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Film / The Black Dahlia

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The Black Dahlia is a 2006 neo-noir crime film directed by Brian De Palma and starring Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank and Fiona Shaw, based on the novel of the same name by James Ellroy. The film tells a fictional story based around the real life murder of actress Elizabeth "Betty" Short (played by Mia Kirshner) who came to be nicknamed The Black Dahlia. Hartnett and Eckhart play two boxers-turned-police detectives who are called on to investigate Short's murder and end up uncovering a (fictional) conspiracy around the whole thing.

The film is largely remembered as one of the most confusing and incoherent stories of all time, partially due to several scenes being cut leaving behind Plot Holes; Ellroy himself loved the original edit and refuses to say a word about the final version.

Not to be confused with the 1998 adventure game. Or with The Blue Dahlia film from 1946, for that matter.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Induced Plothole: Much attention is made to the movie The Man Who Laughs as an allusion to Georgie Tilden. Except Georgie Tilden is almost completely excised from the movie.
  • Affair? Blame the Bastard: Subverted. Ramona had an affair with Georgie and thus Madeleine was born. Instead of blaming his daughter however, Emmett saw himself as being a loving responsible father to her and instead took his anger out on Ramona's lover (and Madeleine's real father) Georgie by horribly disfiguring his face.
  • Alleged Lookalikes: A major plot point is that Madeleine Linscott and the murdered Elizabeth Short looked alike. Kay is even able to spot the resemblance from several feet away on the lawn. Actresses Hilary Swank and Mia Kirschner, however, look nothing alike.
  • Ambiguously Bi:
    • Madeleine hangs out at lesbian bars and admits to sleeping with a woman, yet she clearly enjoys sex with Dwight.
    • Lorna Mertz, who enjoyed making the pornographic video with Elizabeth more than the other did.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Elizabeth Short and her friend Lorna liked to hang out with lesbians in a time where such things were taboo. Elizabeth also slept with Madeleine.
  • Arch-Enemy: The newspapers play this up when Lee and Dwight have a boxing match, billed as "Mr Fire vs Mr Ice".
  • Armor-Piercing Response: Bucky delivers one to Kay when she followed him to Madeleine's place.
    Bucky: You lied to me!
    Kay: I lied for you! I lied for us! What else could I do but lie, Dwight?
    Bucky: You could have told me the truth.
    • Kay delivers one to Dwight after catching him with Madeleine, the Dahlia's lookalike.
      Kay: You're going to end up like Lee. You will. But I will not.
  • Armor-Piercing Question:
    • Bucky when he asks Kay who is Bobby DeWitt and her facial expression and demeanor changes.
      Bucky: Kay, who's Bobby DeWitt?
    • When Kay catches Bucky and Madeleine together.
      Kay: She looks like that dead girl! How SICK are you?!
    • When Bucky confronts Madeleine's sister Martha asking her personal questions. This makes her crack:
      Kay: [Lee] knew about your sister and The Dahlia? (Beat) Tell me.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Madeleine's parent's marriage is far from a happy one as her mother Ramona drinks and pops pills and argues with Emmett at the dinner table. The couple also have affairs on the side of their terrible marriage, Ramona with Emmett's friend Georgie and Emmett with Madeleine.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Dwight gets his front teeth knocked out at the start of the film but gets a nice set of false ones that don't alter his smile at all.
  • Berserk Button: Anything to do with The Dahlia triggers this for Lee Blanchard. He throws a fit and trashes the place when he sees Elizabeth Short being sodomized in her pornographic film. Then he gets violently mad, lashing out at his girlfriend Kay if she insists he stops to eat something and smashes a plate when she places one on the table, the same table covered in The Dahlia's autopsy photos.
  • Betty and Veronica: Kay and Madeleine are the Betty and Veronica to Dwight respectively.
  • Big "NO!": Dwight, when he fails to get to Lee in time and is forced to watch his friend fall to his death.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Linscotts. Aside from their mental health problems, secrecy, corruption, infidelity, and incest, they're very much responsible for the manipulation, torture and death of Elizabeth Short and they even blackmail an officer in getting away with it.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Lee is murdered, Dwight has now killed Madeleine and appears to still be haunted by Elizabeth's murder but he and Kay have a chance at a new life now.
  • Break the Cutie: Poor Elizabeth Short. She went to Hollywood hoping to become a movie star. She actually got auditions but she was such a bad actress she never got a part and the only film she ever made was porn. Oh and then she gets brutally murdered.
  • Butch Lesbian: Elizabeth and Lorna were seen chatting with one, which points Dwight in the direction of lesbian bars. A female bartender of the lesbian bar Dwight investigates gives him an alibi. Also, K.d lang as the bar singer.
  • Carved Mark: As Kaye prepares for her bath, Dwight notices that she has visible scaring on her back with the initials of her attacker "B.D" (Bobby Dewitt) carved into her skin. It's because of this that he wishes death on Bobby Dewitt.
  • Celebrity Cameo: k.d. lang as a singer in the lesbian bar that Dwight investigates.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The clown paintings in the Linscott manor.
    • The "Man Without A Face" silent talkie film, featuring Gymplaine with a disfigured smile.
    • The buildings outside Hollywoodland.
    • The puncture would in the palm of the Dahlia's hand.
    • The set used in the lesbian pornographic film featuring Elizabeth Short.
    • The autopsy photos of the Dahlia with a glasgow smile.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Ramona is revealed to be this after her confessions of killing Elizabeth Short to her family and Dwight. This was also one of the reasons why she killed The Dahlia in the first place, as she had been disturbed by the revelation of her lover Georgie Tilden being fixed up on a date with the Dahlia and becoming more unhinged from it. Her solution was to interrupt their date, bludgeon her with a bat and murder her, effectively winning over her lover Georgie.
  • Comforting the Widow: Bucky and Kay after Lee's death.
  • Costume Porn: Of the 1940s outfits variety.
  • Country Matters: When Dwight interrogates one of the prime suspects ( and Kay's abusers), the man he catches makes a lewd comment using this word about his time first spent with Kay sexually which is enough to make Dwight want to pummel the man.
  • Daddy's Girl: Madeleine is this with her father Emmett. A little too close, as discovered later by Dwight.
  • Dark Secret: Madeleine saw Lee blackmailing her father Emmett over their involvement with The Dahlia and decided to get revenge.
  • Death by Adaptation: In the film, Bucky finally shoots Madeline for her misdeeds at the end of the film. In the novel, he turns her into the police for Lee's murder, and the family is able to hire Jerry Geisler as her defense lawyer. Not only does she ruin Bucky's career with the LAPD and cost him his position by referencing all the times he was derelict in duty while at her house having sex with her, but she also gets sentenced for manslaughter rather than murder due to being deemed mentally unfit.
  • Death of the Hypotenuse: First Lee, then Madeleine.
  • Demoted to Extra: Georgie Tilden has had almost all of his scenes cut so there is great confusion when it's revealed he was a major part of why the Black Dahlia was murdered.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: A non-slasher film example. Despite being a movie about Elizabeth Short's murder, that part of the plot doesn't kick off until 20 minutes into the film.
  • Dies Differently in Adaptation: Blanchard went down to Mexico in the book and was killed by the corrupt cops down there for flashing too much cash as well as raising a ruckus. Here, he's killed by Madeline in retaliation for his blackmail.
  • Everybody Has Standards: The bartender in the lesbian bar Dwight investigates is familiar with Elizabeth Short and Lorna Mertz but didn't offer services to Lorna due to her being underage. As she puts it, "we don't truck with underage stuff".
  • Fan Disservice: The lesbian pornographic film starring a reluctant Elizabeth Short and a 15-year-old Lorna Mertz. The kisses between Short and Mertz are titillating but the rest is uncomfortable to watch as Mertz is underage, and Short cries and gets sodomized and painfully humiliated onscreen.
  • Fanservice: The dancers in the lesbian night club.
    • The shirtless boxing matches between Dwight and Lee.
    • Bucky and Kay's love scene.
  • The Family That Slays Together: The seemingly wholesome Linscott family were revealed to have worked together in the murder of Elizabeth Short.
  • Film Noir: Packed with elements of the classical style.
  • Fille Fatale: Lorna Mertz. She's an emancipated minor who looks and acts older than her real age and wasn't afraid to act promiscuously towards men.
  • Femme Fatale: Madeleine Linscott is a beautiful, possibly insane, woman obsessed with both the Black Dahlia as well as detective Bleichert. She seems to get off by revealing her father's many-many crimes in bed. She also killed Detective Lee Blanchard.
  • Girl on Girl Is Hot: Subverted utterly completely. The police have to watch a stag film which featured Elizabeth. She is in tears as she performs the various sex acts and Lee throws something across the room in disgust at it.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: Ramona and her lover murdering The Dahlia sets off the plot.
  • Golddigger: Ramona drunkenly implies at the dinner table that Emmett married her for her father's money, much to his embarrassment.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Dwight and Lee are best friends as well as police partners.
  • Informed Attribute: A plot point is the resemblance between Madeleine and Elizabeth Short. Hilary Swank and Mia Kirschner look nothing alike.
  • Incest Subtext: A disturbing example. Ramona Linscott revealed that her lover Georgie Tilden was so obsessed with Elizabeth Short that he desired to have sex with her, despite the fact that the object of his affection resembled his own daughter. This being the reason why Ramona was disturbed by it so greatly that she sought to prevent it from happening...
  • Impaled Palm: Elizabeth Short sustains this during the filming of a pornographic film. Lampshaded by the doctor doing her autopsy.
  • Interrupted Intimacy: Madeleine and her father are shown getting close to intimate on the stairs before they are interrupted by Dwight.
  • Ironic Echo: A sad point, in which Dwight makes a comment about his and Lee's boxing match with their respective titles of "Mr. Fire vs. Mr. Ice". The next time he uses this comment again, Lee is dead and about to be cremated while Dwight stands over his friend's dead body in grief quoting "Fire & Ice".
    • "To my supercops.". When Kaye says this, it's a celebration between her, Dwight and Lee on their major case win. The next time she says this at dinner, she and Dwight are mourning Lee.
  • It's Personal: Why did Ramona torture and kill The Dahlia? Because she couldn't stomach the thought of her lover Georgie sleeping with another woman who resembles their daughter.
  • I Was Young and Needed the Money: Lorna admits to the police officers Blanchard and Bleichert that she accepted a deal of acting in a lesbian pornographic movie in exchange for an offer of $200, only because she thought she might be pregnant.
  • Lady Drunk: Madeleine's mother.
  • Large Ham: Madeleine's mother (again) in the scene where she confesses to killing Elizabeth and commits suicide immediately afterward. Being played by Fiona Shaw helps.
  • Lecherous Stepparent: Emmett is revealed to be this toward his own daughter Madaleine. Who is revealed to not be his biological daughter.
  • Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: Kay is the light, Madeleine is the dark. Also, Elizabeth was dark while Lorna was light.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Several of the women attending the lesbian bar are quite feminine. Elizabeth Short, Lorna Mertz and Madeleine also count.
  • The Lost Lenore: Elizabeth Short. For a movie named for her famous moniker and allegedly revolving around solving her murder, she's very much in the background (even taking into consideration that for most of the movie, she's dead), serving only as a way to link the main cast.
  • Love Triangle:
    • Bucky/Kay/Lee
    • Kay/Bucky/Madeleine
    • Emmett/Ramona/Georgie
    • Bucky/Madeleine/Emmett
    • Ramona/Georgie/Elizabeth Short
  • Madonna-Whore Complex: Wholesome and sweet Kay is contrasted with vampy and dangerous Madeleine. Guess which one lives and gets the hero.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: During her confessional, Ramona reveals to Dwight that Madeleine was born out of her affair with Georgie, not from her marriage with Emmett. And it's because of this (along with Madeleine's resemblance to her true father) that Emmett snapped and ruined Georgie's face for it.
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: Dwight almost pummeled a suspect for insulting Kay.
  • Missing White Woman Syndrome: Duh, it is the 1940s.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Many examples of this throughout the film. Such as Lee to Bobby Dewitt, for what he did to Kay, Ramona to Elizabeth Short, in an attempt to keep her lover Georgie, Madeleine to Lee, for beating and blackmailing her father Emmett, and eventually Dwight to Madeleine, over her villainous actions such as murdering his partner and her and her family's corrupt involvement with The Dahlia. Lampshaded by Madeleine before her own death.
  • Not Distracted by the Sexy: Dwight is at a lesbian bar during an erotic stage performance but ignores that as he is investigating his case.
  • Patricide: On the night Lee was killed, Madeleine had killed him and accidentally killed Georgie Tilden too. Whether or not she knew he was her biological father was up for debate.
  • Parental Incest:
    • Emmett Linscott with his daughter Madeleine Linscott. Later, it's revealed she isn't actually his daughter.
    • Implied with Georgie Tilden who attempted to have sex with a woman who closely resembled his illegitimate daughter Madeleine.
  • Platonic Life-Partners: Dwight and Kay initially but they get closer after Lee's death.
  • Posthumous Character: C'mon, guess.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Dwight and Lee.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Kay accuses Dwight of this, sleeping with Madeleine because she looks like Elizabeth Short. A partial example since Dwight was never involved with her.
  • Rescue Romance: Lee and Kay were this, Lee having saved Kay from Bobby De Witt.
  • Samus Is a Girl: Lee was murdered by Madeleine dressed in disguise as a man.
  • Sassy Black Woman: A One-Scene Wonder character as a prostitute accompanying a suspect in the case.
  • Screw Yourself: Madeleine admits to Bucky this being one of the reasons why she slept with Elizabeth Short once.
    Madeleine: Elizabeth and I made love once. I just did it to see what it would be like with someone who looked like me.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: Inverted. The screen fades to black as Dwight and Kay begin to have sex on the table.
  • Sex for Solace: The grief of losing Lee propels Dwight and Kaye to sleep together.
  • Staggered Zoom: As Madeleine kisses Dwight, he sees something outside and the camera dramatically cuts to reveal it is Kaye who is standing outside catching Dwight and Madeleine in their embrace; both cuts with a three-shot frame complete with a Stinger.
  • Teen Pregnancy: Discussed. The 15-year-old Lorna Mertz tells Bleichert and Blanchard that she thought she was pregnant and was in need of financial support hence why she made the pornographic film with Elizabeth Short.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Bucky and Kay throughout the first and second half of the film. Until Lee dies, then it's quickly resolved between them.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Elizabeth's real-life murder was never solved and is still a mystery to this day. The film offers a conclusion.
  • Villainous Incest: Emmett and Madeleine Linscott are discovered one night nearly kissing and having a private intimate conversation on the stairs before they are caught by Dwight who interrogates them about the murder of Elizabeth Short.
  • Yandere: Ramona is revealed to have been this, as she was the one who tortured The Dahlia to death for going on a date with Ramona's lover Georgie.
  • Where Everybody Knows Your Flame: Bleichert investigates a lesbian bar where Elizabeth Short and her friend Lorna Mertz were frequent visitors. Madeleine visits there regularly as well.