Film Studies: Who killed the Black Dahlia?

By David Thomson
Thursday 22 September 2011 05:40

Her real name was Elizabeth Short, but once she was dead she was known as the Black Dahlia. She was a 22-year-old brunette, who had come to Los Angeles from Massachusetts. She had worked as a waitress, and probably as a prostitute.

She was pretty and she was a stale story - she had wanted to get into the movies. But the public only fell for her when she was dead. On the morning of 15 January 1947, her body was found on wasteland in the Leimert Park section of Los Angeles. Not that she had been murdered there. No, the body - drained of its own blood in a procedure that required medical skills - was set down on the ground in two parts. It had been cut in two at the waist, and the two parts were out of alignment. That might have been a chance effect. But the body was in such a strange pose, the two parts twisted away from each other, the arms above the head in a dancer's pose, and with several geometric or abstract incisions that defaced the body. It was like a presentation, or a modern picture. No one who saw the corpse could get this pose - or its possible meaning - out of their heads.

Nearly 60 years later, the case remains unsolved. People have confessed. Others have worked out answers to it all - one book says that Orson Welles must have done it, because a few years earlier at a tent show on Cahuenga, to entertain the troops, he had regularly cut women like Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth in half. The crime novelist James Ellroy wrote a novel about it, and now Brian De Palma has brought that novel to the screen starring Josh Hartnett, Hilary Swank and Scarlett Johansson. But the strange thing about the De Palma film and the Ellroy novel is that they have nothing to do with the answer to the case, the answer that began to come out a few years ago, and that takes us into the real noir world of Los Angeles.

A retired cop named Steve Hodel wrote a book called Black Dahlia Avenger. Steve's estranged father, George Hodel, had died in 1999, and the last of George's wives had given Steve a small photo album - something your father wanted you to have. Inside, there were family pictures, and two photographs of a woman with dark hair - asleep or dead. Steve didn't know who it was. But he was an LA cop who knew the history of cold cases. After about a day he realised that the pictures were of Elizabeth Short. And he wondered what kind of macabre legacy his father had left him.

Black Dahlia Avenger is a dogged re-examination of the case in which a son begins to realise that his father killed the Black Dahlia. I don't have space for the details, and I don't know that the LAPD will ever declare the case closed. But George Hodel was a brilliant, cold man, with medical training, a womaniser and an art lover. He lived in a strange house - like a Mayan temple inside, like a fortress from the outside - designed by Lloyd Wright, the son of Frank Lloyd Wright. He knew artists living in LA such as Man Ray and Billy Copley. He had married Dorothy Huston, who had been married to John Huston, the film director. And Hodel and Huston had remained friends.

George Hodel was not a nice man. A time came in the Forties when he and Fred Sexton - the man who made the falcon statuette for Huston's film The Maltese Falcon - were accused of raping George's 14-year-old daughter, Tamar. They were cleared in court because a lawyer made a cruel case that Tamar was disturbed and a liar. Tamar is still alive and she insists she told the truth. Even though he was cleared, there was heat on George Hodel. The police were watching him and recording his calls. There's one where he makes a sardonic remark about well, what if he did kill the Black Dahlia, no one could prove it because George's secretary was dead, too. She was murdered. George left town. He went to Asia for decades.

Steve's book was read by two art writers - Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson - and they were struck by Steve's passing remark that the corpse of the Black Dahlia looked a bit like a Man Ray painting. They knew more about modern art than a retired cop, and they quickly had a room of art - all of defaced women - that might be "inspiration" for the murder. They have now written a richly illustrated book, Exquisite Corpse, that is the storyboard for Steve Hodel's mystery book. What they suggest is that George Hodel, in love with art but misanthropic to a degree, did the killing as an acte gratuit, or a work of art. They trace the elements of the murder to works of art, and they show that Hodel was at least an outsider in a group that widens to include Duchamp.

The book might not persuade a jury all these years later. But you can't read it without that nausea that smells of truth.

Was Huston a part of the circle? Can an artistic hero have been that close to murder? I don't know. But Huston was a strange man, with a cold, sadistic streak. He killed a man in a driving accident when he was young and it was covered up. He was also one of the first directors who made films where the rats - the criminals - were the appealing characters: I'm thinking of High Sierra (which he wrote), The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle. Who can forget his performance as Noah Cross in Chinatown, a man who has raped his own daughter and who is father to his granddaughter.

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No, it's not proof. But the suggestion won't go away: that just as Los Angeles invented film noir, there were men in the city who treated murder as an art or a game to be played. It's a lot more interesting than the De Palma picture.

* 'The Black Dahlia' is released on Friday

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