up to this sequence, before cutting back to when Bleichert and Blanchard first met. The book simply has the fight in plot sequence, while the film wishes to place special emphasis on this moment. Another key difference, connected with the first, is that in the novel, Bleichert arranges to throw the fight before deciding that he won’t, though he loses anyway.

From the book:

The crowd was chanting, “Buck-kee! Buck-kee! Buck-kee!” as I weaved to my corner. I spat out my mouthpiece and gasped for air; I looked out at the fans and knew that all bets were off, that I was going to pound Blanchard into dog meat and milk Warrants for every process and repo dollar I could get my hands on, put the old man in a home with that money and have the whole enchilada.

The film has Bleichert arranging to throw the fight, then provide a voice over which starts to imply he’ll double cross the bookies as well, before leading to a point that he, in fact, will throw the fight.

That the fight is set aside may be because it serves as an embodiment for everything that follows. The external conflict is not at all what it appears to be. The book’s Bleichert and Blanchard are moving in opposite directions, with Blanchard among the damned and Bleichert with the saved. This match suggests that they are actually moving towards the same end, though Blanchard may be unaware of it. There is also the quality of the rigged game, with the designated hero having to win, not because he is skilled, or even because he is good, but only because he is perceived as the good man. There is another aspect to this fight, but that lies with the ambiguous nature of Lee Blanchard, and I’ll leave it to later.

Among the consequences of the fight, as mentioned, is, improbably, that Bleichert becomes a better looking man. Another is that he now has the money to place his father in a rest home. In the book, this man is a despicable character who’s a member of the German Bund. The father of the novel being placed in a rest home that he’ll have to share with jews is sweet revenge. The movie changes this to a man who longs for the Europe left behind.

In the movie:

BLEICHERT’s FATHER
Englische ist scheisse! Amerikanische ist scheisse! [“English is shit! America is shit!”]

In the book:

I pulled the old man up into a standing position. He dropped the BB pistol and Expectolar pint and said, “Guten Tag, Dwight,” like he had just seen me the day before.

I brushed tears from my eyes. “Speak English, Papa.”

The old man grabbed the crook of his right elbow and shook his fist at me in a slapdash fungoo.

“Englisch Scheisser! Churchill Scheisser! Amerikanisch Juden Scheisser!” [“English is shit! Churchill is shit! American jews are shit!”]

When the father is left at the rest home in the novel:

For two grand a year and fifty a month deducted from his Social Security check, the old man would have his own room, three squares and plenty of “group activities.” Most of the oldsters at the home were Jewish, and it pleased me that the crazy Kraut was going to be spending the rest of his life in an enemy camp.

When the father is left at the rest home in the movie, it feels like a confirming detail of what might be the squalid lack of family closeness in the United States, as compared to Europe. When dropping him off at the rest home, Bleichert gives his father an encouraging look, you’ll like this, and his father returns a look that Bleichert reacts to with utter despair.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

After throwing this fight and leaving his father behind, we might think there would be a visual note of Bleichert’s descent. But no: as mentioned, the movie acts in reverse. In the scene following the fight and the rest home, he is shot from his balcony, far above the street, far above Blanchard.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

A DOUBLE THAT ISN’T, A DOUBLE THAT IS, A BLACK ANGEL

A strange detail that many reviews comment on is that while the novel makes clear that Madeleine and the Dahlia are near twins, and in the movie various characters comment on the resemblance between the two, Madeleine (Hillary Swank) and the Dahlia (Mia Kirshner), obviously, visually, look nothing alike. That it would be no difficulty to cast the same actress in both roles, or very similar looking women in both roles, then provokes the question: why cast two women who look nothing alike as virtual twins?

There are several games, I think, being played here. The first, is that these characters, in a movie made in our time, who in many ways entirely resemble us, do not see things entirely as we do, though we may see the very same things. Ellroy, in his other novels, quickly establishes the divide between his police characters and the contemporary reader, by having them freely use racial epithets and often talk about men and women of certain races as subhuman. The reader may consider individual acts of the characters as heroic, but almost immediately, an easy identification is destroyed.

The only example of this is the film’s portrayal of Ellis Loew, the district attorney, or in the words of the police, the “jew DA”. Almost all of the book’s epithets have been scrubbed, except this one. Loew throughout the quartet is a venal opportunist. The movie’s transformation of him into a shallow grotesque suggests less a surrender to the views of the characters in the book, and more an attempt to create a compromise: can such a grotesque truly be real, or is it a creation of the characters’ perspectives? A tip of the hat to the latter appears in the last scene with Loews. We keep switching to Bleichert’s perspective, seeing Loew as a vindictive martinet throughout, chastising him for Blanchard’s absence.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Now, our last shot of Loew from Bleichert’s perspective, the “jew DA” looms large, entirely a grotesque, his semitic marker, an oversized nose poking into the camera. This, is how Bleichert sees this man, not just an opportunistic DA, but an opportunistic “jew DA”.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Another game is the movie questioning its own assumptions that it seemingly presents absent of doubt. That characters at the end of a film are young and good-looking, in love and with money, should not imply that they are without malice or that the victory is noble. If a man positioned as the hero in a story kills someone, it should not be assumed that the killing is necessarily righteous.

That the movie will present things that are not what they are, blatantly, is done quite clearly in another instance. The photo of Elizabeth Short, as part of an attempt to get leads for her murder, is publicized as the “Black Dahlia”, a play on the then contemporary movie The Blue Dahlia because of the dark dresses she wears.

The flower in her hair, however, which I believe is a dahlia, is not black at all, but white, in almost every photo. We see it in the collage of photos of Short at Bleichert’s apartment:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

It is one of these photos that is used for the front page story that gives the Black Dahlia her name. It can be glimpsed in this shot:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

So, the movie is somehow able to convince the viewer that white is black.

All this should not be taken that Madeleine is without a double. She has a double, but it’s not Betty Short. It’s Bleichert.

This, I think, is only obvious in the last minutes of the film, when we see Madeleine in her man’s suit which others have seen her in, but we only see now. I have Bleichert in a similar outfit, next to her, for comparison and contrast.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

There is also, I think, a very clear point when Bleichert realizes he is Madeleine’s double.

They are lying together in bed, face to face:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

She tells him that she once had sex with Elizabeth Short because she wanted to know what it was like to sleep with someone who looked just like her. In the book, it is this revelation that disturbs Bleichert. He can’t handle this idea:

I slid over to where I could eyeball Madeleine up close. Her lipstick was a bloody disarray, and I daubed at it with the pillow. “Babe, I’m withholding evidence for you. It’s a fair trade for what I’m getting, but it still spooks me. So you be damn sure you come clean. I’ll ask you one time. Is there anything you haven’t told me about you and Betty and Linda?”

Madeleine ran her fingers down my rib cage, exploring the welt scars I’d gotten in the Blanchard fight. “Sugar, Betty and I made love once, that one time we met last summer. I just did it to see what it would be like to be with a girl who looked so much like me.”

I felt like I was sinking; like the bed was dropping out from under me. Madeleine looked like she was at the end of a long tunnel, captured by some kind of weird camera trick. She said, “Bucky, that’s all of it, I swear that’s all of it,” her voice wobbling from deep nowhere. I got up and dressed, and it was only when I strapped on my .38 and cuffs that I felt like I’d quit treading quicksand.

Madeleine pleaded, “Stay, sugar, stay”; I went out the door before I could succumb.

The movie handles in a slightly different way. Madeleine tells Bleichert, “Betty and I made love once that one time last summer”.

Bleichert cracks up. He’s not bothered at all by this revelation.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Then there is a slight change to the book’s dialogue. The line in the book is, “I just did it to see what it would be like to be with a girl who looked so much like me”, all part of the line about Betty Short. The movie’s dialogue is, “I just did it to see what it would be like to do it with someone who looked like me”, and puts it after Bleichert laughs. It is after she says this line, that he turns to her, sees something in her face literally, and then the revelation hits him, disturbing him so much that he shoots out of bed, very scared.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

He starts to leave, she begs him to stay: “Bucky, please stay.” He then says the line, not in the book, “You stupid slut.” Then, she begs him to stay, again: “Stay, sugar, stay.” He leaves anyway.

Madeleine is Bleichert’s dark half, a twin who acts in ways he will not and does the things he wants, but which he will not permit himself. She is the one who initiates sex with him, rather than the other way around. Bleichert wants Kay Lake and the house, subconsciously wants Blanchard out of the way, perhaps finds Blanchard in an inconvenience for another reason, and it is Madeleine who kills him. She acts as the agent of his own hidden desires, which might make her something like his “Black Angel”. Her very identity is introduced in the Pantages marquee that we see right before the scenes in the lesbian clubs and her entrance.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Finally, Madeleine travels among men and women equally, having sex with both. This is what frightens Bleichert most about Madeleine; if she is an equal mirror, then they share this attribute as well, though she acts on it, while he represses it.

All these qualities, especially the last, are what make Madeleine so deeply disturbing to Bleichert. After he rushes out of the hotel bedroom, he stays away, only lured back much later, in an image where Madeleine stands at the balcony of her mansion like some gothic phantom:

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

Madeleine’s final scene is her taunting Bleichert about their twinship, and their polarities. She acts as she wants, he does not.

MADELEINE
I think you’d rather fuck me than kill me. But you don’t have the guts to do either. You’re a boxer, not a fighter.

BUCKY
You’re a murderer. Of my partner.

MADELEINE
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.

For Bleichert, there is something taboo about speaking ill of Kay and Blanchard, a defamation of the temple. There are two aspects of the movie Black Dahlia: in the first, two men, one in a perfect marriage with a beautiful woman, are on a modern day quest, the hunt for a killer of a beautiful woman, Elizabeth Short; the other is of a man drawn to a woman, his twin, who states that everything in this other plot is false. Blanchard is a crooked cop and a wicked man with no loyalty for either Bleichert or Kay, a man Bleichert is grateful his twin killed. The nihilism of Madeleine is how Hollywood operates, how the LAPD operates, and it is closer to how Bleichert, who throws a fight and ultimately accepts a house bought with stolen money, operates as well – though he would dearly like to believe he does not. There is also something of a sexual netherworld that he chooses when he is with Madeleine instead of Kay, a place of neither here nor there, of a dissolution in gender.

BUCKY
You don’t talk about them, okay?

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

BUCKY
You don’t talk about them.

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.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

She isn’t just taunting him with her resemblance to the Dahlia, which only the characters of the movie see, but her resemblance to him. It is also necessary, however, to imagine her for how she’s seen by the characters in the movie, as a virtual double for the Dahlia, an image whose destruction they have committed themselves to resolve. Madeleine says all the noble ideals of their lives are ridiculous; if Bleichert kills her, he will end up destroying these illusions anyway, because he will himself be destroying this sacred image again. His only excuse then would be that this image has nothing to do with reality, but this now could well be said of the idealized exterior and actual details of the lives of Kay and Blanchard. The intentional irony of this, of course, is that, to the viewer’s eyes, Madeleine looks nothing like the sacred image of the Dahlia. The scene moves to its conclusion:

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

BUCKY
No.

BUCKY shoots MADELEINE.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

I end this part by noting that of all the women in the movie, Madeleine is the one who moves with the greatest freedom. She has sex with who she wants. She is the only one who is able take on all the privileges of a man, when she puts on a suit. In the book, Madeleine kills Blanchard by manipulating other men through her sexual powers. The movie has her killing him herself, in cold blood. She may be wicked, but I see her as a good less cruel than, say, Blanchard. Her house is built on corrupt money, but so is Blanchard’s. She may have helped cover up evidence leading to the killer of the Dahlia, but so did Blanchard. She has the blood on her hands of one man, Blanchard has that of many.

She killed Blanchard, but this is a man who beat her father for shakedown money. In doing so, she acted not as a woman is expected, but like a man. According to the very code that Bleichert holds to, the misdeeds of her father are irrelevant, just as the misdeeds of his partner are irrelevant. Emmett was her father. Blanchard was his partner. When they are hurt or killed, there must be vengeance. I do not say whether this is a good or bad code, only that if it is the code Bleichert cites for killing her, it is the very same code by which she operates as well.

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

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. 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 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.”

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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