The Super Fun Kids' Graphic Novel Sale

The New Republic Online
Thursday, September 21st, 2006
Voice your opinion about this review by
posting a comment on the blog


Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder

by Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss


A review by David Thomson

In sixty years, two huge changes have occurred at the movies: far fewer people go to see them, and those left behind are asked to behold unimaginably crueler things. (I say behold, because we know that our bargain at the movies is that we cannot intervene. We are not quite there.) I'm not sure how these changes are connected. You can argue that this decline, achieved really in the 1960s, allowed more adult (as opposed to Adult) movies. And you can point to a boom of maturity in the early 1970s. But when that adulthood retreated, we were left with cruelty, blood-letting, and violence of a kind that would have seemed outlandish in the 1940s. This thought is prompted by the intriguing conjunction of these two books, and the questions they pose about the 1940s. But it is in our time that this country began to talk about what was once unthinkable -- I mean torture -- and so we see it increasingly in our "entertainment." The show 24 did a lot to pioneer it. Just how much cruelty are we prepared to accept before we think less of ourselves?

On January 15, 1947, at about 10:30 a.m., a woman and her daughter noticed white streaks in the brown ground of a piece of wasteland at 39th Street and Norton Avenue in the Leimert Park section of Los Angeles. The white streaks proved to be naked flesh. The woman knocked at a door and asked to phone the police. In those days, reporters could pick up the broadcasts of the LAPD directing patrol cars to a site, and so it happened that Will Fowler, a writer for the Los Angeles Examiner, and his photographer sidekick were first at the site. Fowler would write: "As I got closer, I called back to [Felix] Paegel [the photographer], who was pulling his Speed Graphic from the car trunk: 'Jesus, Felix, this woman's cut in half!'"

We have bad habits: we prefer juicy murder cases to looking carefully at a climate of violence or a mood of pessimism. And this one was juicy. You can offer up the other L.A. murders -- William Desmond Taylor, Ben Siegel, the Mulwray killings, Nicole Simpson -- but this is still probably the most infamous of the city's murders, or the one that has most steadily supplied us with talk and speculation. The body found that morning would soon be called the "Black Dahlia," but the real name of the victim was Elizabeth Short. She was a twenty-two-year-old woman from Massachusetts who had lived intermittently in California since 1943. She had been a waitress, and almost certainly a prostitute; she had wanted to get into the movies. The photographs that the police found of her when living were of a pretty, vivacious, dark-haired girl with a trained smile and a way of posing that came from movie magazines.

But on the ground that January morning she did not look that way. And how she looked is very important. The woman who discovered the body had believed at first that "it had to be a dummy. There were legs and a section of hip that seemed disconnected from the dummy's waist like a mannequin in a department store window when displays were changed and the clothing removed." This, more or less, was the scene. The body of Elizabeth Short had been placed in the wasteland -- the corpse was desanguinated, drained of blood, but that skilled work had been done somewhere else. The body was cut in two, at the waist. The two halves were not aligned. The lower part, with open legs, was a couple of feet out of line with the torso. And the arms were positioned, reaching up, above the head, in a very deliberate way. Everyone who saw the body felt the effect of purposeful arrangement. And other things had been done: one breast, the right, was gone; a small triangle of skin was removed from the left breast; there was a rectangle carved in the left thigh; there was a deep gash in the lower abdomen; and there were long cuts on her face, as if meant to extend her smile.

To this day, the case remains "unsolved" in the files of the LAPD. The first investigation went on for at least six months. The police did not reveal every detail about the state of the corpse because they hoped to trap the killer, and also because in those days newspaper pictures -- and movies, too -- were not so glaringly explicit. Today, you have seen such things on the CSI shows where those oddly beautiful but blank women help cut up the corpses -- though we are not allowed to see such real things from the war. But in 1947 the police decided that someone involved in the murder had surgical experience. There were some leads based on the circumstances of Elizabeth Short's life, but they never developed. In time, the intensity of the search diminished.

As the real case moved into storage files, the speculative re-workings of it began in earnest. Short was called the "Black Dahlia" because some said that this was her nickname at a Long Beach soda fountain. Others believed the name had been borrowed from the movie The Blue Dahlia, released a year earlier. Of course, it was also owed to our need to give everyone an intimate name, a nickname, to show that they are ours; or to make them more available for fiction, or for our special blend of fact and fiction, the one that was pioneered in Los Angeles.

In the 1950s, the actor Jack Webb -- the one who played Joe Friday on Dragnet -- did a book called The Badge: True and Terrifying Crime Stories That Could Not Be Presented on TV, in which he looked at the case and decided that "the wrong way of life" caused Short's death. (Isn't that always the way with dead women?) Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder, by John Gilmore, says that the killer was Jack Anderson Wilson, a drunk and a thief. Gilmore says that Wilson confessed to him -- but in the city of dreams, a confession can be just a way of putting yourself forward for a part, like an audition tape. Wilson died before anyone could verify the story; but verification, the establishment of truth, is a complicated thing. Mary Pacios wrote a book, Childhood Shadows, that wonders whether Orson Welles had something to do with it, because during the war years, to entertain the troops, he had regularly sawed such ladies as Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth in half. In Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer Janice Knowlton says that her sexually abusive father did it. Knowlton came to that conclusion when previously repressed memories broke free.

In 1977, John Gregory Dunne wrote a pretty good novel, True Confessions -- the story of two brothers, a cop and a priest, in Los Angeles -- which takes place against a version of the Black Dahlia murder. Ten years later James Ellroy wrote another novel about the case, The Black Dahlia, and a movie of that book is out this month, directed by Brian De Palma and starring Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank. As far as I can tell, it has nothing to do with the suggestions or the suggestiveness offered in Exquisite Corpse, or with Steve Hodel's Black Dahlia Avenger, published a few years ago, which really raised the specter of the Dahlia anew.

Steve Hodel was born in 1941 in Los Angeles, and for nearly twenty-four years he worked for the LAPD, mostly as a homicide detective. As such, he knew and heard about the unsolved murder case from 1947, but never felt any special attachment to it. Sometime after he retired, in 1999, he learned that his father, George Hodel, had died. Father and son had not been close. George Hodel had had several wives and had lived for decades in Japan and the Philippines. But in his last few years, he and his son had made an effort at reconciliation, assisted by George's return to the United States in 1991. After George's funeral and the scattering of his ashes over the waters of San Francisco Bay, his widow gave Steve "a tiny, palm-sized wood-bound photo album."

It contained pictures of Steve as a boy on his father's knee in 1943. There was a portrait of Steve's mother, Dorothy Hodel -- Steve thought she looked sad, but sadness is easily felt with old pictures. Then there were two pictures of Kiyo, Steve's soon-to-be ex-wife -- but these pictures were arresting, because they came from a time before Steve had known her. The son was uneasy: it was as if, somehow, his mysterious father had known his -- the son's -- wife before he had ever met her. (This discovery led to the end of the marriage.) And then there were two pictures of a young dark-haired woman, her eyes closed in both. They were head and shoulder shots, the one apparently a nude, the other of the woman with flowers in her hair. No one knew who the woman was.

Steve Hodel went back to his hotel, thinking of the pictures.

I tried to fight the meaning that was trying to break through to tell me what my father's photographs meant. My cop's mind grabbed onto it like a bulldog and wouldn't let go. Were these photographs of her -- the one with her stylized black dress and white flowers, and the other one nude -- taken by my father? Why had he kept them all these years in his private album?

Then quietly, softly, as if a breeze were carrying an image from long ago, I remembered the white flowers against the jet-black hair, white flowers set off against a black dress. These were dahlias.

I don't propose Steve Hodel as a profound writer. His story makes us forget style and art. What is nonetheless riveting in his book is his rediscovery of the kind of man George Hodel was -- superior, cultivated, a womanizer and worse, a cold, selfish connoisseur, a doctor of venereal diseases acquainted with some kinds of surgery, a sardonic and teasing master -- and an odd police groupie. He was a man who might have left his policeman son with photographs to poison the rest of his life. It is to Steve Hodel's credit that he rose to that challenge, even if it involved turning his father into a dark and disturbing figure.

George Hodel was a strange social animal. His wife Dorothy had been married previously to John Huston, the film director, and the three of them stayed on friendly terms afterward. Hodel was also friendly with Man Ray and other modern artists. He had a house by the architect Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright's son, on Franklin Avenue -- like a Mayan fortress from the outside, but a grotto inside -- that was deliberately maintained to resemble the home of the Marquis de Sade. And most haunting of all, Steve describes the occasion when Hodel and his friend Fred Sexton (the man who made the actual falcon for John Huston's film The Maltese Falcon) raped Hodel's daughter Tamar, a fourteen-year-old beauty. Hodel was charged with this crime later, in 1949, but acquitted because of a lawyer's clever and cruel campaign to expose Tamar as a congenital liar. The cops recorded Hodel's calls at the time, and in one of them he sneers, "Supposin' I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn't prove it now. They can't talk to my secretary anymore because she's dead." That secretary was poisoned, no questions ever asked.

I am digesting Hodel's book drastically, and therefore omitting the rather labored suggestion that Hodel and Sexton went on a serial-killing rampage after 1947. But the book leaves little doubt about the rape, about Hodel's rather self-conscious pursuit of dangerous or illegal actions, or about the likelihood that he killed Elizabeth Short, on his own or as part of a group. Steve Hodel even wonders whether the arrangement of the Black Dahlia's corpse might have been influenced by a Man Ray picture. The LAPD did not close the case after Steve Hodel's book appeared, though it admitted that George Hodel had been a leading suspect who then left the United States in 1950. I don't claim that there is enough direct evidence to get a conviction in court, though Steve Hodel builds a persuasive case that his father had known Elizabeth Short and even wanted to marry her. Other explanations may linger, but Hodel's book has convinced many people who were familiar with the case.

Now comes Exquisite Corpse. It is a strange book, sketchy but unforgettable, tendentious but instructive. It is the work of Mark Nelson, a design director, and Sarah Hudson Bayliss, an art history journalist. Its area of autopsy is that of art history, of a corpse so "exquisite" that complicity in its making may extend to a loose circle of surrealists or pseuds in Los Angeles who were motivated by sexual curiosity, a search for the acte gratuit, and by a larger postwar feeling that evil had been let loose and would not go back into the bottle. In brief, Exquisite Corpse reckons that the stark whiteness glimpsed on January 15, 1947 was not just a sign of murder but also a tableau alluding to several works of art -- a terrible private joke. The authors accept George Hodel as the mind making the connection, but they feel that he may have been part of a circle of picture-makers entranced by the morbid dislocation of body parts that had begun with Picasso and Cubism.

Exquisite Corpse looks like a coffeetable book, but the coffee is sickly. And the reader of Exquisite Corpse needs to have Steve Hodel's book on hand. Nelson and Bayliss come no closer to clinching the sort of case that might be won in court, but they do spread highbrow suspicion in tracking the iconography of the severed body, defaced flesh, and upraised arms. They really urge us to look. Surely, you may say, these formal resemblances could be mere coincidence -- after all, Picasso was a pioneer in re-arranging the body, Magritte did a disturbing and enticing picture of a body-face called Le Viol, and many artists of the last hundred years -- the age of film, by the way -- were driven by sexual obsession and a taste for non-naturalistic representation. Bill Copley did pictures of nudes and clothed doctors with exotic rows of surgical hardware. Francis Bacon seems to have had more "cuts" of meat than a butcher or a film editor. ("Cutting" is the term that connects those two arts.)

In linking pictures by Man Ray, Duchamp, and Copley, the authors have made us think anew about art and murder. And here's the rub: the intellectual daring of such pictures cannot quite be separated from a torturer's coolness. Do Man Ray's nude studies of Lee Miller celebrate sex and "togetherness," or are they part of a new level of alienation and dismantling aggression in which the body gazed upon begins to come apart? There is also the gathering of evidence that suggests these artists were spokes in George Hodel's wheel. It is all speculation, of course, but the speculation is highly suggestive. One way or another, hasn't Los Angeles taken pains to provide us with beautiful corpses, and the play of seeming to be their killers? Why should artists not be aroused by our recklessness, by our silly faith -- inculcated in us by the movies -- that voyeurs cannot cry out in pain because that would stop the show?

You want examples? OK. In July 1947, Duchamp collaborated on a deluxe edition of a catalogue called Le Surréalisme en 1947 for an exhibition at the Galerie Maeght in Paris. Nine hundred ninety-nine handmade copies had a breast -- a falsie -- on the cover, made of foam rubber surrounded by black velvet. You are obliged to hold the breast while reading the catalogue. A fine joke; but the authors of Exquisite Corpse add that "it is noteworthy ... that Duchamp's image of a single breast appeared just months after Elizabeth Short's body, absent her right breast, was discovered." Duchamp made several visits to Los Angeles, where he mixed with Man Ray, Bill Copley, Walter Arensberg (the art collector), Albert Lewin (the aesthete and film director who made The Picture of Dorian Gray), and Lloyd Wright. And it is clear that George Hodel was part of the same group. Which proves ...?

Or try to follow this trail. Hodel was also associated with the writer Ben Hecht. In 1925, in Pasadena, Hodel published a magazine called Fantasia, which celebrated Hecht's first novel, The Kingdom of Evil: A Continuation of the Journal of Fantazius Mallare. Magazine and novel alike were heavily under the influence of surrealism, of fantasies about murders committed in dreams and under hypnosis. The novel features a woman who feels that "there was something more to give him. She would remove something of herself -- her arm, her breasts, her white thighs.... She listened and wished to die in his hands." And Hecht, dabbling in psychoanalysis, would write the screenplay of Spellbound, that very odd Hitchcock film with a dream sequence by Salvador Dalí, about a man who believes he has committed a murder and cannot help reliving it in a dream. Put that next to George Hodel's remarks to the police after he was arrested for the rape of his daughter, quoted in the Los Angeles Daily News: "Everything is a dream to me. I believe someone is trying to hypnotize me. I want to consult by [sic] psychiatrist but I don't trust him. He might find something wrong with me. If this is real and I am really here, then these other things must have happened." None of this would stand up even in a film as foolish as Spellbound, though it makes Hodel's acquittal in the rape trial harder to credit.

More? Well, John Huston was a bit of a sadist, and was also interested in hypnosis. And here we come upon delicate ground -- personal comment on an artistic hero. Huston was a man of action as well as a great storyteller, but also a user of people, a gambler, a reckless soul. As a young man he killed someone in a driving accident, and the matter was covered up. And he did say that the thing he loved about film-making was the power, the sadism. In The Maltese Falcon, Wilmer, the gunsel (Elisha Cook Jr.), looks at Sam Spade's body, collapsed after being drugged, and kicks him in the head. In the same film, Spade slaps Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) around and hisses, "Wait till he learns to like it!" Many years later, in Chinatown, Huston played Noah Cross, one of the bleakest villains in Hollywood pictures -- a man who rapes his own daughter -- and did him with relish; and in a very bad film called De Sade he even played the marquis himself. Huston and George Hodel were married to the same woman. Why, I even bumped into Huston once myself at the Cannes Film Festival. "Easy there, sonny," he sighed, as if guessing I had murder on my mind.

The "coup" in Exquisite Corpse is a Duchamp picture called Étant donnés, worked on apparently from 1946 to 1966, for which Duchamp took a first photograph (of a waterfall) only six months before the murder of Elizabeth Short. Six degrees of separation? A waterfall in Europe, I hasten to add -- and this news produces something less than a frisson; but then you look at the picture, and the splay of the female body seems as fresh and dance-like as on that January morning. Had Duchamp seen the first photographs? Did someone in L.A. pass them on -- as FYI, or as tribute? Now there's a frisson. Of course, Duchamp could have seen the pictures and felt moved to imitate them in some way without having a toehold in a murder plot. That is the most intriguing point, the complicity that hangs over our repressed murderousness, and lends an air of dread to our separated kinship. Sometime in the last century we picked up murder -- ordinary murder -- as a kind of virus. It is in our blood now, and most of us hope our immune system is robust. But we know that first fever of the illness. We have felt it.

Exquisite Corpse creeps up on you: if you have the patience to let its leaves fall, eventually an autumnal mood gathers. This is not to say, obviously, that Huston, Man Ray, and Duchamp were satanic onlookers in the killing of the Black Dahlia. The "connections" posed in Exquisite Corpse collapse if they are pushed hard. They are at best circumstantial, sometimes nearly random, and always an opportunity for clever book packaging. But the collected corpses do make a climate, or a morgue. There is a dispassion in the posing; you feel the sharpness of the knives, and the nearly mathematical considerations of those handling them. The book helps to substantiate that someone involved in cutting up Elizabeth Short knew a good deal about the surrealists' strategies, and shared their obsession with sex and dreams as well as their passing insouciance with real women. George Hodel is a candidate for that man, and we know now that the police thought so, too, but they let him slip when he quit for Asia.

And there is something else to be said, vaguer still, but more troubling. Los Angeles in the years of the war and just afterward was an uncontainable place. It was a city that drew dreamers like Elizabeth Short, and as it grew extra fast because of the wartime industries, it became crowded enough for people to become lost very easily. Long before unregistered Hispanics came to southern California, it had a white population it could hardly keep track of. There was a rare tension between high hopes and helpless anonymity that added to the high murder rate. Young people came and went, eager to be meat for the public gaze, but regularly discarded. In the film world as a whole, humanity was often judged according to the unkind standards of an audition: you were in or you were out. A sense of cruelty and exploitation was becoming structural.

You can read it in Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust. It is there in Marion Faye, the young producer or manipulator in Mailer's novel The Deer Park, a man who no longer wants to make pictures so much as run the drama of life. And you can see or feel this mood not just in film noir, but also in the Hollywood noir of Sunset Boulevard and In a Lonely Place. In the former film, a swimming pool is where the washed-up can die, with a last privilege, telling the one good story they ever had, the one that came too late. (Imagine Elizabeth Short as mistress of her own story.) In the latter film, Bogart plays an edgy and disillusioned screenwriter who might be capable of murder himself, and who is reaching the lonely place where it might feel compelling.

America had won the war, and for a couple of years of peace the picture business would never have it so good. From 1945 to 1947, some ninety million tickets a week were sold. But there was an uneasiness. Television was coming. The old codes of the Golden Age no longer applied. Sent off to war, audiences had come home altered. They had no reason any longer to believe in happy endings. The dread in noir spoke to the unresolved lessons and the unforgettable pictures from Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Torture and annihilation were new realities, applied by specialists but ordered by the state. War tribunals attempted to settle the responsibility, but only rendered themselves useless for the future.

These horrors affected the whole world, of course. But Hollywood was the place that made up reassuring stories for us. It learned to make aircraft and weapons, but mainly it was the factory of morale -- and it had had its greatest success during the war. Now came the threat of losing that audience, and it was underlined by the instinct that a more adult public was ready for something darker, more explicitly violent and sexual, something in which all those forces came together. All of that went into noir, and nagged at censorship -- there is hardly a period in American film when sexual challenge or violent impulse was more likely. That is why Wilmer kicks Bogart in the head -- because he can, and to see what happens. We had movies in which the criminal might be a hero, or a figure to identify with; in which outlawry was offered to the public as a dangerous sport hardly separable from the voyeurism of film itself. And as the censorship weakened, so the medium showed us not just forbidden spectacle -- a naked kick, the jut of a breast -- but also neurotic behavior.

The overtly noir films were not the only ones that fit these patterns. Leave Her to Heaven (1945) is a powerful melodrama in which we watch and participate with the beautiful Gene Tierney as her character commits murder. The result is horrible, but the posture is new and addictive. At the start of Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck flirt like vicious lovers, and in the event they escape justice by killing each other. So the film could get away with a kind of dark glamorization because of its plot mechanism -- as if the movies didn't put momentary behavior above and beyond terminal resolution.

Or consider Strangers on a Train, where Hitchcock plays such games with our urges. He introduces a charming madman, Bruno (Robert Walker), a new figure in movies -- very smart, but weak, a dreamer. The film is premised on an irresistible idea: we all long for the elimination of our enemies, so you kill mine and I'll kill yours. Criss-cross. No evident motive. The scientific spirit. The idea came from Patricia Highsmith, but then Hitchcock picks on Farley Granger's spiteful wife as the victim. She is not pretty. She wears spectacles and frowns. She is nasty. She deserves it, doesn't she? Bruno is amusing. He lets the wife think he fancies her. And then, as he strangles her, he has the insight to understand our part in all of this. In an extraordinary and explicit scene, he lowers the corpse into our laps, like a dog bringing a present.

The cinema is not just an entertainment; it is also a model of how inner yearning works. The shift in sensibility that I am describing was surely helped by the fact that in the 1940s, Hollywood became a refuge for some of the most interesting refugees from Europe -- not just actors, writers, and directors (Peter Lorre, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder) but also artists of other sorts (Brecht, Thomas Mann, Isherwood, the Viertels, Schönberg, Stravinsky, all those brilliant psychiatrists). These practitioners got out of Europe and came to the city where you couldn't tell a real neurotic from an actor, and where everyone was into motivation. Spellbound was just one of the films that caught show business in its new infatuation with studied abnormality. There was also M, for instance. In 1931, in Berlin, Fritz Lang had made that classic with Lorre playing a clear monster. In 1951, in Los Angeles, the subject was re-made by Joseph Losey, but this time the murderer (David Wayne) was a victim of mental illness. That's liberalism at the movies, if you like, and behavioral science; but there is no denying that it was also a fascination with crime for its own sake that interested the surrealists as much as the hard-boiled exponents of noir.

Again, the weakening imperative against crime appears in all sorts of film. In the same year, 1951, George Stevens made an extraordinary (and very popular) version of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. He called it A Place in the Sun, with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. An impoverished young man gets a job thanks to the influence of wealthy relatives, as a packer in their shirt factory. He meets a girl there (Shelley Winters), falls for her, and gets her pregnant. But just then he is invited by the family up to the big house, and there he meets the perfect girl (Taylor). They fall into a quite different kind of love. So poor Shelley Winters -- working hard to be drab -- is suddenly the extra wheel. The boy thinks of murdering her. He takes her to a dark lake and plans a drowning, but he cannot do it. And then an accident comes to his aid. The girl dies. In the end, the boy accepts execution because -- like ours -- his desire deserved it. We all longed to have the girl out of the way.

Had the commandment against killing been diluted by so many deaths in war? Or was it natural that a voyeuristic, lifelike medium such as film would home in on sex and violence -- the forbidden pleasures, the repressed desires? The gangster had been an ambiguous figure since the 1930s, but in everything from Public Enemy to Scarface, he gets his just rewards. In White Heat (1949), Cody Jarrett, played by James Cagney, perished, too, but only in an ecstatic explosion, roaring, "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" -- a line that suggests how far "the world" had backed off from making its judgments. Cody explodes, and he is punished. But it is precisely the ending he craves.

When John Huston came to make The Asphalt Jungle in 1950, he had a W.R. Burnett novel in which the cops were the protagonists. But Huston -- yes, the same Huston -- turned the tables and treated the criminals as interesting monkeys in the jungle, guys trying to make a hard living, gamblers in search of the big break. Huston once said that crime was just a "left-handed" way of doing things. As we watch the film, it is hard not to identify with the rogues, and we take some pleasure when they manage their jewel robbery successfully. Later they fail -- but the failure is bittersweet, and in every case honorable.

The mastermind of the gang (Sam Jaffe) is clearly a sex addict, and he is captured by the cops only because he waits ten seconds too long watching a pretty girl dance to a jukebox. That girl isn't even credited, though she has lines and a long dance. It was part of the "sadism" of the movies that Huston could look over four or five girls for that spot, ask them to dance, pick one, and then deny her a credit. There may have been other benefits, for there were always thousands of girls as eager to get a break as Elizabeth Short. This is still another degree of separation. I have no reason to think that this unnamed actress ended badly, but I don't know.

In The Asphalt Jungle, the classiest member of the gang is Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a lawyer with a big house, a sick wife, and a cute mistress. He puts up the cash to fund the job, but only because he is broke and plans to steal the take. He is educated, urbane, with a long face and a small mustache -- a little like George Hodel, or thousands of other men in Los Angeles. So, reading Steve Hodel's book and Exquisite Corpse, I looked at The Asphalt Jungle again, and this is what I saw. The first time we meet Alonzo's mistress, she is curled up on a sofa. She is Marilyn Monroe. The camera looks down on her, folded into the small seat, twisted a little, foreshortened. I had a sudden shock at the odd way she might be being posed by eyes that knew the pictures of Elizabeth Short. Then, later, Monroe's character is talking to Alonzo, who is planning her future, and her arms go up in the air, above her head.

The structures of evil: a film buff's catalogue system can search quickly. I thought of The Lady from Shanghai (1949), where Rita Hayworth's character is listening to a story of sharks in the dark sea -- and one arm goes up over her head, involuntarily, as if to shield her eyes from the sight. And I thought of Gilda (1946), a film with a sadistic edge, where as Hayworth dances, her gloved arms are up over her head. How many degrees of separation? When I mentioned it to my wife, she looked at the shot and told me that gesture simply accentuated the bust line -- "and you know what guys are looking at."

Click here to subscribeTry four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free

For nearly 90 years, the New Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today, we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy the magazine — TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!

Click here to sign up.

  • back to top


Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at