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Made in 1993 with the help of grants from the Austrian Department of Education and Art, and the County of Upper Austria, this film received limited theatrical release in the U.S. five years later and subsequent video sales due to the popularity of the 1997 Hollywood release of "L.A. Confidential"—which not only made up-and-comers of stars Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, but brought the man whose books inspired it to a deservedly larger circle of readers.

James Ellroy updated the classic Raymond Chandler noir in the 1980s, first with a collection of thrillers about cops and serial killers (and serial killer cops!), then through a series of four related novels set in Los Angeles between 1947 and 1959, and informally known as "the LA quartet": The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, and White Jazz. Dark, gritty, violent, profane, and bewilderingly complicated, the books "are about obsession," Ellroy says. "I want to put as much densely packed social history into a series of novels as the farthest reaches of my brain and soul can encompass."

With nods to Evan Hunter (who observed that private eyes don’t investigate homicides; city policemen do) and Joseph Wambaugh ("the most important writer since Hammett," who showed cops "traumatized for socially valid reasons"), Ellroy declares he was sick and tired of novels about "bullshit loner private eyes," and set out instead to "show bureaucracies as obscenely corrupt, structural systems in society as extremely corrupt, and policemen as both exploiters of it and victims of it, drawn by hellishly personal motives to solve crimes and restore personal order to their own lives because the corruption that engulfs them on all levels is huge."

Before he was ready to do that, however, there would be years of alcohol, drugs, pornography, and breaking into private homes—mostly just to do it (stealing medicine from cabinets, making sandwiches in deserted kitchens) and see what other people’s lives were like. Ellroy cheerfully recalls breaking repeatedly into one girl’s home to "sniff her panties, prowl around her bedroom."

One doesn’t have to look far for the sources of the writer’s obsessions. Born in 1948, he lost his mother to an unsolved murder (probably the result of a sexual pick-up that went bad) when he was 10. He developed a displaced fascination for a similar but much more spectacular unsolved murder that occurred the year before his birth: the nude, tortured, bisected, and blood-drained corpse of a beautiful 22-year-old girl—"flaky and promiscuous" Elizabeth Ann Short—who came to be known in the press as "The Black Dahlia."

Young Ellroy would bicycle down to the spot where Short’s body was discovered, feel her presence there, fear to sleep, and have nightmares about her. "I felt that I knew her then; I felt that I loved her. I felt it because I realized that at age 22 I was substantially more fucked up than she was, but nobody killed me. I had the chance to quit drinking, using drugs—survive and make something out of myself." A lung abscess nearly killed him in 1975, and Alcoholics Anonymous got him out of his slough so he could start writing.

Ellroy would devise a novelistic solution to Short’s murder, and his books would feature sizable cameos by real people—billionaire playboy Howard Hughes, Jewish hood Mickey Cohen, muscle man and gigolo Johnny Stompanato (who won a footnote in Hollywood trivia history by becoming the murder victim of his girlfriend Lana Turner’s 14-year-old daughter)—along with the tainted cops who were his protagonists.

The author manages to be both vainglorious and self-deprecating when he tells the camera: "I wanted to be Tolstoy, I wanted to be Dostoyevsky, I wanted to be Balzac; I wanted to be all those guys that, you know, quite frankly, I’ve never really read…. I wanted to give people crime fiction on an epic, transcendental scale."

Anyone who’s read Ellroy’s best books would not instantly gainsay the proposition that he may just have succeeded. He and his work deserve a documentary; unfortunately, this one is a bit too fannish to achieve the proper level of majesty.

The filmmakers cover all the bases—Ellroy talking about the real crimes and personalities behind his books (there are a few graphic stills of murder victims, including the Dahlia, and some video footage of Cohen), his writing techniques, disparaging serial killers as a subject for serious literature, recounting his fears and escapades, speaking soberly about his mother’s killing and its repercussions (talking about it for this film may have given Ellroy some of the impetus to tackle his superb 1996 memoir and love letter to his mother, My Dark Places), doing a bookstore reading—but they also pad the film with "atmosphere": long minutes of people on the street, neon signs, panoramas of strip malls, a gun store clerk showing a woman several pistols, a hooker dickering with a client and then climbing into his car.

These resemble the 15-second sequences that open each segment of "NYPD Blue," but much more languid, and without the jittery soundtrack that energizes the TV sequences. Perhaps this stuff was exotic for Austrian viewers, but it does little for Americans. Most of it is utterly banal, and viewers wouldn’t pay it 10 seconds of attention if the sound were turned off. The one sequence that eerily works is roughly 60 seconds of the Arroyo High School varsity cheerleaders going through their paces in a middle-distance shot, just after Ellroy has talked about the Black Dahlia. You can’t help wondering where these girls will end up, whether any of them will crash and burn, or meet a dark destiny in an alley or motel room.

It’s a welcome relief every time Ellroy, who comes across like a verbal prize fighter, returns to the screen. He howls half a dozen times at the beach, jovially points out Peter Lawford’s beach house where JFK played "bury the brisket" with Marilyn Monroe. He’s especially wry when he talks about the impossibility of properly filming any of his books (although he’s been quoted in the press as being largely happy with "LA Confidential").

The strength of this film lies in its subject’s energy, focus, and articulateness about his motivations and work: "I want to leave all of you with a weird, strange, ugly, pervasive sense of bad ju-ju ramifications extending beyond the last page of my books. I don’t want to ever give you a tidy book where the good guy wins and the bad guy loses on the last page, or even where the bad guy wins and the good guy loses. I want you to feel it going on and on and on and on and on and on. I want to go darker, deeper, richer, more sexed-out, more sensuous, more profound, more perversely strange, weird, and redemptive."

In sum, this is a video for Ellroy fanatics. It might inspire someone who has never read his books to check them out, but such a person would be well advised to go to the novels first.

David Loftus


David Loftus doesn't normally read mysteries or police procedurals. Or reread more than one or two books among the hundred or so he reads every year. But he is astounded by Ellroy's work, and found it worth rereading. Loftus lives in Portland, Oregon. His book about men and pornography, Watching Sex, will be published by Thunder's Mouth Press in the winter of 2001-02. David Loftus, Writer - AllWatchers.com


Reinhard Jud—Director/Executive Producer/Scriptwriter
Wolfgang Lehner—Executive Producer/Striptwriter/Cinematography
Markus Fischer—Producer
Karina Lessner—Editor
Sam Auinger, Deedee Neidhart—Music
Phil Tintner—Narrator

1993, 91 minutes