The rainy streets, long shadows, and all those other stylistic features by which Noir is commonly defined are far less important, it seems to me, in pinpointing its exact flavour as its common attitude towards its characters. And it is not that they are so frequently criminal or cynical, or that they move freely in a world of duplicity and corruption. Such is, after all, the milieu of The Public Enemy or Scarface. But those films were reportage, moving tabloids; they fancied themselves exposés, and their villains fancy themselves modern businessmen, with a taste for high life and happy times.
.The Noir hero, in stark contrast, moves in a world that has given up on itself. The key note of the characters, and of the films, is disillusionment. And Hollywood itself was disillusioned. It was a city just waiting for such an event as the Black Dahlia murder to take place.
Now, though, Hollywood seemed to be revelling in its status as boulevard of broken dreams. Now, the would-be starlet fresh off the bus knew that a disappointed ride back home was far from the worst she could expect at the end of the lonely highway of casting agents and talent hounds.
Elizabeth Short, because her end was so terrible, stands as the ultimate icon of the pessimism, and loss of faith in itself, that became standardised in the attitudes of forties Hollywood. I suppose I am arguing that Hollywood itself must take some of the rap for Elizabeth's murder, simply because the world in which she lived and died was one it was no longer denying itself to be.
Because it was never officially solved, an aura has risen round the Black Dahlia murder of exciting mystery. But to anyone who has really looked into the case, it is obvious that there is nothing remotely thrilling about it: it is desperately sad.
It is the story of a self-fulfilling prophecy; of a woman who went to Hollywood to get ahead, but wasn't a prostitute and didn't do porno (that's just De Palma dragging his tongue along the gutter as usual); a naïve woman but not a stupid one, prepared to skirt the Hollywood underworld, to live out of suitcases and cheap apartments, to live off whatever she could borrow, with a capacity for boundlessly obstinate hope, yet strangely accepting of the idea that life did not have her interests at heart. Her letters telling of her tentative meetings with agents and producers, and bragging of the stars she rubbed shoulders with at the Hollywood Canteen, are tragic because it is hard to be sure who she wants to deceive most: their recipients or herself.
Could she have been a movie star, with better breaks? Who knows? She was certainly attractive. She may have had talent, but even if she didn't... well, she was attractive. But we'll never know. Instead, her life story begins at its end, in January, 1947.
Elizabeth Short never made it into the movies but she did make it into movie history. She was never lit by the great lighting cameramen or dressed by the great designers, but she became some kind of Hollywood icon, nonetheless. Her life was a movie.
Scene one of The Elizabeth Short Story, then, is the first encounter between Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake in Sullivan's Travels (1941). Here, Lake is every girl who ever had a dream of Hollywood, only to have the dream broken. Made cynical by failure, she's on her way back home, never having got her letter of introduction to Lubitsch and entirely unaware that the bum she's bought ham and eggs for is a Hollywood director, and her luck is about to change.
The story Lake is telling was her own, along with that of thousands of others, some of whom went on to become stars as she did; many, many of whom did not. She too had done the rounds as a Hollywood hopeful; the beauty contests, the meetings, the auditions, the extra work. She got bit parts at RKO, and an MGM contract that led to little more than days spent hanging around the lot, eating at the commissary, watching the big stars go by, waiting for the big break.
Elizabeth, of course, was a long way behind. She met the agents, trudged round the auditions, but so far as we know, never even got a screen test.
But Veronica makes another, more important imprint on Short's iconic afterlife. It is a common misconception that 'Black Dahlia' was Short's nickname in life. De Palma's film encourages it by showing her wearing black flowers in her hair:
There is some debate whether the nickname was given to her by the proprietor of a drugstore in the summer of 1946, or if it had been an entirely phoney journalistic invention, created post-mortem and purely in the services of hoopla. Either way, it was not a name she was generally known by, since its origins lie in the title of Lake's movie The Blue Dahlia. Elizabeth died in January of 1947, Veronica's film was released in April of 1946. If she was known as the Black Dahlia, it was for less than a year.
Achieving some measure of fame by virtue of being Raymond Chandler's only original screenplay, the film is an otherwise not especially distinguished, typically mordant post-war Noir, with lovable William Bendix cast as a violently temperamental war veteran with a metal plate in his skull. (In Chandler's original draft he was revealed as the killer at the end, but Breen said no serviceman could be portrayed as a murderer.)
The 'Blue Dahlia' itself is not a person but a nightclub, and there seems to be no obvious reason why Elizabeth and the title became conflated. The 'black' applies to her penchant for black dresses and jet black hair (in actual fact dyed henna by the time of her death), but the idea that the 'dahlia' referred to her habit of wearing flowers is generally considered untrue.
The most likely explanation is that whoever invented the name simply misremembered the title of the movie. Either way, it is now inseparably entangled in the folkloric undergrowth surrounding the case, to the extent that a popular rumour still circulates to the effect that Elizabeth actually has a walk-on role in the film.
Alas, she does not: the fairy-tale ending to Veronica's Hollywood hard luck stories was not to be hers to share.
During the long days spent haunting Hollywood, Elizabeth got herself hostess work at the Hollywood Canteen, the famous nightclub created by Bette Davis and John Garfield, that allowed servicemen to eat and be entertained for free while served by a staff of Hollywood notables.
This was the closest she ever got to her goal, and her letters home make much of the experience. She certainly became well acquainted with the actor Arthur Lake, best known from the Blondie movies, as did another hostess with whom she socialised, Georgette Bauerdorf. Georgette, too, was murdered, during the time that both were working at the Canteen; her brutal killing shares many weird similarities to Elizabeth's. It was speculated that she had been killed by a serviceman who had followed her home from the Canteen. There was no Breen office to step in and censor the notion this time.
.Another of the Hollywood hopefuls that Elizabeth encountered around this time was one who would rise far higher up the ladder of stardom than she ever would, but whose eventual fall would prove equally dramatic.
This was Barbara Payton. She briefly took Elizabeth under her wing, introduced her to some useful names and took her to the Formosa Café, where studio executives would often grab a quick meal, and anything else that might be available, from the all-night establishment. Across the road was the studio of Sam Goldwyn. Upstairs was the office of Bugsy Siegel.
Barbara was more pragmatic than Elizabeth when it came to getting ahead and was more than willing to audition on the Hollywood casting couch. Though she would eventually land significant roles in a number of major films alongside Cagney, Cooper and Gregory Peck, Payton was volatile, self-destructive and wildly promiscuous, keeping the scandal magazines busy with lurid accounts of her affairs. Most famously, she was the cause of a vicious fight between actors Franchot Tone and Tom Neal, that left her with a black eye and Tone critically injured, with broken bones and a brain concussion. Tone's ex-wife Joan Crawford was one of many who urged him to sever connections with Barbara, foreseeing only disaster for their relationship, but he was besotted, and they married after his recovery. Mere weeks later, however, she returned to Neal.
Her career was unable to withstand so much extra-curricular scandal, and she drifted into B-pictures like Bride of the Gorilla (1951), an enjoyable jungle horror with silver-tongued Tom Conway. Soon, even these offers deserted her, and she drifted into alcoholism and prostitution, suffering frequent savage beatings from her clients. She died of alcohol-related heart and liver failure in 1967, at the age of 39.
. .................................... The blonde dahlia
It is also via Franchot Tone that we get our closest near-glimpse of Short in Hollywood, in those moments when her shadow falls over a still extraordinary film called Phantom Lady made for Universal in 1944.
While Tone was making this film, he encountered Elizabeth at the Formosa Café. According to his later testimony, Tone asked her what she was doing there: "She said she was waiting for someone, and I said, 'Of course you are, you're waiting for me!'"
He then told her that he knew of contacts in Hollywood who were looking for girls with her kind of looks, and offered to take her to meet him. In reality, he was simply taking her to his own apartment. "I thought it was a pick-up from the start," he recalled later; "she came with me so easily, but to her it wasn't anything of the kind." His attempts to seduce her were firmly rebuffed, so he gave her some money and sent her home in a taxi: "There was something sad and pathetic about her."
What might have happened if she had played Tone's game? Perhaps we can see something of the answer in Phantom Lady.
It is a strange and often disturbing film, with top-billed Tone not only absent from the film for its first 45 minutes (over half of the running time) but also playing not the hero but a particularly convincing and unpleasant murderer, who has killed the nominal hero's wife, and concocted an elaborate plot to frame him.
The film is almost like a parody of Noir; it has the atmosphere down right, but the plot is literally absurd, with credibility holes big enough to drive a tractor through. What it resembles, to a degree outdistancing all other films of its type, is a nightmare. This is Hollywood Kafka. Not one single plot development has any correlation to real life, yet the characters are propelled through the narrative by each twist and turn like pinballs in a giant machine. The film is terrifying in its absurdist malevolence.
It also takes relish in the medium's new licence to depict the sleazy and despairing. Because Noir is in the attitudes rather than the details, it is free to exploit what almost amounts to a censorship loophole, returning cinema to something like the attitudes of pre-Code, just not quite so free to give names to them.
The heroine is the strikingly beautiful Ella Raines, and the most famous scene in the movie is the still-extraordinary one in which she disguises herself as "a real hep cat" in order to ingratiate herself with Elisha Cook Jr's hophead drummer, among the many who have been paid to lie and crush the hero's alibi. He takes her to a seedy jazz dive where they get high on a drum solo presented as a clear metaphor for the sexual act.
Throughout this weird and transfixing sequence, Raines looks a lot like Elizabeth, with her shiny raven-black hair and lustrous, clinging black satin dress. Of all the films I am looking at here, this is the one in which Short's presence is most keenly felt. The world of the film is one of darkness and peril, the women are all dark haired - the only blonde is the murdered wife, whom we only ever see in an oil-painting - and as the narrative progresses we watch the smart surface of city life recede to reveal its cruel, dangerous underside.
Then there's Ruth, a secretary at Raines's office. She gets a tiny little scene, with nothing dialogue. But it is dialogue, and the camera does look at her. It's the dream break Short longed for.
Whoever she is, she's not credited, but I'm sure that didn't bother her any more than it would have bothered Elizabeth; I'm sure she left the set, and the cinema, burning with hope and excitement.
Who is she? Who in the IMDB's list of uncredited players? Is she Georgia Davis (Girl: uncredited)? Or Ann Fredrick (Brunette: uncredited)?
Brunette (uncredited) - the role that Elizabeth played in life is one she would have given anything to play on screen.
.And since this is the kind of film where eerie coincidences come with the territory, be prepared to double-take when you see Ruth. She looks uncannily like Elizabeth. They are so similar it takes your breath away. Perhaps if she had met Tone just that little bit earlier, when the movie was still being cast...
She could have done it: it's a try-out part, no talent required, just looks. She came that close.
.In some parallel universe somewhere, Elizabeth Short did get to star in Phantom Lady.
In our own, inadequate as ever, she just missed - and fell to her death.