IN his neo-noir mystery, "The Black Dahlia," director Brian De Palma brings his camera into a morgue where the remains of the mutilated murder victim, Elizabeth Short, are displayed on an autopsy table. Through the director's lens, we gaze with grim fascination at the grotesqueness of the crime, wondering not only who this woman was and how she met her fate but what twisted mind could carry out such a heinous murder?
In real life, Short's remains were discovered on Jan. 15, 1947, by a passerby pushing a stroller past a vacant lot near 39th Street and Norton Avenue in Leimert Park, touching off a mystery that endures to this day.
The 22-year-old Short, nicknamed the Black Dahlia for her ratted raven hair and a penchant for black clothes, had been bound and tortured, her body severed at the waist, then drained of its blood and washed clean. Her blue eyes were open with her hands above her head. Several of her internal organs were missing. There were gashes at the corners of her mouth leaving her with a maniacal, clown-like grin.
The body depicted in the film was reproduced from the crime scene photos and are only fleetingly viewed on-screen.
"But once you see it, you'll never forget it," De Palma said. "If you are going to show the body and the way it was displayed and the horror of it, it has to be absolutely accurate .... The most compelling thing about the 'Black Dahlia' are the pictures. Once you see those pictures, you never forget [her]. When you see a girl so beautiful and she winds up like this, you say, 'My God, what happened?' "
There are few directors as adept at stylized scenes of voyeuristic violence as De Palma. Some of his films -- "Sisters," "Carrie," "Dressed to Kill," "Scarface" and "Body Double" -- are drenched in blood. Do his films reflect a fascination with death?
"I don't know if it's a fascination," he replies. "My father was an orthopedic surgeon. I sort of grew up with death from an early age. I remember going to surgery classes where they would be working on cadavers. I saw dead bodies on tables when I was in my teens."
For his source material on "The Black Dahlia," which Universal Pictures will release Friday and which stars Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank, De Palma used James Ellroy's crime novel of the same title, which creates its own fictional scenario behind Short's unsolved murder.
Ellroy noted that there have been numerous theories about who killed Short proffered by authors of nonfiction books over the years, but while some theories seem more credible than others, "none of them are provable."
"It's a signature murder case," Ellroy said, one that causes people of that era to remember where they were when they heard about it. "It was a hideous example of a sex murder."
Ellroy met with De Palma to discuss the book but said he did not have a direct role in shaping the film, in which Mia Kirshner is cast in the title role. He called De Palma the right choice to make this movie, noting the director has "great visual sense and period sense." De Palma, in turn, credits the author with making his job easier.
"There are so many theories about the 'Black Dahlia.' I thought that Ellroy's was one of the best, especially because of the fascinating way he tells stories. It's so complex -- something you don't see on the screen too often. You really have to bore into it. This is not an episode of 'CSI.' This is really dense, with a captivating mystery."
The movie's plot revolves around Hartnett's character, police officer Bucky Bleichert, who, like his partner, is a prizefighter in his spare time. Both are in love with Kay Lake (Johansson), the former girlfriend of an imprisoned robber. Bucky also has a steamy affair with Madeleine Linscott (Swank), who may have had a lesbian encounter with Short.
"Josh's character is in a universe where there is no morality, basically," De Palma explains. "He's the only one who seems to have some sort of conscience. He doesn't want to sleep with his partner's girlfriend. He feels his partner saved his life, which, of course, he didn't."
Johansson's character, he said, is a woman with a hidden past who is scared that her former boyfriend is about to get out of prison, though we don't know exactly why she's afraid. "Hilary's character is completely crazy in a kind of endearing yet vulnerable way," he said. She admits to sleeping with Short because she wanted to sleep with somebody who kind of looked like her.
Kirshner, who had auditioned for the part of Madeleine, was vacationing in Cambodia when she got a call from the director asking if she was interested in the role of Short. "At the time, there was nothing about Elizabeth in the script. I said to Brian, 'I don't think I'm the right girl for that. It's not my thing.' " So De Palma went back to the original draft, which gave Short's character a fuller role.
Kirshner read many books and articles to research Short -- "everything from reportedly the way she spoke to the way she dressed. There was a very negative portrayal of her," Kirshner said, noting that Short's sexual history had become sensationalized because of the murder. "I felt it was much more important to humanize the person. At the end of the day, she really did deserve that."
De Palma talks wistfully of the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Hollywood was churning out great noir movies where "everybody is rotten, everybody gets killed. It's fascinating. What happened to this genre? I've never seen so many movies made where nobody is likable but they are still fun and interesting."
Though the film now has the marketing muscle of Universal behind it, De Palma said he spent three "unnerving" years on the "Black Dahlia" project. "It would get started and then fall apart, get started and then fall apart," he recalls. "It was a relatively inexpensive independently financed movie, but you don't have the security of a studio behind it." Much of the film was shot in Sofia, Bulgaria, to cut expenses.
To give the film the look and feel of 1940s Los Angeles, De Palma relied on veteran production designer Dante Ferretti ("The Aviator," "Cold Mountain"). Ferretti re-created a portion of downtown L.A. for scenes depicting the infamous Zoot Suit Riots.
Art Linson, one of the film's producers, noted that the vacant field where Short's body is found was actually shot outside Sofia using vintage police photos as a guide, while scenes of the old Hollywoodland sign were rendered by CGI, also using historic photographs as a resource. "In some ways, it feels more authentic than if it were shot here," Linson said.
De Palma said the violence in "The Black Dahlia" is not as visceral as it was in "Dressed to Kill" and certainly there is a visceral crescendo that builds in "Carrie" from the moment the bucket of blood is dumped on Sissy Spacek. "To me, it's like pure cinema," he said of the bucket of blood scene, still one of cinema's most memorable. "Telling a story with pure pictures."
"It's so tough out there now," he said. "Those movies we made in the 1970s, I don't know if we could ever get them made now. They were crazy. There was that era of director as superstar, a flash of light between the demise of the studio system and the rise of the [talent] agencies. About a decade and then it was sort of over."
De Palma said the movie business today is not unlike the toy business. "You've got to make these mechanical toys that keep the industry going." He is critical of a certain type of studio executive. "Everything now depends on polling, screenings, testing this and testing that.... We're in an era where people who are sort of making movies were never in the movie business. They think, 'We're going to reinvent it.' But the only experience they have is television."
He is working on a prequel to "The Untouchables," addressing the rise of Al Capone and the relationship to Sean Connery's cop character in the original film. De Palma said what he likes most about moviemaking is the planning stages of a film. "In the beginning, everything is possible," he said. "Then it's a process of keeping the elements you need."
As for "The Black Dahlia," he says: "I just made the best movie I could out of the book. It certainly is interesting."