Monday, February 21, 2011

Rubbernecking 1947 Crime Scenes: "The Black Dahlia" book and movie

So, I'm not quite ghoulish enough to spend a lot of time watching shows about true life murder (unless I'm unemployed, then all bets are off.  City Confidential is aaaammmaaaaaaazing.).  For reasons I'm not quite sure of, I've been aware of the Black Dahlia murder since at least high school.  "The Black Dahlia"* was the name used in the LA press to describe torture and murder victim Elizabeth Short, found dead and terribly mutilated in an empty lot in January of 1947.  Short's murder has never been solved.

The crime has been endlessly revisited, much like the Jack the Ripper slayings, due to the unthinkable cruelty inflicted upon Short, the seeming calculated ruthlessness, the bizarre manner of public disposal, the odd follow ups from someone seemingly Short's killer, and the fact that the crime went unsolved despite a media frenzy and all-out effort by the LAPD.

I'm going to interrupt you now and say, I am totally not @#$%ing kidding:  DO NOT GOOGLE FOR IMAGES OF ELIZABETH SHORT.  Due to the nature of Google image search, you're likely to turn up autopsy and crime scene photos, and, I repeat:  her manner of her death was absolutely horrific.

She looked like this in life.  There.  You're done.
Back in the 1980's, crime novelist James Ellroy penned a fictional account of the investigation of Short's murder, and I think its safe to say that Ellroy stuck to some basic facts of the case, held close to historical accuracy for the time, but otherwise readers should consider the book a work of complete fiction (including characterization of Elizabeth Short).

I recently completed the book and watched the movie, The Black Dahlia.  Reading the book and watching the flick back-to-back is something I've been doing a lot of late, although I confess I gave up on the film of Slaughterhouse Five, deciding I wanted more time between the book and movie, but in this case...  I hadn't been completely sold on Ellroy's Black Dahlia.  Maybe I should have been, but parts of the book felt like they'd been cut too short or sold short, other parts seemed to linger on a bit longer than I felt necessary.


Some of the characters are fairly obvious, and, frankly, I felt that the minute the entirety of the Sprague clan showed up, and the way in which our narrator meets the family, this would be another tale in which the well-hidden perversions of the wealthy lead to victimhood for others.

As the book arrived in the 1980's, I can't be certain that it hasn't been imitated endlessly since, or if its carrying on the tradition of stories like Hammett's The Dain Curse or The Big Sleep by Chandler, and there's been enough repetition in crime and noir fiction that its almost inevitability of the genre.  It doesn't really matter, I suppose as I wasn't able to guess, exactly, who was responsible for the Dahlia until it was revealed in the novel, but it seemed as if rather than pursuing red herrings, the book could have tried to come to less of a dead end so early on.  The winding mess does obfuscate the mystery, but somehow the denouement just feels a bit too much like a "hoo-dunnit" by the time the final chapters put things into place.  Moreover, unlike the similar fictional reconstruction by Alan Moore in From Hell, the players selected are all entirely fictional, and it feels a little odd solving a very real, very tragic murder with fictional characters, motivations, etc...

Frankly, I couldn't ever shake the feeling that making Lee Blanchard the killer would have been a more logical and more interesting choice, even after pursuing the Sprague clan, but...  a lot of people who've read the book apparently thought otherwise.


I do like most of Ellroy's style, and its made me curious to check out some of his other work (this seems like a very good companion piece to what I remember of the film adaptation of LA Confidential, also by Ellroy). 
I've been looking at American Tabloid as an audio book, and I might have to do that.

The sprawling cast of the book feels right, especially in the multiple environments our narrator passes through, and Ellroy does a good job of knowing all of his characters well enough that you don't get lost.  He seems to fully realize the world of 1940's-era LA and Hollywood, refusing to romanticize any of it. And while he's not as razor quick as a Hammett, Chandler or Westlake, his more "novelistic" approach to traditionally pulp material does give the proceedings a welcome bit of gravitas.

What's terribly odd is how... off I found the recent adaptation to film by Brian DePalma.

these poor jerks thought they were in the next big movie
Released in 2006, the entire tone of the movie seems simply off.  DePalma seems to want to imbue the movie with same sweeping grandeur he captured in The Untouchables, which was a movie far more like a tale of larger than-life heroes and villains playing out morality tales against the marble and granite backdrops of Depression-era Chicago.  Its a strange tack to take with a story that is, flat out, crime-fiction-noir, the kind of story that relies on dingy apartments, bare light-bulbs, cheap-looking actors and a bottle in either foreground or background of every shot.

I knew things had missed the mark fairly early on, but almost groaned aloud when I saw DePalma had transformed the dank, intentionally dark and unobtrusive "lesbian bar", Laverne's, into a swank, deco dinner club complete with a KD Lang (plus dancers) floor show.

Casting for the movie could have been mostly on.  Josh Hartnett was likely okay to cast as narrator Bucky Bleichert, but a producer somewhere decided you can't hire Hartnett and give him prosthetic Buck teeth, no matter what the character is named, and so the teeth disappear before the end of the Act 1.  Scarlet Johansson, always welcome on the screen or in my home, is clearly cast about 10-15 years too young for her role, coming off as a co-ed playing grown up rather than the worldly Kay Lake of the novel.  Hilary Swank never captures the acute weirdness of Madeline Sprague...  the list just kind of goes on.  But, man, do the Sprague-scenes feel like actors chewing up the scenery...  Aaron Eckhardt and the character of Lee feel simply wasted in this adaptation.

you would think Ms. Johansson would make everything better
But even the directing and cutting feel weird.  Scenes are awkwardly shot, seemingly lacking B roll and inserts for close-ups.  Actors seems to know their lines, but haven't quite found the scene, but that's what's on the screen.  And the investigation into the life of Elizabeth Short gets dumbed down into a series of sort-of-goofy screen tests.  Bucky and Lee's absolute unraveling just doesn't make it into the movie, and that's unfortunate (for Ellroy and the viewer).  It was so much the point of the book, and here it just feels like plodding plot points.

All of the pieces are there, from big name actors to up and comers, to beautiful sets, a name director and a best-selling novel as the source...  Anyway, don't take my word for it.  The New York Times also watched the film.

On the whole, its a missed opportunity.  My personal feelings about how Ellroy wraps up the mystery aside, something really weird happened here, and I doubt that's a story Mr. DePalma will ever get to tell.  And because Short's death was very real, and because its not completely outside the window of memory, even while preserved in records and black and white photos, somehow it seems you need to do better when you're given the chance.

In interviews and elsewhere, its no mystery that Ellroy carried (or carries) his own low-level obsession with the Black Dahlia, and wanted some sort of justice for Elizabeth Short. 

As I understand it, Ellroy isn't alone, and a few folks hit the LAPD for the Short files on a routine basis, hoping to find some new clue, somewhere in the endless amount of paperwork created during the investigation.I find it unlikely that with 60 years turning to 70 since Elizabeth Short died, that anyone will ever know what truly happened, but she was real.  And so you hope that those who want to use her memory to tell their stories will do so with the care that I believe Ellroy genuinely employed, but which somehow got lost in the same Hollywood that killed Short the first time around.

*the name was coined after The Blue Dahlia, a popular movie of the era starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Forget it Jake. It's Chinatown...