Home > Reviews > THE BLACK DAHLIA – Mark Isham

THE BLACK DAHLIA – Mark Isham

September 15, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The enduring mystery of the ‘black dahlia’ murder case has intrigued and confounded Hollywood since 1947. It involves the grisly death of an aspiring young actress named Elizabeth Short, who was found dead – literally chopped in half at the waist and dismembered – in the Leimert Park area of Los Angeles, 8 miles south of downtown Hollywood. The shocking brutality of her killing made her much more of a media figure in death than she ever was in life, who dubbed her “The Black Dahlia”, a pun on the title of the Alan Ladd film The Blue Dahlia, which had recently been released. Despite the efforts of hundreds of police, and the enormous media coverage, Short’s killer has still never been found, although the suspects at the time included such high profile names as publisher Norman Chandler, folk singer Woody Guthrie, gangster Bugsy Siegel, and even Orson Welles. This fascinating history is the basis of director Brian De Palma’s latest film, based on the novel by James Ellroy, which hypothesises one possible version events. The all-star cast includes Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, and Mia Kirshner as Short.

The last time this setting and time period was visited my a major Hollywood movie was in 1997, when Jerry Goldsmith wrote the music for another Ellroy adaptation, L.A. Confidential. Goldsmith received his final dramatic score Oscar nomination for his work on that film, and if the early buzz about this score is anything to take notice of, Mark Isham could well be following in his footsteps. In many ways, Isham is the perfect choice of composer for The Black Dahlia. As a world-class trumpeter, his connections with the world of jazz and blues bring a level of unparalleled authenticity to his work. As an excellent composer, his dramatic sensibility and knack for eliciting the right emotions come into play. And as an excellent film composer, he was able to draw on the work of his predecessors to recapture that unmistakable sound of film noir: the sound that Leonard Bernstein has in On the Waterfront, that David Raksin and Bernard Herrmann brought to their works in the genre, and that Jerry Goldsmith evoked so wonderfully almost a decade ago.

Isham’s sultry trumpet solos are the cornerstone of the entire score, and right from the first moments of the first cue, “The Zoot Suit Riots”, transport the listener to Hollywood’s golden age. One can imagine a hard-boiled gumshoe tramping purposefully through rain-slicked streets to this music, collar turned up against the night, fedora hat pulled down low, smoke from a Chesterfield cigarette curling from the his lips, tracking down the bad guys. It’s testament to Isham’s talent that his musical manipulation of this evocative imagery is so strong throughout the score. His writing never misses a beat, never steps out of character, and never seems ill-judged or misplaced. The trumpet solos in later cues, such as “Mr. Fire Versus Mr. Ice”, “Red Arrow Inn”, and “No Other Way” are just sublime.

That opening cue is actually quite magnificent: building from the lonely trumpet opening, Isham works in rhythmic pianos, percussion hits, and a powerful, strident, dramatic theme and turns the piece into a vibrant action cue which dominates the listener’s attention. While he was clearly inspired by the opening “Bloody Christmas” cue from L.A. Confidential, Isham’s variation on the style is no parody, and sets the tone well. In fact, the action music throughout the score is top-notch, something which may surprise people who have not associated Isham with that kind of writing. The second half of “At Norton and Colosseum”, as well as cues such as the brilliant “Hollywoodland”, the dramatic “The Men Who Feed on Others” and the exciting “Death at the Olympic” are full of pounding intensity, but also have a theme-based linear quality which gives them more of a personality than they would have had they simply been rhythms: virtually all of Isham’s recurring themes feature in an action setting in one cue or another, adding a further level of depth and strength to the score as a whole.

Elizabeth Short – the Black Dahlia herself – has her own theme, first heard on vibrophones and wilting strings during “The Dahlia”, featuring subtly in “Hollywoodland”, and finally coming to the fore in more fleshed-out versions in “Death at the Olympic”, the moving “Betty Short”, and the slow-burning finale, “Nothing Stays Buried Forever”. The Dahlia theme is quiet, a little innocent, a little twisted, and a little sad, as if trying to reconcile the dichotomy of a woman who was simultaneously mourned as a tragic murder victim, yet vilified and accused of being a prostitute, adulteress, and worse.

However, this story is as much about the lives of the people investigating the death as it is the victim herself, and love triangle between Bucky and Leland, the detectives at the heart of the investigation, and Kay, the girl who sleeps with them both and has secrets of her own, is scored with a velvety lushness befitting the golden age of Hollywood, usually comprising sweeping strings overlaid with Isham’s wonderful trumpet solos. “The Two of Us”, the rapturous “Dwight and Kay”, “Red Arrow Inn” and “Super Cops’ are all superb examples of this style, while the string swells during the moodily beautiful “Madeleine” sounds as though they could have come straight from the pen of Steiner, Newman or Rósza.

The thing which sets The Black Dahlia apart from other entries into the genre is Isham’s continual innovation, the strength of the performances, and its overall cohesiveness. Not simply content to merely stick to a themes-and-variations style, Isham throws in a number of wonderfully carefree instrumental textures at unusual moments to keep the score fresh and alive, notably a theremin in “The Two of Us”, Hollywoodland”, and “The Men Who Feed on Others”. His fresh settings of the themes and variations in unexpected places (like the performance of the Dahlia theme as an action motif in “Death at the Olympic”) highlight perfectly the intelligent structuring of the score as a whole. Other things may be happening, but at its core, this is Betty Short’s story.

Fans of Isham’s jazzier works – The Cooler or Afterglow for example – or of Goldsmith’s seminal Chinatown or L.A. Confidential, will love The Black Dahlia the most, but to be honest I can’t think of a group of film music fans who won’t find something to enjoy in this masterful work. There are great action themes, beautifully sultry love themes, sweeping throwbacks to the Golden Age, memorable instrumental performances, and at least four memorable recurring themes, and the whole thing drips with a sense of time and place that is unmistakable. I can seriously see this score being a major contender for awards in 2007; as it stands, its already on the MMUK shortlist as a potential Score of the Year.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • The Zoot Suit Riots (2:14)
  • At Norton and Coliseum (4:06)
  • The Dahlia (3:08)
  • The Two Of Us (3:36)
  • Mr. Fire Versus Mr. Ice (3:15)
  • Madeleine (3:05)
  • Dwight and Kay (3:11)
  • Hollywoodland (2:53)
  • Red Arrow Inn (1:35)
  • Men Who Feed On Others (4:24)
  • Super Cops (2:00)
  • Death at the Olympic (3:32)
  • No Other Way (2:06)
  • Betty Short (2:16)
  • Nothing Stays Buried Forever (6:26)

Running Time: 47 minutes 47 seconds

Silva Screen SILCD1221 (2006)

Music composed by Mark Isham. Conducted by James Shearman. Orchestrations by Brad Dechter, Frank Bennett and Mike Watts. Featured musical soloist Mark Isham. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Ramiro Belgardt. Album produced by Mark Isham.

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