Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Los Angeles Noir Revisited

Police pulp claiming to solve the Black Dahlia killing. Image Source: Heaven is HERE site © Larry Harnisch.

Today in North America (and later this week in Europe) Team Bondi and Rockstar Games are releasing a new video game called L.A. Noire.  Set in 1947, it portrays crime in Los Angeles during the height of the film noir era.  The game is done in noir style, and will be the first of its kind shown at the Tribeca Film Festival. Wiki summarizes the gameplay:
The game takes place in post-war 1940s Los Angeles, a city of glamour, fame and wealth, but also where crime, vice corruption is rife. The player assumes the role of Cole Phelps, an LAPD officer who rises through the ranks of the department. He has joined the police force to "right the wrongs" he committed during the Second World War. He starts off as a patrol-man, then a traffic detective, homicide, vice, and finally arson investigator. Each rank gives the player a partner who will help Phelps in his investigations, fights, and arrests. The game blends investigative elements such as mystery, and crime solving, with fast paced action sequences from chases on foot to car, as well as gun-play. As well as the storyline missions, the player can choose to work on optional side-investigations following a call from dispatch. The player can also travel on foot, as well as in different vehicles.
The game draws from real crimes from the period, including the notorious 1947 Black Dahlia murder, which was most recently dramatized in a 2006 Hollywood film directed by Brian De Palma.  Below the jump, the game trailer, the unsubstantiated but creepy theory that Orson Welles could have been a suspect in the Dahlia case, and some noir film clips from that era.  All of them show how post-World War II California percolated with violent memories brought home from the front.

The details of the Black Dahlia case are not for the faint-hearted.  On 15 January 1947, 22-year-old aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, who was nicknamed the 'Black Dahlia' because of the sheer black clothes she wore, was found bisected in an abandoned Los Angeles lot.  The killer had carved into her body, removed her internal organs, and cut a Glasgow Smile on her face.  For the entire week before Short died, the police could find no witnesses to account for her whereabouts or activities.  Although the murder was a huge, sensational case for the LAPD, Short's 'missing week' was never determined; the crime was never solved; and her death remains a dark mystery. Wiki has a list of suspects, which includes links to earlier, similar crimes in the United States here.   There are several sites devoted to the Black Dahlia, all with conflicting theories about the perpetrator, here, here and here.

The mystery has inspired unsettling theories.  Some have volunteered their relatives as suspects, according to a Los Angeles Times report in 1991:
Los Angeles Police Detective John ['Jigsaw'] P. St. John, one of the investigators who had been assigned to the case [stated] ... "We have a lot of people offering up their fathers and various relatives as the Black Dahlia killer."
Among these theorists is LAPD homicide detective Steve Hodel, who wrote a New York Times bestseller published in 2004 entitled Black Dahlia Avenger: The True Story.  In this work, Hodel notoriously accused his own father, Dr. George Hodel, of the crime.  According to Wiki: "James Ellroy [author of The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential] endorsed Steve Hodel's theory in the foreword to the paperback version of Hodel's book. As of November 2006, however, Ellroy has since refused to discuss theories in the case and says he has no idea who the killer was and will never again talk about the Black Dahlia publicly."

Caption for the above photograph: Detail of mannequin head/skull from Crazy House set (film:The Lady From Shanghai). Orson Welles oversaw construction of mannequin head/skull by makup artist, Bob Schiffer in Fall of 1946. Elizabeth Short's face was mutilated in similar manner—cuts from ear to ear just below the zygomatic arch.

Perhaps the oddest theory is one that centres on Orson Welles, which was advanced in 1999 by Mary Pacios. Welles was never a suspect in the case, but Pacios claims that the House of Mirrors set, which Welles designed for the movie The Lady from Shanghai three months before Short's murder, eerily resembled details of the case.  The famous director made the film with his estranged wife, Rita Hayworth. The photo above (taken from Pacios's site) of one of Welles's dismembered mannequins with a Glasgow Grin does show how Pacios could have gotten the idea (I won't link to sites with pictures of the victim's face, but a Google search on the Dahlia murder will show you the resemblance). She summarizes her evidence as follows:
"A crazy house set for the film The Lady From Shanghai, that was designed and worked on by suspect three months before the Black Dahlia murder had many of the same signature elements as the Black Dahlia murder—dolls and figures cut in half, mutilations depicted in the same areas as the mutilations that were later inflicted on the victim's body, dismembered mannequin legs hanging down from the ceiling, anatomical murals, and clown heads with wide smiles similar to the smile that was cut into victim's face. The footage containing the set was cut out of the film under direct orders of Harry Cohn."
To advance her theory, Pacios notes that Short told her sister in one of her last letters home that a director was going to give her a screen test. Pacios also points to a magic act that Welles devised in World War II, which included the bisection of a woman's body. The final version of the House of Mirrors scene in the movie is below.

House of Mirrors clip from The Lady from Shanghai (1947-1948) © Columbia Pictures. Video Source: Youtube.

As a fan of Welles, I find this claim to be totally extraordinary and hard to believe, although Pacios confirms that Welles had a little-known violent personal history. I haven't read Pacios's book, but it seems evident that the frightening images used in film noir movies drew from a common consciousness - a collective sense of post-war trauma.  Moreover, if there was any real connection to this crime, it is possible that many people - including the killer or someone connected to the killer - could have seen Welles's set, or photos of it.  And Welles's use of violent noir tropes was by no means unique.

Again, the kind of violent imagery that made the genre so frightening and powerful came directly from the aftershocks of wartime experience. Noir also mingled post-war violent crime with the economic upswing that characterized post-war peace. A similar phenomenon occurred in the 1970s, when slasher horror movies were developed in response to filmmakers' recollections of Vietnam. This has been one way that terrible experiences, memories and associated battlefield imagery were absorbed into popular culture, and to some degree, normalized.

Noir tends to channel all of these tensions through one symbol, what David Lynch calls "a woman in trouble"; dismembered mannequins, or the idea of broken bodies that resemble mannequins, continue to be a common symbol in the noir genre. The theme has been used in neo-noir films like The River's Edge, David Lynch's Twin Peaks, Jennifer Lynch's Boxing Helena and Seven. Perhaps one of the most riveting examples of the use of broken mannequins in a noir film is Experiment in Terror (1962), see below for a clip (which doesn't include the mannequin scene) - the whole film is here (the mannequin scene begins at 0:35:50).

Experiment in Terror (1962) © Columbia Pictures. Video Source: Youtube.

Since the 1980s, neo-noir has never really gone away.  The big American films in this genre that stand out immediately in my mind are Chinatown (1974); Body Heat (1981); Blade Runner (1982), which added an android twist to the mannequin theme; Blue Velvet (1986); Romeo is Bleeding (1993); The Usual Suspects (1995); L.A. Confidential (1997); Memento (2000); The Dark Knight (2008); and Shutter Island (2010). There is a list of noir films, decade by decade, here.  Given the violence, war and economic ups and downs which haunt the new Millennium, it's no wonder that L.A. Noire is reviving the genre again.  But it's doing it in typical Millennial fashion: it's tech-based, it's interactive - and it's 'based on a true story.'

L.A. Noire game trailer (2011) © Team Bondi and Rockstar Games. Video Source: Youtube.

L.A. Noire: In-depth look (2011) © Team Bondi and Rockstar Games. Video Source: Youtube.


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