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COMMENTARY

Jeff Simon: 'The Black Dahlia' haunts American movies still

Jeff Simon

Elizabeth Short was young and beautiful.

That much we know for sure from surviving photographs -- even the sullen mug shot taken after her bust for underage drinking.

There is a faint suggestion of wildness dancing in her eyes and more than a bit of wildness in her luxuriant black hair, which, in all the surviving pictures, is so different from the prevailing Hollywood styles in the late '40s.

The tragic young woman's dead body was discovered Jan. 15, 1947 in a Los Angeles vacant lot by a mother walking her daughter to school. She was naked and her face had been horribly slashed into a vile parody of a smile.

Her body had been so neatly bisected at the waist that its two discoverers thought, at first, she was a discarded department store mannequin. More than a foot of grassy distance separated the upper and lower halves of her body.

She was quickly called "The Black Dahlia" by the local press, whose reputation at the time was no higher than that of local law enforcement. It was a reference to "The Blue Dahlia," an Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake movie written by Raymond Chandler.

Short's youth (22), beauty and mutilated state have made her, for over 70 years, one of the most famous and mysterious unsolved murder victims in American history.

"Unsolved" has been less accurate with each passing year since the early aughts. That's because a former L.A. homicide cop named Steve Hodel published a book in 2003 called "Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder," which accused his father, gynecologist/obstetrician George Hodel, of the murder. Steve Hodel has been publicly convinced, too, that his father was involved in the Zodiac killings.

None of that has happened yet in "I Am the Night," the interesting TNT mini-series that began running on Monday nights. There are good reasons for that. The Hodel family is coming first, which, as fascinating as it is, once again pushes Short off the stage in cinematic re-tellings.

George Hodel's guilt has, to be sure, never been proved, but as time passes, it has been increasingly assumed. What has long been known is that Hodel's strange, immensely privileged life was as unsavory as it could be.

He was publicly tried, and acquitted, for the incestuous rape of his 14-year old daughter Tamar (who was named after an epic poem by his friend, ultra-dark California poet Robinson Jeffers). In a case that, in the 21st century actually seems to prove the institution of rape culture in America, he was set free.

George Hodel was about as "connected" as Angelenos get. His IQ, as a kid, had been measured at 186. Rachmaninoff came to hear him play the piano and John Huston was a childhood friend (Hodel married Huston's first wife after she and Huston divorced).

He went to Cal Tech in his mid-teens and was thrown out for impregnating a professor's wife.

Even before his son convincingly accused his father of the Black Dahlia murder, Hodel has lurked in the background of Hollywood movies. A particularly sinister overtone of Polanski's sardonic masterpiece "Chinatown" is that Hodel's friend Huston played Noah Cross, whose incestuous rape of his daughters is the nightmare around which the whole film is built.

Things are indirect in "I Am the Night." I understand. So little is known -- not even whether or not Short actually was a prostitute, which was always assumed, but seems less than a sure thing. The Hodel family is, along with all that, even more complex and creepy than the hideous and tragic murder of Elizabeth Short.

Hodel was an alarming and truly nightmarish figure. In a corrupt era, he evaded prison, largely because his professional life of treating venereal disease and performing abortions gave him access to a vast number of secrets that could be traded for impunity. It is a near-certainty, according to many, that Short was a patient at his clinic.

But "I Am the Night" starts from something else -- the meeting of director Patty Jenkins ("Wonder Woman," "Monster," which won an Oscar for Charlize Theron) and Hodel's granddaughter Fauna, whose own complex story is a tale from a different American darkness.

To Fauna's story (she is played by Indie Eisley), Jenkins and her screenwriter husband have appended the tale of that misbegotten L.A. journalist.

Fauna Hodel's script about her own life story was turned into a film that was -- weirdly -- unreleassed anywhere. It's called "Pretty Hattie's Baby" and it starred Alfre Woodard, Charles S. Dutton, Jill Clayburgh and Tess Harper under the direction of Ivan Passer, the erratic Czech director who, at his best, gave us "Intimate Lighting," "Cutter's Way" and "Born to Win."

"I Am the Night," then, seems to be making up for a lot of Hollywood errancy and negligence. Brian DePalma's movie from James Ellroy's book about the Black Dahlia is one of DePalma's very worst. John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, no less threw suggestions of the case into their script for "True Confessions," but despite the fact the movie starred Robert Duvall and Robert DeNiro, it has never satisfied anyone.

Much of "I Am the Night" is spent giving Chris Pine that rascal photographer/reporter stuff to play to the hilt, while both the Black Dahlia and the Hodel family wind up being sidetracked.
It's a continuing stunning rebuke, I think, to the Hollywood way of storytelling that the Black Dahlia is so hard to deal with straightaway.

I must add, at this point, that writer Sheila Weller has done some of the best writing about Tamar Hodel and her daughter Fauna. She did a singular interview with Tamar. I asked her opinion of "I Am the Night." I've only seen one episode; she's seen the first and last and thinks it's good. It's an endorsement viewers need to know.

. . .

Speaking of endorsements, let me make three among the movies unlucky enough to open during a weekend where they're fighting it out with terrible weather. I've seen the Japanese film "Shoplifters," a much-praised festival favorite, and it's absolutely superb. I haven't seen "Cold War," but among several films this year praised for their cinematography, it ranks high. Also opening this weekend -- at the Flix Theater -- is "Destroyer," starring Nicole Kidman in one of her occasional dark and ambitious roles. She plays an L.A. cop.

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