The Black Dahlia

Early yesterday evening I had just completed a demanding report (day-job) and was nursing a cold.  On both counts, I decided that I deserved an evening’s ‘ligging about’ (wonderful expression – I hadn’t heard it until I came to live in the north of England, though I understand it is now widely used), taking advantage of a small hoard of DVDs that my son left on his last visit, and selected The Black Dahlia (released in 2006), one of several film versions of one of several books which speculate about the horrifically brutal real-life murder (still unsolved) of an American woman, Elizabeth Short, a would-be movie star, in Los Angeles in 1947.

What an extraordinary film!  As I write, I still don’t really know what it is trying, in film terms, to convey.  It is based on the novel by James Ellroy and starts off Bonnie-and-Clyde style, a period piece set in Los Angeles in the late 1940s about police and gangsters.  Scarlett Johansson, starring as a gangster’s moll turned cop’s wife, at first seems to occupy a Faye Dunaway-like role, but, as her policeman husband becomes more and more obsessed and demented, she makes a set for his partner and friend, Bucky Bleichert (yet, counter to expectation, not much is made of this as a love triangle).  As it progresses, the story and the director’s handling of it becomes more surreal.  By the end of the first hour, the film is definitely no longer mainstream; it verges on film noir.  As this happens, the sets change from the naturalism of the first few scenes to much more painted, synthetic creations that look as if they belong to theatre rather than film (an earlier use of a device recently made famous in Anna Karenina).  I thought that this was brilliantly done – it seemed to me to represent an exploration of the artificial and corrupt world into which the young victim had been lured.  This was reinforced by some extremely creepy excerpts from the screen tests that she made before her death.  However, the last quarter of an hour or so takes this artificiality a stage further and, to me, the story seems to tip into farce at this point.  I won’t spoil it by saying who committed the murder, but this character is one-dimensionally grotesque in a way that inspires smiles rather than horror.

On the whole, I liked the earlier scenes the best; for example, the prize-fight at the beginning is horrifically gory, but extremely well done.  And, as often with period films set in the twentieth century, I admired the costumes.   Scarlett Johansson’s outfits capture all the glamour of the couture of the period but none of its frumpiness; the costume director has managed to tweak their authenticity ever so slightly so that they still appear attractive to modern eyes… even when streaked with blood.

The evening passed quite pleasantly and I was sufficiently distracted to forget work and cold.