Go learn something about our girl!
—Lee (Aaron Eckhart)
It takes some time for the body of the Black Dahlia to makes its appearance in Brian De Palma’s latest venture. Before Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) is discovered by the side of a road by a woman who screams and carries on at the sight of Short’s cut-in-half corpse, the film sets up the two detectives who will become obsessed with the case, a pair of boxers-turned-cops named Bucky (Josh Hartnett) and Lee (Aaron Eckhart). Why they’re obsessed is never clear, though it may have to do with the vacuum of a movie swirling around them: they’ve got nothing else to do.
The story of the Black Dahlia, whose grisly 1947 murder remains unsolved, is frequently resurrected as a metaphor for the corruption and brutality of Hollywood. Here that metaphor is obvious and odious: Bucky watches audition reels performed by Betty, awkward black and white images of a girl trying too hard to please her smarmy off-screen director (“What’s a sexy girl like you so sad about?”, etc.), literally crawling to show she’s “desperate,” reciting Scarlett’s “never be hungry again” speech to show she can be “passionate.” Much as Bucky appears to be mesmerized by these clips, they eventually give way to another bit of “evidence” in the murder, the inevitable stag film, where Betty and a blond named Lorna (Jemima Rooper) make use of a dildo and wrist restraints.
Bucky’s interest in the films stands in here for the generally titillating effects of movies and stardom, as manufactured by a notoriously bottom line-driven industry. In this frankly messy film (rifled with tediously overwrought performances, preposterous dialogue, and inscrutable plot turns that seem the results of poor editing), Bucky provides the requisite moral center, though his credentials are sketchy at best. He spends a lot of time with his partner Lee, as well as Lee’s girl Kay (Scarlett Johansson). She spends most all of her time in the house wearing beige and pearls, though she does strip occasionally to her silk underwear in order to appear framed by the bathroom doorway situated directly at the top of a stairway so that Bucky can gaze up at her, lusting in his heart.
Bucky imagines himself (or the film imagines him) as a deep thinker. Usually his thoughts are provoked by women’s bodies, the severed Dahlia or the branded Kay. When he spots the initials of her former pimp burned into her back (during one of his bathroom door-framed reveries), Bucky mumbles in voice-over, “Who are these men who feed on others? What do they feel when they cut their names into other people’s lives?”
By “others” and “people,” he means “women,” for the The Black Dahlia is all about the ways that women instill fear in men and men seek to contain and/or kill these eternal “others.” The movie figures the “cutting” in a variety of ways, ranging from sexual conquest to possessing by observation. On some such matters, the men compromise. In the matter of the threeway tension among Bucky, Kay, and Lee, the film offers a cursory set-up: they laugh, smoke cigarettes, and go see Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughed in a theater, as Bucky notes, nearly poetically, “She’d always be there, never between us, always in the middle.” Their togetherness is bound to give way to trouble, though the film’s non-explanation has the men’s parallel obsessions with the Black Dahlia at fault, rather than Kay’s own past as a prostitute or her current desires—for either man or both.
Kay is less a character than an image of the Dahlia’s opposite (the blond/beige look versus the dark-haired/black-dressed look being your first clue). The premise for the “trouble,” never explained or even much recounted on screen, is that both Lee and Bucky become obsessed with the Black Dahlia case, which means they are obsessed with Betty, as sign and cipher. Lee’s is enhanced by the fact that he becomes “squirrelly,” as he’s “hopped up on Benzedrine” for some reason (again, not explained), spreading out photos of the corpse and newspaper clippings all over his dining room table, driving Kay to understandable distraction. At last, she throws him out, and he moves his creepy collection into an empty apartment, covering the walls with pictures and making his fixation look overtly serial-killerish.
For his half of the man-obsessed narrative, Bucky finds a stand-in for the dead girl in the person of Madeleine (Hilary Swank), a bisexual rich girl on the order of Lauren Bacall’s Vivian Sternwood Rutledge in The Big Sleep (Swank affects a Katharine Hepburnish inflection which doesn’t descend quite clearly from Maddie’s Scottish father’s brogue, but recalls ‘40s Hollywood glamour, anyway). Smitten when he first espies Maddie at an “underground” lesbian club (where a tuxedoed k.d. lang belts “Love for Sale” as scantily clad lovelies kiss and drape themselves over shiny black staircases on a bizarrely expensive stage set), Bucky sits through an excruciating dinner at her parents’ home: her Carmen Sternwood-like sister Martha (Rachel Miner) sketches him humping Maddie doggy-style, her father Emmet (John Kavanagh) goes on about the fortune he made constructing houses in Hollywood, and her mother Ramona (Fiona Shaw) melts down grandly, cursing the lowly policeman that her tramp of a daughter has brought home.
The dinner seems almost irrelevant to the plot, except that it reestablishes that standard difference between rich and not, as the noiry detective must figure how those differences affect his case. Bucky thinks his performances—in a boxing ring, at a crime scene, in front of Kay—are different in kind from the performances he judges on screen. But his antics are not so different from Maddie’s or Betty’s. He has no more chance of controlling his image than do the girls.
And so, even as the film invites you to share Bucky’s judgments, it also makes his perspective suspect. In part, this has to do with his status as protagonist in a De Palma film (these fellows always misread what’s in front of them, even if they’re well-intentioned), but it also has to do with the very idea of obsession. For even as The Black Dahlia puts its protagonists through the tiresome motions of obsessing, that plot is hardly the point.
Really, it’s obsession as a concept, abstracted and insistently masculine, that drives the movie. While De Palma’s work is famously misogynist and self-referential (not to say self-obsessed), it’s hardly unique. It’s invested in the usual subjects—the lurid murder, the business of Hollywood, the pain of sex, the objectification of (dead) women, the resolve of the dumb detective—that make movies both disappointing and mesmerizing.