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In anticipation of a new film based on Hollywood's most notorious unsolved murder, Allan Radcliffe explores the ongoing fascination with the Black Dahlia mystery

Don't miss our review of The Black Dahlia.

Crime fiction sells by the barrow-load and thrillers pack out cinemas. But we are never more titillated by crime than when it has its basis in fact. The abiding success of True Crime collectable part works, detailing the gruesome deeds of serial killers from Vlad the Impaler to Crippen and Peter Sutcliffe suggests a morbid fascination with real-life horrors that holds more power over us than anything to have leapt from the imagination of a Stoker or Shelley.

In the United States, no single horrific event has so intrigued and mystified the public consciousness as the Black Dahlia mystery. On January 15 1947, the nude, decapitated body of Elizabeth Short, a 22-year-old aspiring starlet from Medford, Massachusetts, was discovered in a vacant lot near Hollywood. Her internal organs had been removed, her face was slashed from ear to ear, and wounds to her head showed signs of sustained torture.

The brutal slaying immediately caught the imagination of the wider public, not least because of the compelling studio portraits of the raven-haired, black-clad, blue-eyed beauty that were reprinted daily in the press. Short's looks and her connection to Tinsel Town, albeit fleeting and tenacious, led journalists eager to further sensationalise the crime to nickname the victim 'The Black Dahlia'.

The murder inspired an unprecedented number of hoax confessions. In the immediate aftermath of Short's death, more than 50 'confessing Sams' handed themselves into the LAPD in a desperate attempt to wring fifteen minutes of fame from their association with the city of angels' most shocking slaying.

Some 450 LAPD officers were assigned to the case, but, despite extensive enquiries and a dizzying list of suspects, which traversed Hollywood's social stratum, Short's killer has never been identified.

And yet the Black Dahlia refuses to stay buried. Nearly 60 years after the event, the popular fascination with this mystery shows no sign of abating. A number of best-selling books have been written on the subject, including Janice Knowlton's Daddy was the Black Dahlia Killer, which caused a storm on its publication in 1995. Knowlton claimed that 'recovered memories', which surfaced during psychiatric therapy, led her to recall that her abusive father, George Knowlton murdered the woman she called 'Aunt Betty'. The case also loosely inspired a number of films, including the 1981 Robert DeNiro vehicle True Confessions.

2006 has seen the Black Dahlia re-enter popular culture with a vengeance. Earlier this year, Donald Wolfe, author of The Assassination of Marilyn Monroe unleashed his exhaustive piece of investigative journalism, The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul and the Murderer. Wolfe's book was the result of a lengthy trawl through evidence kept hidden away in the LA District Attorney's office for over half a century. His findings cast new light on the murder and its wider connections to Hollywood royalty, notorious mobsters such as Bugsy Siegel and Mafia boss Joe Dragna and a corrupt police force. Wolfe's inquiry even led him to the door of the Chandler family, publishers of the Los Angeles Times at the time of the murder. The author's major claim is that the Black Dahlia file remains 'Open and Unsolved' because of a huge cover up, brought about to prevent the link between the mob, press barons, Hollywood and the big shots at City Hall from being exposed.

Meanwhile, Short's brief life and shocking death are about to be thrust back into the mainstream consciousness thanks to Brian De Palma's latest slice of cinematic Grand Guignol, The Black Dahlia. Based on a best-selling novel by James Ellroy, the film follows the investigations of two police officers 'Bucky' Bleichart (played in the film by Josh Hartnett), and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) who become obsessed with Elizabeth Short's death. To further complicate matters, Bleichart is confronted with a professional dilemma when he realises that his girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson) had ties to the murder victim.

Ellroy was initially inspired to write his version of The Black Dahlia mystery for highly personal reasons. The author's own mother was murdered in Los Angeles when he was a young boy, a crime which remains unsolved to this day. While Ellroy's lingering grief and mystification over his mother's death fuelled his passion for the subject, he also recognised that Elizabeth Short was something of a cipher onto which the American public projected their darkest fears and desires. 'She's a ghost and a blank page,' he said. 'A post-war Mona Lisa, an LA quintessential.'

Ellroy's comments go some way to explaining the ongoing fascination with the Black Dahlia. Brutal murders happen every day, everywhere, yet the squalid death of a drifter from the mid-west, who grew up during the depression and dreamed of a life as a Hollywood star, has acquired an almost mythical status. Perhaps Short's story has resonated so strongly with people because it represents an archetypal American tragedy; the pursuit of the American dream gone horribly sour. Filmmaker Brian De Palma certainly subscribes to this theory: 'It's the way the pictures were taken at the death site, in which she was so horribly carved up and displayed,' he says. 'When you see them, you never get that image out of your mind. How this sort of would-be actress, struggling on the fringe of show business, ended up like this.'

Another obvious reason for the enduring interest in the Black Dahlia is that Short's murder and its aftermath had all the ingredients of a classic Hollywood thriller, namely, a brutal murder, a whole legion of suspects, clues, endless red herrings and a filing cabinet's worth of conspiracy theories. One of the most popular of these myths contends that Short was a high-class call girl with insider knowledge of the industry's hottest scandals, though there is no real evidence to suggest that she ever worked as a prostitute. Speculation has been rife as to why Agness 'Aggie' Underwood, the most prominent crime reporter of the Hearst newspapers was unceremoniously taken off the Dahlia murder case. And many column inches have been filled with speculation as to what happened during Short's so-called 'missing week', the period between her disappearance on January 9 and the discovery of her body of January 15, with numerous cranks claiming to have seen the victim during this time.

Of course, the only element missing from this particular thriller - perhaps the most crucial - is a dénouement, though a number of theories have been offered as to the identity of Short's killer. These range from the plausible to the fanciful (both Woody Guthrie and Orson Welles have been linked to the murder at various points). Certainly the local press at the time knew they were creating a myth when they gave Elizabeth Short her sensational nickname. If 'The Black Dahlia' is vaguely reminiscent of classic film noir, that's because there is in fact a film called The Blue Dahlia, released in 1946, the year before the murder.

Like the appalling crimes of Jack the Ripper, the Black Dahlia murder seems destined to remain in the popular consciousness precisely because the killer was never caught. It is the many questions, rumours and theories surrounding this killing that both add to the twisted romance of the story and add to a brain-taxing puzzle that people still long to solve.

The Black Dahlia

  • 3 stars
  • 2006
  • UK / Germany
  • 2h
  • 18
  • Directed by: Brian De Palma
  • Written by: Josh Friedman
  • Cast: Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw

A true Hollywood crime fictionalised in James Ellroy's novel with bags of potential as a money making movie. Add an obscenely glamorous cast and, surely, success? Well, no. The result underlines De Palma's foibles as a director, while the adaptation of Ellroy's source book is perplexingly loose and alarmingly trite in its…