‘The Black Dahlia’: Pulp Fiction, By Kurt Loder

In Brian De Palma's new picture, the biggest mystery is the movie itself.
Also: An ex-Beatle prevails in 'The U.S. vs. John Lennon.'

Like the James Ellroy novel on which it’s based, director Brian De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia” is a heavily fictionalized account of a famously grisly and still-unsolved L.A. murder case. The victim was 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, and her naked body was found in a weedy field on the morning of January 15, 1947. It had been severed at the waist and then apparently washed before the two halves of the corpse were transported from wherever it was that Short had been murdered. Her mouth had been slashed wide into a hideous rictus, and patches of skin were missing from other areas of her body. These are facts.

The movie additionally asserts that the cadaver had been drained of blood, and that the girl’s viscera, including “her reproductive organs,” had been removed. These are not facts. Nor is there any real-life evidence for the picture’s portrayal of Short as a dim-witted, bisexual slut, an aspiring actress whose lack of talent was documented in a series of pathetic screen tests and whose only actual celluloid performance was in a short lesbian porn film.

These fabrications may not seem especially relevant at first, since “The Black Dahlia” is only glancingly concerned with Elizabeth Short’s murder. Instead, its focus is on two LAPD detectives, Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). We don’t meet this pair right away, because the movie opens, for some reason, in the midst of the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, in which packs of U.S. soldiers and sailors roamed the streets of East L.A. beating up young Mexican pachucos, and local police reportedly followed along, arresting hundreds of them. These notorious clashes may deserve a movie of their own, but it’s hard to grasp what they’re doing in this one.

Our confusion deepens when we finally do meet Bucky and Lee, because at first they’re not cops — they’re amateur boxers. Lee is billed as “Mr. Fire” (he’s a Benzedrine-stoked hothead); Bucky is “Mr. Ice” (a zingier handle than “Mr. Inexpressive Mope”). There’s an elaborate arena bout in which these two bash away at each other for so long, we begin to wonder if we’ve wandered into a ’40s boxing movie. There’s also some baffling business with Bucky’s senile father, who has taken to shooting pigeons from his window and has to be put in an old-age home. Eventually, though, Bucky and Lee do morph into cops, complete with badges and gats, roomy period suits and highly atmospheric tobacco habits. Are we about to get into the Dahlia case?

Not yet. First we have to meet Lee’s girlfriend, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). With her clingy sweaters and satin lounging outfits, Kay is a study in retro blonde lusciousness. She’s a reformed prostitute, once the property of a small-time pimp whom Lee cleverly sent to prison. Now the pimp is about to be released, and Kay is scared. Her boyfriend, Mr. Fire, is obscurely incensed. And Bucky is as puzzled as we are. For one thing, although Lee and Kay live together, Kay pointedly tells Bucky that they don’t sleep together. (This intriguing wisp of information is never pursued, and never pays off.) Before long, the three of them become inseparable. They hang out around the house a lot, smoking and drinking and smoking some more, and when they go out to the movies, Kay sits between the two men and holds hands with both of them. This, too, remains unexplained, and leads nowhere.

The Black Dahlia appears at last in one of the movie’s several stylishly-constructed set-piece scenes — a crane shot that pans up from one street and across a rooftop to another street nearby, where, from high above, we see the body lying in the field. Given that the director is De Palma, the man who made the 1983 “Scarface” (if he had a boxing handle, it might be “Mr. Bloodbath”), you’d expect him to dive right down into this ghastly crime scene. But De Palma is oddly (and admirably) fastidious; he never pushes Elizabeth Short’s mutilated corpse entirely into our faces.

He does indulge his penchant for lurid kink, though, and he has a lot of fun doing it. The fictitious porn film in which Elizabeth features (she’s played by Mia Kirshner) is rendered with a bold, knowing prurience. And when the murder investigation takes Bucky to a plush lesbian nightclub, it’s a place so fabulously dissolute that the tuxedoed figure up onstage singing “Love for Sale,” amid a bevy of writhing, tongue-kissing chorines, turns out to be k.d. lang.

We have plenty of time to savor these titillating details, because the plot has left us far behind. There’s a slumming rich girl named Madeleine (Hilary Swank), who’s said to be a dead ringer for Elizabeth Short. (Unfortunately, Swank looks nothing like Mia Kirshner; she doesn’t even much resemble Hilary Swank.) And there’s her dreadful family: a moneybags dad (John Kavanagh) who admires Hitler, a pointlessly weird little sister (Rachel Miner) and a drunken, gibbering mother (Fiona Shaw, in the movie’s one appallingly misconceived performance). There’s also a brazenly ridiculous, sub-”Chinatown” plot element involving a conspiracy to misuse rotten lumber from old silent-movie sets. But the picture’s crowning lunacy comes at the end, when the Dahlia’s killer is “revealed” in an extended sequence of such demented, squealing hysteria, we want to avert our eyes in embarrassment for the actors.

De Palma is an expert technician, of course, and working with master cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, he creates some tour-de-force scenes (especially a shootout in a shadowy marble atrium). His convincing approximation of Los Angeles in the 1940s is also impressive, considering that most of the movie was shot in Bulgaria. The stars are a more mixed proposition. Eckhart has a clenched intensity that’s just right for a strong-arm cop; but when he’s not onscreen, and Hartnett has to carry the action, the picture slumps — Hartnett is too mildly contemporary to be persuasive as a vintage tough guy. And Johansson’s character is given little to do beyond smoking and posing (and no doubt inventing ever-more-challenging ways to do up her hair).

Despite the juicy tabloid material and the filmmaking talent involved, “The Black Dahlia” is a bloated and oddly listless production. And it’s a slog — it runs two hours, and it feels 20 minutes too long. There’s also an unsettling aspect to the picture: It’s dispiriting to see a woman’s agonizing death, even this many years after the fact, wrapped in slanders and pumped up into entertainment. That the entertainment fails to be very entertaining makes it an even sorrier undertaking. Clearly, Elizabeth Short’s abuse didn’t end in 1947.

“The U.S. vs. John Lennon”: All He Was Saying

This 96-minute documentary, written and produced by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, is a reminder — an always-useful one — of government’s dangerous capacity for arrogant and unlawful behavior.

After the Beatles broke up, in early 1970, John Lennon and his problematic consort, Yoko Ono, threw themselves into political activism, mainly in opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1971, he released the protest anthem “Power to the People.” At the end of the year, he performed at a benefit concert in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the former MC5 manager John Sinclair, who had been sentenced to 10 years in jail in 1969 for selling two joints to an undercover narcotics officer. Such was Lennon’s star power that almost immediately after the concert, the Michigan Supreme Court set Sinclair free.

This powerful new species of celebrity political influence did not go unnoticed by the paranoid Nixon administration — which, as it turned out, had much to be paranoid about — or by the sinister head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Right-wing politicians had begun taking note of Lennon during the Beatles’ last concert tour, in 1966, when he let slip the remark that it seemed his band had become more popular than Jesus. Now he and Ono were living in New York City, where they had become tight with such abrasive anti-war stars as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Worse yet, he had begun a public friendship with Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale — an alarming figure in law-enforcement circles. Something had to be done.

In February of 1972, Lennon, a visiting alien in this country, was told by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service that he had one month to leave voluntarily or else be deported. The grounds: a pot bust in England back in the late ’60s. (John claimed it had been a set-up.) His response was to hire a tough American immigration lawyer, who — while staving off the deportation order for the next several years — proceeded to sue a number of high-level federal officials for unlawful conspiracy, and eventually to get his hands on some startling government documents. It turned out that Lennon’s phones had been tapped and that he had actually been followed as he moved about Manhattan — and that knowledge of these activities reached all the way up to the Oval Office. As one former FBI agent says in the film, “It was horrible what we did.” The government’s vendetta against Lennon finally collapsed on October 9, 1975; he received the news as he was on the way to the hospital to attend the birth of his son, Sean.

It’s wonderful to hear John Lennon’s voice again, and to see him performing onstage. There’s a lot of period silliness on display here — John and Yoko’s “bed-in” for peace, and the press conference they conducted from inside a large cloth bag. And it’s clear that Lennon was essentially a political naïf, and thus ripe for manipulation by radical publicity hounds like Hoffman and Rubin. More to the point, perhaps, his airy recipes for world peace (“War Is Over If You Want It”) could only seem meaningful to someone wealthy and famous enough to have any desire instantly gratified simply by expressing it. (At one point, Gloria Emerson, of The New York Times, confronts Lennon about his stop-the-war theories. “You’re living in a never-never land,” she says. “You don’t think you’ve saved a single life?”)

But he was a great artist, of course, with great enthusiasms beyond his art. And he pursued them, loudly, through an alarming campaign of government intimidation. No wonder the government was worried. As novelist Gore Vidal says in the film, “Anybody who sings about love and harmony and life is dangerous to somebody who’s singing about death.”

 
— Kurt Loder

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Black Dahlia” and “The U.S. vs. John Lennon.”

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