BOOTLEG FILES 487: “Who is the Black Dahlia?” (1975 made-for-TV movie starring Lucie Arnaz).
LAST SEEN: It can be found on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: I have no idea why this is out of circulation.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It would be nice.
On January 15, 1947, the Los Angeles Police Department responded to a call about a dead body that was found in a vacant lot. When the cops arrived at the scene, they were shocked at what they found: a naked woman whose body had been surgically severed at the waist. The top half of her body had been mutilated, and corpse had been completely drained of blood.
The police eventually identified the body as Elizabeth Short, a 22-year-old from Massachusetts. The local newspapers, eager to exploit this uncommonly gruesome crime, began to spin wild stories about Short – and even gave her the nickname “Black Dahlia” due to her alleged fondness for black clothing. The police investigation generated a surplus of suspects and a ridiculously large number of weirdoes that confessed to the murder. To date, however, Short’s murder remains an unsolved case.
In 1975, a made-for-television drama inspired by the case was broadcast on NBC. The resulting film, “Who is the Black Dahlia?” emerged as a bizarre production: it was a genuinely intriguing and very well-acted drama, but it only bore a slight resemblance to the facts surrounding Short’s life.
The film’s creators did not intentionally attempt to muck up the Short biography. Indeed, one of the detectives assigned to the case, Harry Hansen, served as a technical adviser. But Short’s mother, Phoebe Short, refused to sign a release to allow her life to be portrayed on the small screen. As a result, the producers were forced to realign Short’s biography.
In this film, Short’s life story begins as an asthmatic teenager who lives with her grandmother in Maine. In reality, Short was a Massachusetts native who lived with her mother. And while the film was correct about her asthma, it never mentioned that she spent her winters in Florida for health reasons – instead, the film depicts her as wheezing and coughing in the frigid Maine winters.
For a while, the film sticks to the facts of the Short biography. The screenplay accurately notes how Short receives money from her long-absent father to travel to California. She arrives on the West Coast, full of enthusiasm for a reunion with her father and laced with vague dreams of becoming a movie star. However, her dad is strangely perplexed at her arrival – for some reason, he didn’t expect her to show up – and he makes it clear that she is not welcome to stay. She somehow manages to remain with him, until he kicks her out (he claims that she is lazy and a terrible housekeeper). He gives her money to return to New England, but she opts to stay in California and takes a job at a military base. Short has her first encounter with law enforcement when she is arrested in September 1943 for underage drinking.
At this point in the story, key truth to Short’s life was ignored. The film gives the impression that she remained in California after her arrest until her death. In reality, she divided her time from September 1943 to July 1946 between Florida and Massachusetts. She supported herself by working as a waitress, and she was also engaged to an Army Air Force officer who died in World War II – those aspects of her life is absent from the film. She only returned to California in the summer of 1946.
This spin was due, in large part, because the film’s producers were hampered by legal concerns over identifying potential suspects in her demise. As a result, key connections in her final months were either fudged or omitted. As a result, the film falls far short of accuracy.
But for those who prefer entertainment to accuracy, “Who is the Black Dahlia?” is an invigorating distraction. The film focuses on the growing obsession of Detective Harry Hansen to solve the baffling murder, with flashbacks to the alleged misadventures of Elizabeth Short in the period leading up to her grisly demise.
Hansen’s story is anchored by a surprisingly solid performance by Efrem Zimblast Jr. as the weary detective whose pursuit of Short’s killer brings him to constant dead ends. Although Zimblast enjoyed stardom on a pair of popular TV series – “77 Sunset Strip” and “The F.B.I.” – he was rarely considered to be a great actor. Yet in “Who is the Black Dahlia?”, he offers a solid and often surprising star turn as an aging cop who is unable to crack this high-profile case. Dropping his voice to a gravelly growl, Zimblast’s Hansen is a tired workhorse whose obsession with Short uproots his career. (As a curious side note: Zimblast’s stand-in on this film was Paul McWilliams, who briefly dated Short in 1946.)
Matching Zimblast is Lucie Arnaz as Short. Prior to this performance, there was nothing in Arnaz’s career that suggested her depth as a dramatic actress. But in “Who is the Black Dahlia?”, she creates a deeply complex interpretation of a young woman who is equal parts vulnerable and vicious. Her character is a delusional, pathological liar who is desperately seeking emotional stability yet simultaneously keeping people at arm’s length. Whether she is desperately fighting off unwanted advances of boorish servicemen or casually manipulating gullible individuals to cover her bills, Arnaz’s Short is a masterwork of mixed emotions – at times she is fully in control of her situation, at other times she is clearly in over her head.
Not unlike other made-for-television films of the era, “Who is the Black Dahlia?” is stuffed with a supporting cast full of B-listers, over-the-hill old-timers and a few up-and-coming talents. The large cast included Ronny Cox as Hansen’s police partner, Mercedes McCambridge as Short’s grandmother, June Lockhart as a landlord that never received a penny of rent from the dishonest Short, Gloria DeHaven as a sympathetic policewoman, Tom Bosley as an indefatigable reporter, Donna Mills as a starlet who briefly befriended Short, MacDonald Carey as a gruff police captain, John Fiedler as a timid military base PX manager, Linden Chiles as a stoic coroner, Sid Haig as a tattoo artist, and Brooke Adams and Lana Wood in roles that were so small that you need to consult the Internet Movie Database to confirm their presence in the film.
“Who is the Black Dahlia?” was broadcast on NBC on March 1, 1975. For Arnaz, the broadcast created a bit of a family battle: over on CBS, her mother Lucille Ball was appearing opposite her in the TV special “Lucy Gets Lucky.” Ball reportedly disapproved of Arnaz’s participation in the film, though Arnaz would return to the crime genre later that year as the target of a killer in the TV film “Death Scream,” which was inspired by another infamous murder (in this case, the Kitty Genovese case).
To date, “Who is the Black Dahlia?” has never been made available for commercial home entertainment release, although it has turned up on TV over the years. Bootleg copies are easy to locate from DVD collector-to-collector services, and the full film is online at YouTube.
If you approach this film expecting a genuine consideration of the life and death of Elizabeth Short, you will be sadly disappointed. But as a better-than-average 1970s television film, this offering is worth seeking out.
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