The Black Dahlia isn’t really a horror movie at all. If anything, the movie is an example of neo-noir. Based on James Elroy’s novelization of the murder and the investigation surrounding it, the novel and the movie become a weird sort of fusion of fiction and history. Unsurprisingly, this sort of thing is called Historical Fiction and Elroy specializes in it. He has a series of novels which take place in the world that we live in, involving people you’ve heard of, often portraying these people in a seriously unflattering light because that’s what this guy does best. In American Tabloid, Jimmy Hoffa is portrayed as a murderous psychopath and numerous real-life gangsters are outed as gay (and also murderous). The Kennedy brothers are depicted as ruthless in their crusade against organized crime (which was probably true) and Jack Kennedy’s reputation as a pussy hound is exaggerated for dramatic effect. Elroy paints a picture of Americana that is almost unbearably sleazy, where every man hates women, everybody at the top of the financial food chain is a hopeless drug addict, the cops are all corrupt and incompetent and the denizens of the organized crime underworld could give the world’s most brutal serial killers a run for their money. Calling James Elroy pessimistic is a grotesque understatement. His novel about the Black Dahlia Murder is no different. It exists in this world and plays by those rules.
What makes this movie qualify for the Based On A True Story series, apart from its basis in fact is that the original story of the murder of Elizabeth Short lives in a creepy namespace. The movie may be an example of seedy crime noir but the actual story and the ensuing investigation of the murder have turned over the rock that the dark side of Hollywood lives under. The case remains unsolved and will likely never be cleared. On top of that, the case, though never conclusively linked to any other murders, had all the markings of a single murder in a series, aka serial murder. If ever there was a cautionary tale about moving to Hollywood with stars in your eyes, this is it.
Elizabeth Short, by all accounts was a good girl in spite of a difficult life. Born on the East Coast, she was born and lived most of her short life in Medford, Massachusetts. She moved out west to visit an old boyfriend that she had met while living in Florida. While there, she was determined to make it in the movies. While in California during the days leading up to her murder, Short had made a reputation for herself as a bit loose. She partied constantly, worked little and seemed to be with a different guy every night. Her preference was for service men but the last man to see her alive was Robert Manley, a married salesman who was most likely trying to get her into bed. Tossed out of her last place of resident, the home of a sympathetic family whose hospitality Elizabeth took advantage of, Manley picked her up and dropped her off at the Biltmore Hotel. Following this, Elizabeth Short was never seen alive again. She disappeared on January 9th, 1947. It is believed that she was murdered on July 15th. Her whereabouts during that time are still unknown. Naturally, Manley was a suspect in the murder but he was cleared after a couple of life detector tests and an alibi that checked out. But the murder…
The body of Elizabeth Short was found in a vacant lot. Her body was left nude and she had been bisected at the waist and drained of blood. Her face had been slashed from ear to ear and her body cleaned and posed deliberately. The cause of death was blood loss. She was most likely alive when her face was slashed but may have been knocked unconscious by blunt force trauma to the head. Immediately, smelling blood, the LA press leaped into action, painting the story up in lurid colors and giving her the inexplicable nickname, The Black Dahlia. This high profile murder brought the lunatics out of the woodwork, too, giving the police tremendous amounts of bogus information and some actual leads that led the investigation in many directions. The most interesting yet least likely is my favorite: The investigation of George Hodel. LAPD homicide detective, Steve Hodel, framed up a theory that his father, a wealthy physician, had killed Elizabeth Short and that the murder may have been a part of decadent Hollywood Babylon style sex and drug orgies held by the sadistic senior Hodel. George Hodel, accused of molesting his daughter by his daughter was cleared of any charges and Steve Hodel’s book, The Black Dahlia Avenger, seems to be nothing more than a smear campaign against a father that he harbors a tremendous amount of resentment towards. In spite of this suspicious motivation, Steve Hodel’s case against his father is compelling and also links him to the Cleveland Lipstick Murders in a way that is hard to dismiss. It also implicates artist and photographer, Man Ray, in the murder, claiming that some of his provocative and disturbing photos of women was evidence of a sexual and sadistic mean streak and that Ray and Hodel were close friends. This has yet to be proven.
What’s more, in the wake of the murder, as the headlines began to cool and the press began to look for something new and seedy to fixate on, Elizabeth’s killer, identifying themselves as The Black Dahlia Avenger, began to contact the press, taunting them and the police and offering up evidence that would prove that they killed her as long as she stayed in the papers.
In total over two dozen suspects have been offered up to the police and the cops were unable to build a case against any of them. The murder of Elizabeth Short was clearly a ritualized act and suggests that she was not the first. The care taken in the presentation of the body and the skills necessary to cut her body in half as it had been would have required some serious skills with a knife, these qualities of the case suggest a killer with a specific set of skills and tools. The details of this case, the victim, the suspects, the cops, the press, the setting, it all sets people’s imaginations on fire. The case will likely never be solved but it won’t be leaving the public consciousness any time soon.