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`Dahlia,' a postmortem

Brian De Palma Probes The Crime That Shocked A City And The Mystery It Leaves Behind.

September 10, 2006|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

IN his neo-noir mystery, "The Black Dahlia," director Brian De Palma brings his camera into a morgue where the remains of the mutilated murder victim, Elizabeth Short, are displayed on an autopsy table. Through the director's lens, we gaze with grim fascination at the grotesqueness of the crime, wondering not only who this woman was and how she met her fate but what twisted mind could carry out such a heinous murder?

In real life, Short's remains were discovered on Jan. 15, 1947, by a passerby pushing a stroller past a vacant lot near 39th Street and Norton Avenue in Leimert Park, touching off a mystery that endures to this day.

The 22-year-old Short, nicknamed the Black Dahlia for her ratted raven hair and a penchant for black clothes, had been bound and tortured, her body severed at the waist, then drained of its blood and washed clean. Her blue eyes were open with her hands above her head. Several of her internal organs were missing. There were gashes at the corners of her mouth leaving her with a maniacal, clown-like grin.

The body depicted in the film was reproduced from the crime scene photos and are only fleetingly viewed on-screen.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 14, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
The Black Dahlia: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about director Brian De Palma said that murder victim Elizabeth Short had blue eyes and that several of her internal organs were missing when her body was discovered. Short had green or grayish-green eyes, and none of her internal organs were missing.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 17, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
The Black Dahlia: An article last Sunday about director Brian De Palma incorrectly said that murder victim Elizabeth Short had blue eyes and that several of her internal organs were missing when her body was discovered. Short had green or grayish-green eyes and none of her internal organs were missing.

"But once you see it, you'll never forget it," De Palma said. "If you are going to show the body and the way it was displayed and the horror of it, it has to be absolutely accurate .... The most compelling thing about the 'Black Dahlia' are the pictures. Once you see those pictures, you never forget [her]. When you see a girl so beautiful and she winds up like this, you say, 'My God, what happened?' "

There are few directors as adept at stylized scenes of voyeuristic violence as De Palma. Some of his films -- "Sisters," "Carrie," "Dressed to Kill," "Scarface" and "Body Double" -- are drenched in blood. Do his films reflect a fascination with death?

"I don't know if it's a fascination," he replies. "My father was an orthopedic surgeon. I sort of grew up with death from an early age. I remember going to surgery classes where they would be working on cadavers. I saw dead bodies on tables when I was in my teens."

For his source material on "The Black Dahlia," which Universal Pictures will release Friday and which stars Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank, De Palma used James Ellroy's crime novel of the same title, which creates its own fictional scenario behind Short's unsolved murder.

Ellroy noted that there have been numerous theories about who killed Short proffered by authors of nonfiction books over the years, but while some theories seem more credible than others, "none of them are provable."

"It's a signature murder case," Ellroy said, one that causes people of that era to remember where they were when they heard about it. "It was a hideous example of a sex murder."

Ellroy met with De Palma to discuss the book but said he did not have a direct role in shaping the film, in which Mia Kirshner is cast in the title role. He called De Palma the right choice to make this movie, noting the director has "great visual sense and period sense." De Palma, in turn, credits the author with making his job easier.

"There are so many theories about the 'Black Dahlia.' I thought that Ellroy's was one of the best, especially because of the fascinating way he tells stories. It's so complex -- something you don't see on the screen too often. You really have to bore into it. This is not an episode of 'CSI.' This is really dense, with a captivating mystery."

The movie's plot revolves around Hartnett's character, police officer Bucky Bleichert, who, like his partner, is a prizefighter in his spare time. Both are in love with Kay Lake (Johansson), the former girlfriend of an imprisoned robber. Bucky also has a steamy affair with Madeleine Linscott (Swank), who may have had a lesbian encounter with Short.

"Josh's character is in a universe where there is no morality, basically," De Palma explains. "He's the only one who seems to have some sort of conscience. He doesn't want to sleep with his partner's girlfriend. He feels his partner saved his life, which, of course, he didn't."

Johansson's character, he said, is a woman with a hidden past who is scared that her former boyfriend is about to get out of prison, though we don't know exactly why she's afraid. "Hilary's character is completely crazy in a kind of endearing yet vulnerable way," he said. She admits to sleeping with Short because she wanted to sleep with somebody who kind of looked like her.

Kirshner, who had auditioned for the part of Madeleine, was vacationing in Cambodia when she got a call from the director asking if she was interested in the role of Short. "At the time, there was nothing about Elizabeth in the script. I said to Brian, 'I don't think I'm the right girl for that. It's not my thing.' " So De Palma went back to the original draft, which gave Short's character a fuller role.

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