On January 15, 1947, LAPD Detectives Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert and Lee Blanchard investigate the murder and dismemberment of Elizabeth Short, soon dubbed "The Black Dahlia" by the press. Bucky learns that Elizabeth was an aspiring actress who appeared in a pornographic film. Through his investigation, Bucky learns that Elizabeth liked to hang out with lesbians. He goes to a lesbian nightclub and meets Madeleine Linscott, who looks very much like Elizabeth. Madeleine, who comes from a prominent family, tells Bucky that she was 'very close' with Elizabeth but asks him to keep her name out of the papers. In exchange for his silence, she promises him sexual favors. Continuing his relationship with Madeleine, Bucky meets her wealthy parents, Emmett and Ramona.
Bucky's partner, Lee, also becomes obsessed with Elizabeth's murder. Lee's obsession leads him to become erratic and abusive towards his long-time girlfriend Kay Lake, who is also one of Bucky's close friends. After Lee and Bucky have a nasty argument about a previous case, Bucky goes to Lee and Kay's to apologize, only to learn from Kay that Lee was responding to a tip about a recently released convict, Bobby DeWitt. Bucky goes to the location and gets into an altercation with DeWitt in the atrium of the building. DeWitt is gunned down by Lee, standing on the stairs across the atrium. Bucky sees a man sneak up behind Lee, and wrap a rope around Lee's neck. Lee fights back while Bucky, paralyzed with shock, watches from across the atrium as a second shadowy figure steps out and slits Lee's throat. Lee and the man holding the rope fall over the railing to their deaths several floors below. It is then that Bucky is helped by Millard and Morrie Friedman, a friend of Lee's whom Bucky saw with Lee at the New Year's party in 1946.
Dealing with the grief of losing Lee propels Bucky and Kay into a sexual encounter. The next morning, Bucky finds money from a bank robbery hidden in Lee and Kay's bathroom. Kay reveals that she had been DeWitt's girlfriend, that DeWitt had mistreated her, and that DeWitt had done the bank robbery; stealing a large sum of money from one of "Bugsy" Siegel's nightclubs. Lee had rescued Kay and stolen DeWitt's bank robbery money. Lee needed to kill DeWitt now that he was out of prison; leading to the encounter that resulted in Lee's death. Bucky leaves, furious with Lee and Kay for their actions and lies. He returns to Madeleine's family mansion and continues his intense relationship with her. Kay is furious when she discovers the relationship, especially with the fact that Madeleine bears a striking resemblance to the same girl Lee obsessed over before he was killed, and leaves the scene.
Watching an old movie one night, Bucky notices that a bedroom scene matches the set in Elizabeth's pornographic film. The credits at the end of the film includes the statement "Special Thanks to Emmett Linscott", Madeleine's father. Bucky's search for answers leads him to an incomplete housing project that Madeleine's father had started just below the Hollywoodland sign. In one of the empty houses, Bucky recognizes the set that was used to film Elizabeth's pornographic movie. In a barn on the property, Bucky finds where Elizabeth was killed and her body butchered, as well as a drawing of a man with a Glasgow smile. The drawing resembles a painting in Madeleine's family home and matches the disfiguring smile carved into Elizabeth's face during her murder.
Bucky confronts Madeleine and her father in their home, accusing them of murdering Elizabeth. Madeleine's mother Ramona reveals that she killed Elizabeth, who looked so much like Madeleine. She confesses that Madeleine was not fathered by Emmett but rather by his best friend, George. She also reveals that George had been on set when Elizabeth's pornographic film was made, becoming infatuated with her. Finally, she felt that Elizabeth looked too much like Madeleine, and was bothered that George was going to have sex with someone who looked like his own daughter, and decided to kill Elizabeth first. Upon finishing her confession, Ramona kills herself.
A few days later, remembering something Lee had said during the investigation, Bucky visits Madeleine's sister Martha with some questions. He learns that Lee knew about the lesbian relationship between Madeleine and Elizabeth and was blackmailing Madeleine's father to keep it secret. Bucky finds Madeleine at a seedy motel, and she admits to being the one who slit Lee's throat. Although she insists that Bucky wants to have sex with her rather than kill her, he tells her she is wrong and shoots her dead. Bucky goes to Kay's house. Kay invites him in and closes the door.
James B. Harris optioned the film rights to the novel shortly after it was published in 1987. He planned to direct the adaptation and completed a script before abandoning the project to make another film. The project then languished in development hell for several years. In 1997, L.A. Confidential, the third book in Ellroy's L.A. Quartet, was adapted into a critically acclaimed and highly successful film of the same name. Its success meant that several studios became interested in adapting Ellroy's other novels. Universal acquired the rights to The Black Dahlia shortly after the release of L.A. Confidential. Josh Friedman was hired to write the screenplay. Friedman has claimed that he worked on the script from 1997 to 2005. His original script featured a cameo appearance by Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, reprising their roles as Bud White and Edmund Exley respectively.
Michael Douglas, Johnny Depp, Gabriel Byrne, and Billy Crudup were considered to play Lee Blanchard. Paul Walker, Stephen Dorff, and Chris O'Donnell were considered for Bucky Bleichert. Fairuza Balk and Tiffani Thiessen were considered for Elizabeth Short. Sherilyn Fenn, who had been the front runner for the part in the late eighties, was also a contender.
The film was originally in pre-production with David Fincher attached as director, Josh Hartnett attached to play Bucky Bleichert and Mark Wahlberg attached to play Lee Blanchard. Wahlberg was forced to drop out due to scheduling conflicts with the planned filming of The Italian Job. Fincher originally envisioned "a five-hour, $80-million mini-series with movie stars." Fincher apparently wanted Julianna Margulies for Madeleine and Jennifer Connelly for Elizabeth. Fincher eventually left the project as he felt he wasn't going to be able to make the film exactly as he had envisioned.
When De Palma became director, he replaced Wahlberg with Aaron Eckhart shortly before shooting began in April 2005. Hartnett had remained attached to the project all this time. Gwen Stefani was considered for the part of Kay Lake. Eva Green was offered the role of the evil Madeleine Linscott, but declined as she feared being typecast as a femme fatale. Kate Beckinsale, Fairuza Balk (who had previously been considered for the Dahlia) and Rachel Bilson were also considered for the part. De Palma originally wanted Maggie Gyllenhaal for Elizabeth Short, but she declined as she disliked how the murder was used as a plot device and felt that the story disrespected Short's memory. Rose McGowan auditioned for the part but was eventually cast in a minor role as Short's roommate. Mia Kirshner was originally hired to read lines with potential actors in the auditions. However, De Palma and Friedman were so impressed with her that she was cast in the title role. Kirshner said she felt a tremendous responsibility to do justice to the real Elizabeth Short and to honour her memory. She made a decision not to look at the original autopsy photos and to focus on Short as she had been in life. Kirshner would receive critical acclaim for her performance.
The film was shot in Los Angeles and in Pernik, Bulgaria, at an estimated cost of $50 million. Only a handful of exterior scenes were filmed in Los Angeles: MacArthur Park, Pantages Theatre (and adjoining bar The Frolic Room) at Hollywood and Vine, and the Alto-Nido Apartments are perhaps the most recognizable landmarks. A standing set on the backlot of Nu Boyana Film Studios in Sofia, Bulgaria, was used to represent Leimert Park.
Scenes from the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs also appear in the film.
James Horner was originally on board the project to score the film's music but in February 2006, it was reported that Mark Isham had replaced him.
The film opened on September 15, 2006 in 2,226 theaters and came in second place over its opening weekend (behind fellow newcomer Gridiron Gang), with $10 million. It ended its theatrical run after domestically grossing $22.5 million in North America and $27.8 million in foreign countries for a global total of $49.3 million, against a budget of $50 million.
Highly anticipated by many after the success of L.A. Confidential, the film received mixed reviews from critics. At Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 32%, based on 185 reviews, with an average rating of 4.8/10. The site's consensus states, "Though this ambitious noir crime-drama captures the atmosphere of its era, it suffers from subpar performances, a convoluted story, and the inevitable comparisons to other, more successful films of its genre." On Metacritic, the film has a score 49 out of 100, based on 35 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews". On CinemaScore, audiences gave the film an average grade of "D+" on an A+ to F scale.
David Denby of The New Yorker described it as
a kind of fattened goose that’s been stuffed with goose-liver pâté. It’s overrich and fundamentally unsatisfying... There are scenes that display De Palma’s customary visual brilliance... (b)ut the movie is so complicated, the narrative so awkward, that when the pieces of the puzzle fall into place we get no tingle of satisfaction.
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine commented that "De Palma throws everything at the screen, but almost nothing sticks." J. Hoberman of The Village Voice stated that the film "rarely achieves the rhapsodic (let alone the delirious)."
However, Kirshner's performance as Elizabeth was praised by many critics. Stephanie Zacharek of Salon.com, in a largely negative review, notes that the eponymous character was "played wonderfully by Mia Kirshner". Mick LaSalle wrote that Kirshner "makes a real impression of the Dahlia as a sad, lonely dreamer, a pathetic figure." J. R. Jones described her performance as "haunting" and that the film's fictional screen tests "deliver the emotional darkness so lacking in the rest of the movie."