The best Black Dahlia Movie You Have Never Seen
An analysis of the forgotten TV movie Who Is The Black Dahlia? (1975)
The 1975 TV movie Who Is The Black Dahlia? is a rare find. The film, which was directed by the late Joseph Pevney, was never released on DVD or Blu-ray. It is only available as a bootleg on obscure websites or in rather disappointing 360p quality on YouTube channel TVTERRORLAND. The movie is a dramatization of the investigation of the grisly murder of Elizabeth Short, better known as ‘the Black Dahlia’. That it is largely forgotten is a shame, for I would like to argue that is still the best picture based on the infamous Black Dahlia cold case. It is the only feature film that dares to looks past the sensationalist aspects and actually investigates who the enigmatic but mysterious Elizabeth Short was.
The film opens with an old man and his grandson walking through a vacant lot. The boy stumbles upon the remains of Elizabeth Short, after which his grandfather quickly covers his eyes. (Interestingly, this is one of the biggest changes. In reality, Short was found by a woman walking her baby). The movie then switches to the perspective of the experienced Sergeant Harry Hansen who is put on the case by the Los Angeles Police Department. This story is just one of the two narratives of which the movie is built up. Through flashbacks, we follow Short as a sweet but somewhat naive girl who moves to Hollywood to live with her father and pursue an acting career. Her hopes and dreams are slowly crushed by the reality that, despite her unique appearance, Short is just one of many starlets hoping for their big break. While she tries to get by in the bustling city of LA, she brushes up to all kinds of dishonest characters in the process.
Unfortunately, what hasn’t aged well is the film’s look. From the first scene it is clear that Who Is The Black Dahlia? was a low budget TV movie and looks the part. The cinematography is safe and predictable, and its decors look like 70s soap opera sets that have been dressed up with thrift store furniture to make them pass for 1940s interiors. But looks are not everything, and it is curious that such a cheap production still stands out as the only adaption that makes a decent effort to humanize Short and show her as a multifaceted woman.
The film is refreshing in the sense that is doesn’t exploit its sensational subject for cheap thrills or shock. It barely shows the corpse and rarely ponders over the gruesome details of the murder. Instead, it spends roughly half of its playtime showing Elizabeth Short (unsuccessfully) trying to make it as an actress in LA. In these segments, she is constantly harassed and chased by men that just seem to want to take advantage of her. Lucie Arnaz plays the role brilliantly — not only does she resembles Short eerily well, she portrays her as an aspiring young woman who feels and looks like the girl-next-door-type. It was sensatinonal journalism and the horrifying crime is was never solved, that turned Short into a mythical archetype of victimhood. With her role, Lucie Arnaz actively dismisses that caricatural way in which The Dahlia was often written about in the papers after her death (mostly as a promiscuous liar who was hanging with the wrong crowds).
While more well-known movies like True Confessions (1981) and The Black Dahlia (2006) paint Elizabeth Short as either a promiscuous loser or a mysterious femme fatale (or something in between), the point this film tries the make is that she was just a young woman with healthy boundaries, still trying to find out what she wanted in life. The film shows Short in the many roles she inhabited before her tragic demise — a daughter hurt by her cold father, an aspiring actress and a flirt desperately looking for love and (male) validation.
In one scene, she gets a rose tattoo at a parlor to impress a sailor. ‘And you said I wouldn’t dare!‘ she says right after her tattoo is done, but she quickly realizes that the sailor has already left to chase another woman. Through her struggles to make it as an actress and trying to find love at the same time, shatter the romanticized image of Hollywood in her mind. Elizabeth’s failure to acknowledge her struggles are poignantly emphasized in the voice-over letters she sends her er grandmother, in which she romanticizes the City of Angels and makes up that she has a successful Hollywood career.
After each tragic flashback of Shorts life in LA, the shot freezes and turns black-and-white. It is a rather corny, but interesting aesthetic choice, that reminds the contemporary viewer of the grainy black-and-white photos of Elizabeth Short’s corpse, that are just one click away. The stills could be interpreted as metaphors; despite Short being a real woman with hopes and dreams, she will forever remain trapped in the black-and-white photos that were printed of her posthumously for police records and newspapers.
What’s refreshing about the main detective, played by the late Efrem Zimbalist Jr, is that he gradually changes his view of the victim that is the center of his investigation. Despite multiple setbacks in the investigation, he becomes fond of Elizabeth Short and not just out of pity. To solve her murder, he defies orders and goes out of his way to speak to everyone that knew Short in the final months of her life. As the title suggests, Who Is The Black Dahlia? Is less about the killer, and more about the victim, or rather who she aspired to be in the time before her gruesome death.
‘Lady, what the hell could you do to make anybody that mad?’ the detective states in the first part of the movie, essentially victim-blaming Short right from the bat. As the movie progresses, however, he — simultaneously with the viewer — begins to see her as a human being, instead of just a piece of the puzzle he has to solve. In the end, his boss considers taking him off the case. When his colleague protests and argues that he is simply showing dedication necessary for solving the case, the chief dismisses him by saying; ‘There is a big difference between dedication and obsession’. Harry has lost the distance and dissonance that is expected from a gumshoe detective; he begins to care for the victim, of which he gradually learns more and more through examining witnesses, acquaintances and relatives.
There is a macabre aspect to his obsession with the dead pretty girl, of course. Like it is the case in many books and movies based upon The Black Dahlia, it is not so much the murderer, but the ghost of Elizabeth Short that haunts the detective. However, in most cinematic takes that took inspiration from case, Short’s gruesome death merely serves as a way for troubled men to find some form of redemption. The mini-series I Am The Night (2019) favors the hardships of Fauna Hodel (the supposed illegitimate daughter of prime suspect George Hodel) and a disgraced journalist’s (Chris Pine) quest to solve the Dahlia case in order to redeem himself over the victim. Another example is the film True Confessions (1982) in which Robert Duvall plays an obsessive detective with an anger problem who uses the case to prove to himself and his brother that, despite his destructive rage, he is a righteous person. In James Ellroy’s twisted but thrilling bestseller The Black Dahlia (1980) and the less successful 2006 Brian De Palma film adaption of the same name, the detective investigating the murder slowly spirals into maddening obsession… even projecting his necrophiliac desires on a woman that dresses like the victim.
In Who Is The Black Dahlia? The motivations of the detective are more morally pure. Notable is the tagline: ‘Before he could hunt her killer, he had to learn who ‘’The Black Dahlia’’ was — hard chick or easy mark… home girl or party girl!’’. This dated, sexist tagline eagerly frames The Black Dahlia as the black-and-white cliches the movie so cleverly avoids. At the end of the movie, Detective Harry Hansen isn’t trying to fit Short into a box. He wants to know who the victim was and understand how her senseless death impacted her loved ones. How tragic it all really is for them, is best captured in a heartfelt scene in which the detective speaks with Short’s grandma, who raised her. ‘I know I never really knew who she was trying to be.’ Grandma says, ‘Maybe she never really knew who she was trying to be,’ he answers with a sigh. ‘That may be the truth, but we’ll never know anything more,’ grandma replies. The scene ponders on the ambiguity that is left after a life ends before it properly began. Despite Who Is The Black Dahlia?’s age and low budget, it treats Elizabeth Short with respect, and never lazily turns her into a stereotype. Instead she is portrayed as a young woman who was still playing roles to find out which one suited her best. A woman that, in her pursuit of happiness and success, became the unfortunate victim of a monster that took away all that she could’ve become.