NOTE: This spoiler sent in by Barkingcats who says..."Brian de Palma movies have a few hallmarks. They start slow and end with a zillion plot twists all happening at light speed. And they are long...so start reading and use a bookmark if you need to."
The move is narrated by the main character, Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and opens with Bucky sitting on a massage table while a boxing trainer wraps his hands in preparation for a fight. You see a poster behind him promoting the fight between "Mr. Fire" and "Mr. Ice". Bucky goes on to describe how he had known "Mr. Fire" for some time, but that this would be their first fight. The movie cuts to a scene set in late '40s Los Angeles where a brawl bordering on a small riot has broken out. Several cars are on fire and everyone in sight is throwing down. You see Bucky in a policeman's uniform walking through the melee, trying to avoid getting involved. He walks by an alley and spots another uniform cop surrounded by four or five brawlers who are trying to beat up a zoot suit Hispanic guy. The narrator tells us that the other uniform is Leland "Lee" Blanchard, aka "Mr. Fire" (Aaron Eckhart). Bucky helps Lee dispatch the mostly intoxicated combatants. The narrator describes how both men had tried to get involved in professional boxing but since neither of them made it past the small time, the police force seemed like the next logical place for them to go. Bucky and Lee rescue the Hispanic guy and hang out with him until morning, figuring that it makes no sense trying to get to the police station with the brawl still going on outside. During their conversation, Lee mentions that the Los Angeles D.A. has a thing for fighters and is helping Lee get promoted to the detective squad.
Cut to a scene where Lee introduces Bucky to the D.A. and police captain John Tierney (Angus MacInnes). The D.A. and the captain tell Bucky about a boxing match they want to stage between Lee and Bucky as "Mr. Fire" and "Mr. Ice". They will hold the match as a charity fund raiser, but what they are really trying to do is get public support for a ballot measure that will give everyone on the police force a big pay raise. Bucky agrees to the fight and he and Lee walk out of the building where Lee's girlfriend, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson) is waiting for them. There is instant chemistry between Bucky and Kay in this scene and a couple of subsequent scenes where they have the occasion to interact. But we know even early on that Bucky is a stand-up guy and he isn't going to move in on Lee's girl even though you get the feeling that Kay wouldn't mind.
The next scene we see an old guy in a ratty apartment building leaning out the window, shooting a gun into the alley. Pan to the alley and we see that he's shooting the crap out of pigeons - a little disconcerting. Bucky drives up and sees what's happening. He goes into the building and up the stairs into the filthy apartment where the shooter is. We learn that the old guy is his father, who appears to be suffering from advanced dementia. Bucky takes the gun from his father and tries to talk to him. His dad just starts screaming at him in German (Bleichert is a German name). Bucky calls someone to see if they can come clean up the apartment and stay with his dad. You can tell from the conversation that Bucky can't really afford to pay for this on his policeman's salary and he's struggling with how to care for his ailing father.
Cut to the fight between Lee and Bucky. If boxing makes you squeamish, this would be a good time to cover your eyes. If you like boxing, however this is an incredible ten rounds. Bucky narrates while the fight is going on and we learn that basically he's going to be paid for throwing the fight - losing on purpose to Lee. Bucky says he'll make enough to put his dad in a nice rest home for the next three years and settle his debts. The last part of the fight sequence Lee lands a brutal left hook and than a jab - we see Bucky's front teeth landing on the floor on a fight program. The next scene shows Bucky getting fitted for a bridge to replace his missing teeth and then we see him visiting his dad at the new rest home - even though dad is too far gone at this point in time to really recognize him.
Bucky and Lee are both promoted to the detective squad and here the movie starts to pick up a little speed. Bucky and Lee make good partners, but it becomes obvious that Lee is a publicity hound and that he likes to play it a little fast and loose compared to Bucky. Bucky also forms a deep friendship with Lee and Kay and we see the three of them go out together. Kay cooks dinner for her "super cops" as she affectionately calls them and the three of them celebrate New Year's Eve 1946 together. The New Year's Eve party is also where we're introduced to club owner Morrie Friedman (Anthony Russell) who we learn gives Lee tips about drug deals about to go down.
As we observe Bucky and Lee working together, there is a minor scene which will matter later on in the movie. One of the other detectives pulls Lee aside and tells him that a guy he helped convict, Bobby De Witt (Richard Brake) is going to be released from prison in a few days. Bucky asks Lee who Bobby De Witt is. Lee avoids giving him a direct answer, but does ask him not to tell Kay about it - saying only that it would upset her. We don't learn why until later.
Next we see a detective briefing in the squad room. Lee and Bucky are supposed to go after a child killer who has also just killed an elderly lady. Lee and Bucky stakeout a rooming house where he's supposed to be holed up. The camera pans up and over the building from their stakeout and we see an empty grassy field skirted by a sidewalk. You'll see two things at once: a woman with a baby stroller walking next to the field and the naked body of a woman in two pieces lying next to the sidewalk. This is the first time we see the Black Dahlia (Mia Kirshner). The woman pushing the stroller screams when she sees the body and runs for help.
The scene switches back to the stakeout. As Lee and Bucky sit in their car, we see an older, gangster looking white guy with a young, hooker looking black woman walking towards them about a block away. The gangster is telling the woman that he's got a bad cop who is going to help him make something straight. The woman laughs and tells the guy she didn't know there were any good cops, so why would he think that getting a bad cop was such a big deal? The pair arrives at the rooming house and appears to be doing some kind of drug deal with a black guy standing outside. Suddenly Lee tells Bucky to "get down" and you hear shots fired. The old gangster white guy is shot and killed and falls down. Next the black woman is shot and killed and falls on top of him. Bucky, who crouched down in his seat when Lee warned him now jumps out of the car and run across the street amid a hail of gun fire. He chases the black drug dealer down the alley, catches and cuffs him and then runs back to where Lee is. Lee meanwhile has gotten out of the car and run into the rooming house. We hear lots of gun fire and the sounds of police sirens approaching the scene.
Next we see that Bucky and Lee talking to a few other policeman in front of the rooming house. We can see inside up a flight of stairs where three or four more bodies are - bad guys that Lee shot. Lee asks about all the other sirens he's hearing and one of the other policeman mentions that "it's a busy neighborhood". No kidding. Lee and Bucky run across the street where one of their fellow detectives, Russ Millard (Mike Starr) has taken charge of the Black Dahlia crime scene. There are a lot of police and detectives on the scene and they are staring in horror and disbelief. Millard instructs the other police to keep the press away and not to release certain details of the crime to the public.
Lee, along with the entire City of Los Angeles and the police department becomes obsessed with figuring out what happened to the dead woman. We see detectives crowded around the coroner during the autopsy. We learn that the decedent was cut in half at the naval and that most of her internal organs were removed. The body was drained of blood and washed before it was dumped in the field, indicating that she was murdered elsewhere and then moved. We learn that her sexual organs were also removed and we can see from the body that she's been mutilated in other ways. The coroner says that she wasn't pregnant and that she didn't have sex. He finishes by saying that her mouth was cut ear to ear (there's a glimpse of this in the film so squeamish people beware) and that the cause of death appears to be blunt force trauma to a head, probably by something like a baseball bat. The body is identified by finger prints as Elizabeth Ann Short; she'd been caught drinking underage and so her prints were on file. It's worth noting here that the movie is based on a novel by James Ellroy - and isn't entirely factual - for example Elizabeth Short didn't have a middle name and the case was never solved. But lucky for us, we do find out "who dun it" according to Mr. Ellroy. Read on.
His obsession with the Black Dahlia case is a descent into hell for Lee. Lee ignores the other cases they are supposed to be working on and starts popping Benzedrine to stay wired so he can work on the case 24/7. Bucky tries to talk sense into Lee, but Lee tells him that he just needs a week to figure out what happened to the Black Dahlia. Lee asks Bucky if he can crash at his dad's old place, which Bucky says is fine. Lee keeps asking Bucky to check in on Kay to make sure she's ok. During one of Bucky and Kay's conversation, Bucky asks Kay who Bobby De Witt is. She avoids answering and Bucky lets her know he's getting out of jail. She looks at him and says, "I'm scared".
Bucky researches the old case files and news clippings and finds out this was the case that jump started Lee's career as well as got him together with Kay. Bobby De Witt was a drug dealing pimp who pulled off a big bank robbery. Kay was one of his whores. She wanted to get out of the life and helped Lee bring Bobby down. At the trial, Bobby swore revenge against Kay and Lee. We also find out that the money from the bank robbery was never recovered. So now Bucky is dealing with trying to help Lee for the week he's got to figure out the Black Dahlia murder as well as figuring out what to do when Bobby De Witt gets out of jail. The relationship between Bucky and Kay is also developing. There are two scenes where he's dropped by to make sure she's ok. In one of them she expresses concern about Lee and asks what will happen to them. Bucky gives her an answer about the three of them; Kay says, "No", she means just the two of them - She and Bucky. Bucky tells her that there isn't a "two of them". She is miffed and retires. We see Bucky at the foot of the stairs looking up into her bathroom. She's in her underwear (for you fashion fiends, they had fabulous elegant undies in the '40s) bending over. You can see the scars from the letters "B.D" carved into her backside. She turns and looks at Bucky. He knows this was done by Bobby De Witt. He leaves the house. In the second scene they've had another tense conversation and she's retired once again. He pauses at the foot of the stairs on his way out; she's standing in the doorway wearing a robe and not much else. He doesn't come up the stairs and she slams the bathroom door shut.
Meanwhile the movie weaves in and out of the investigation as Bucky finds out more about the Black Dahlia. He and Lee both interview her father. The father characterizes his daughter as a promiscuous freeloader always dressing in black sexy outfits and parading around. He says it's no surprise that a woman who acts and dresses that way got killed. Nice guy. Next, Bucky interviews a bit part actress who met Elizabeth and also roomed with someone - Lorna Mertz (Jemima Rooper) who knew her. The actress tells Bucky that she ran into Lorna and Elizabeth talking to a woman dressed up in man's clothes with short hair. Bucky asks her if they were lesbians. The actress is vague but Bucky decides to follow up on this lead. The actress also tells him that while Elizabeth has made a couple of films, they weren't for studios, implying that they were pornography. He goes to a couple of lesbian clubs, showing photos and asking people if they've seen Elizabeth or Lorna. There is a great cameo of K.D. Lang performing Cole Porter's "Love for Sale". It is at this club that Bucky runs into Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank). He spots her by the door - she's dressed like the Black Dahlia. He walks towards her so he can ask her if she knows Elizabeth, but Madeleine sees him and takes off. He follows her outside and gets the license plate number of her car, which he writes on the inside of a match cover. He looks up name and writes that down on the matchbook cover as well - important for later.
The next day we see Bucky and Lee at the police station, both of them on the phone tracking down information on the murder. They both chain smoke - in fact everyone in the movie chain smokes. Lee is on the phone and motions for Bucky to give him a light. Bucky throws him a book of matches. Guess which matches? That's right; the matches with Madeleine's name on them.
Bucky tracks Madeleine down the next evening and questions her about what she knows about the Black Dahlia. She confesses to knowing Elizabeth and Lorna from running into them at the lesbian clubs. She tells Bucky that it wouldn't be good for her father - a wealthy real estate developer - to find out about this and that she'd do just about anything for this not to get in the news. Bucky is attracted to her and they agree to go out the next night. Madeleine tells him to pick her up at her house.
Bucky arrives for the date the next night. Madeleine is conservatively dressed now; she opens the door and tells Bucky that her father found out he was a boxer and insisted that Bucky join them for dinner. People - if you think you have a dysfunctional family sit up and take notice - this is the best family scene in any movie anywhere because Madeleine's family are all mad as hatters and this dinner is just the beginning. Madeleine shows Bucky inside and the first thing we see is a real dog - dead and stuffed by a taxidermist - with a newspaper in its mouth. Bucky asks about it. Madeleine casually explains that the newspaper was from the day her dad made his first big real estate deal. He was so happy he wanted to commemorate it so he shot the dog and a family friend George Tilden (Walter Finley) stuffed it for him. During dinner the father, Emmet Linscott (John Kavanagh) makes reasonably normal small talk. But it goes downhill from there. Madeleine's younger sister Martha (Rachel Miner) tells Bucky that she's going to draw a caricature of him and whips out a drawing pad. We see the mother Ramona Linscott (Fiona Shaw) hacking at her food and finally throwing a fit. She tells Bucky that her husband named a street after her, "Ramona" Boulevard. She also says that her husband married her for her father's money and she thought she'd get more than a street in Lincoln Heights. She asks Bucky if he knows the area - he says he grew up there. Mrs. Linscott says that if that is indeed true, then Bucky knows about the Mexican whores who flash their breasts out of windows and that many of these same Mexican whores know Mr. Linscott on a first name basis. Mr. Linscott tries to get his wife to behave and she loses it, saying she'll be nice if they mayor comes for dinner but not for Madeleine's man whores, especially if they are common policeman. She gets up and staggers out of the room. Martha who has been ignoring all of this has now finished her drawing and with a slightly insane smile, shows it to Bucky. It's a cartoon of him having sex with her sister Madeleine, doggy style. Nice sister. Martha leaves the table and Madeleine, apologizing to Bucky suggests that they leave on their date. And despite all of the above - he goes.
They end up in a hotel, having sex - after which Madeleine reveals a little more of what she knows about the Black Dahlia. She says she heard that someone who looked like her was showing up in the lesbian clubs and she wanted to meet her. She left her number around and the Black Dahlia finally called her. There are a series of scenes of dates between Bucky and Madeleine. She finally reveals that she had sex with Elizabeth just to see what it would be to make love to someone who looked like her twin. Bucky is repulsed and leaves her.
The investigation into the murder continues. We now see film clips of auditions that the Black Dahlia did. They are pretty pathetic and sad. We know that she didn't get any movie parts and we get the impression that she was sleeping with the directors and casting agents. In a break, Bucky finally tracks down Lorna Mertz in a park and brings her in for questioning. She's got a movie in a can and confesses that it is a stag film that she and Elizabeth made.
The next scene is in the squad room - the detectives investigating the case, including Lee and Bucky are watching the porn film that Lorna and Elizabeth made. If sex bothers you, skip this part - it isn't explicit but there's not much left to the imagination. Its girl-on-girl action culminating with Lorna uses a rather evil looking dildo on Elizabeth. Elizabeth looks like she's in pain. While watching the video, Lee loses it and runs out of the squad room. The D.A. gets furious with him and demotes him on the spot (apparently D.A.s could do that then). He tells him to write a formal apology and have it on his desk by first thing in the morning.
The next morning, we see Bucky at his desk, but no Lee. The D.A. comes by to ask where Lee is. He's still furious and tells Bucky to get out of his sight.
Now we see Bucky called to another crime scene. It is the child killer that they were supposed to have been finding when the Black Dahlia was discovered. He's been shot, but not before he killed another child and his father in China Town. Bucky is furious and goes back to the police station to confront Lee, punching him and finally walking away in disgust.
Next evening Bucky gets wind that Morrie Friedman has given Lee another tip on a drug deal that is going down in the club Morrie owns. Bucky races off to find Lee. He enters the building and sees Bobby De Witt in the lobby. He doesn't see Lee anywhere around. Bucky rousts Bobby De Witt and has him against the wall when a shot is fired from above, killing Bobby De Witt. Bucky looks up and see Lee several floors above him, leaning over a railing. Bucky also sees the shadow of someone coming up behind Lee with a garrote - sneaking up to strangle him. Bucky yells to Lee to "watch out", but it is too late. The stranger with the garrote gets Lee and they struggle against the railing. We barely see the stranger but we see that he has thick glasses and is face looks like it has been burned. Bucky starts running up the stairs to reach them. Next we see a man come out of the shadows towards the struggling pair with a knife. He runs up to them and slits Lee's throat. Both Lee and the man with the garrote fall over the railing. Bucky is yelling, "No, no" and we see the pair hit the floor and we hear the skulls crack. It's nasty - both of them are really, really dead.
The next scene we see Morrie Friedman and his crew putting the dead men - Bobby De Witt, Lee and the stranger with the garrote into a burning furnace in the club's basement. Bucky is looking on mournfully. Morrie tells him that it has to be this way - how else could they explain what happened? Lee's dead body is shoved into the incinerator with Bucky looking on.
At this point in the movie, Bucky and Kay - in their grief over losing Lee - finally get together as a couple and make love. But there's a twist. Kay asks Bucky to fix a broken tile on the bathroom floor. When he removes the broken tile, he finds a hollow space in the floor and low and behold, there is the money from the bank robbery that Bobby De Witt had pulled off. Kay says that they had given most of it to a guy for safe keeping but she didn't now that this was where Lee kept the rest of it. Bucky asks Kay who the guy was. She hesitates but finally tells him. Turns out it was the old gangster guy who got shot when Bucky and Lee were on the stakeout waiting for the child killer. We see the scene replayed again, but this time we see that when Lee told Bucky to "get down', Lee pulled out his gun and he was the one who shot the old gangster guy so he couldn't rat on him for keeping the money from the bank heist. Bucky is furious that Kay didn't tell him about this and storms off directly to Madeleine's house. Why he would go back to that whacko, is unclear - but they hook up again. The next morning Bucky is checking out some pictures on the mantle and he notices a picture of Madeleine's parents with a family friend. He's shocked - the family friend is a younger version of the stranger who garroted Lee. Bucky asks Madeleine who he is. It's George Tilden, the same guy who stuffed the family dog after her father shot it. Bucky also notices an odd modern painting of a clown with a smile cut ear-to-ear. It reminds him of the Black Dahlia case and he remarks that he doesn't get modern art. He goes to leave and discovers that Kay is waiting for him outside. She tells him he's sick for sleeping with someone who looks like the dead Black Dahlia and drives off.
Bucky now decides to re-focus on the case and says that instead of trying to figure out who killed the Black Dahlia, he's going to try to figure out where it happened. He goes back to the porn film. The room they filmed it in looks like a Hollywood movie set. He remembers Mr. Linscott talking about getting a lot of stage sets from a famous Hollywood director and using them to build cheap housing underneath the Hollywoodland sign. He also notices that there is a credit at the end of the porn film thanking Emmet Linscott. Bucky drives up to the housing development and finds the crime scene, including a lock of Elizabeth Short's hair. There's a lot of blood everywhere. He also sees a faded painting that looks a lot like the weird clown painting he saw in the Linscott mansion. And Bucky believes he's figured out what happened.
He drives to the Linscott's mansion where he finds Madeleine and her father in a weird position. Madeleine is in her father's lap - they are talking about going to Europe and the father almost kisses her on the lips when Bucky interrupts them. He tells Mr. Linscott that he knows that he killed the Black Dahlia. The three of them are arguing and Bucky starts shooting objects in the room to get them to talk - a Ming vase, a Greek statue and a crystal chandelier. Suddenly Mrs. Linscott appears on the landing and tells Bucky to stop shooting up the place. She tells him that her husband didn't kill the Black Dahlia and then tells Bucky the story of what happened.WHAT HAPPENED
*CUT TO THE CHASE*
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Elizabeth Short and Lorna Mertz made the porn film and Emmet Linscott let the director use one of his Hollywood movie set houses for the film. Turns out that the Linscott family friend - George Tilden was also there - he did caretaking for Mr. Linscott around the housing development. George became obsessed with Elizabeth while watching the filming of the porn flick. Emmet Linscott "bought" Elizabeth for George - paying her to go on a date with him. Mrs. Linscott then out of the blue reveals that her daughter Martha is actually George's child - she had an affair with George. Emmet found out and messed up George's face, which we saw when he garotted Lee. We now see a shot of creepy George and Elizabeth Short in a garage at the housing development. Mrs. Linscott is standing just outside the door, watching them. She hits Elizabeth with a baseball bat and she and George take her inside. They are wedging her head into this wood vise - pretty vile looking - and Mrs. Linscott hits her with the bat again, but this wakes her up. Mrs. Linscott then takes a knife and we see her slashing Elizabeth's mouth while Elizabeth screams. The scene cuts back to the Linscott mansion where Ramona Linscott is telling this story. She then waves "bye-bye", pulls a gun out of the bodice of her nightgown, puts it in her mouth and pulls the trigger.
There is one more twist that Bucky must figure out. How did his partner Lee get set up? He flashes back to the day in the police station when he and Lee were calling on Black Dahlia leads - the day that he threw the book of matches over to Lee when he needed a light the matches that had Madeleine's name on them. Bucky realized that this was the reason Lee freaked out when they were watching the porn flick evidence: Lee saw Emmet Linscott's name and put that together with Madeleine's name on the matchbook. Lee went to the Linscott mansion and was blackmailing Emmet Linscott. Madeleine knew this was going on. She set Lee up with Bobby De Witt. We see this scene replayed and discover that it wasn't a man at all who came out of the shadows when George Tilden and Lee were struggling - it was Madeleine dressed up like a man. She slit Lee's throat.
Bucky confronts Madeleine at gun point at a hotel where she's arrived with a guy she's going to have sex with (the guy scrams). She confesses, but tells Bucky that he's rather have sex with her than shoot her, but that he doesn't have the guts to do either. Wrong. He shoots her.
The last scene has Bucky going back to Kay's house. He says he realizes that some people love him and care about him. She opens the door and they look at each other. He sees a final hallucination of the Black Dahlia's mutilated corpse and then it fades away. Kay invites him in. The End!