According to online speculation, the legendary Lucille Ball did not want her daughter Lucie Arnaz to take the title role in the 1975 television film Who is the Black Dahlia? Based on the notorious 1947 murder case in which a young woman named Elizabeth Short was brutally bisected and left in an abandoned field, this film took a highly fictionalized look at the proceedings – which Ball, a Hollywood stalwart, had obviously been aware of in real time. Arnaz, smartly, was not about to turn down the title role in a compelling project, though, and her sensitive performance definitely highlights the film’s emotional truths. Unfortunately, those intimated facts haven’t changed much in the decades since this film was made – discrimination and real dangers still, overwhelmingly, lurk for young women in the world on a daily basis.
Interestingly though, since so much of Short’s life was shadowed in after-the-fact hearsay, once this television film is over, viewers still don’t have a clear view of who the title character was on a personal level. Writer Robert W. Lenski often paints her as a good person abandoned by her father, consistently threatened by rowdy soldiers and gangster types who do not understand her. But, despite Arnaz’s multi-layered work, he never finds a consistent thread to her behavior. Her actions often make no sense – engaging with people and then mysteriously evading them…acting grateful to her benefactors and then resorting to thievery. Painting her as a full-blown master of manipulation might have been inaccurate but could have ultimately created a more comprehensive narrative here.
Still, this work radiates with both a bit of a smoky film noir vibe and the sincere charms of the classic movie of the week format. This is particularly interesting as Arnaz has recalled in interviews that the entire creative process was completed in a quick two weeks. Even more impressive are the variety of well-known performers who deliver layered characterizations as the events unfold. Mercedes McCambridge, who committed fully to her demon-centric vocalizing in The Exorcist, shows her versatility here by giving her role as Short’s grandmother a vibrantly wounded heart. Donna Mills, the queen of the tele-flick genre at the period of time, adds venomous charm as one of Short’s rivals and Gloria DeHaven, who often played petulant romantic rivals in classic musicals, radiates with kindness as a prison matron who encourages Elizabeth to stay on the right track. The appearance of horror movie veteran Sid Haig as a roadside tattooist might cause a shout of surprised joy to erupt from any genre enthusiast watching, as well.
Nicely, Arnaz would continue this based on a real horror vibe with her next project, Death Scream, another movie-of-the-week outing inspired by an actual crime. Showing up in the film’s last quarter as the late arriving final girl, Arnaz manages to outsmart the killer this time and share a second or two of screen time with Raul Julia, that project’s leading man, to boot!
Until the next time, SWEET love and pink GRUE, Big Gay Horror Fan!