In the past six months, Hollywood has released two major pictures that have each dealt with one of America’s two most famous unsolved criminal mysteries, both of which took place in California. Last year’s The Black Dahlia, directed by Brian De Palma, covered the gruesome and much-publicized murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, whose naked and dismembered body was discovered in a Los Angeles field on January 15, 1947. The more recent Zodiac, directed by David Fincher, focuses on the sinister serial killer who taunted the police and newspaper editors with shocking letters and cryptograms about his crimes in San Francisco and the surrounding areas beginning on August 1, 1969. De Palma’s Dahlia, despite an A-list cast, was a box-office and critical disaster; Zodiac, despite its pre-release buzz, turns out to be a moderately engaging but still generally disappointing film.
The failure of both of these films highlights the fundamental difficulty of making movies about well-known unsolved crimes, and the problem, as always, begins with the script. The Black Dahlia is an adaptation from James Ellroy’s novel of the same name, a highly fanciful fiction that has little interest in the real case. In the film, the murder doesn’t even take place until an hour has passed, and eventually the crime is ascribed to a fictional and rather preposterous character.
In the past, fiction writers and screenwriters have often taken real-life criminal cases and modified them—as Poe did when he transformed the sensational 1841 murder case of Mary Rogers, Manhattan’s “Beautiful Cigar Girl,” by moving the story (and his personal speculations) to Paris for his second detective story, “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” Similarly, Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1972), starring Clint Eastwood, used certain aspects of the Zodiac case in its portrayal of a deranged killer named “Scorpio.” But Ellroy’s insistence on using Short’s real name and nickname (“the Black Dahlia”), along with a total disregard for the facts of the case, is both unfair to the victim and patently dishonest. Neither did it help the script—the film was one of the biggest bombs of 2006.
Zodiac, on the other hand, tries to be meticulous in its presentation of the facts surrounding the known activities of the Zodiac, the terror he induced in northern California, and the search for his identity. It’s a long procedural (158 minutes), and its young screenwriter, James Vanderbilt, has packed the film with facts and details that are often intriguing but sometimes overwhelming and confusing. Nevertheless, both he and Fincher have the same problem that all filmic versions of unsolved crimes have: If the killer was never caught, how can the film have closure? While Ellroy fictionalized a ludicrous solution, Vanderbilt chooses instead to focus on one particular suspect. But even this is no guarantee for success, as can be witnessed by the many unsuccessful films that have attempted to reveal the “true” identity of Jack the Ripper.
Fincher’s film begins with the Zodiac’s three most famous crimes: a lovers’-lane shooting (leaving one dead); a lovers’ picnic stabbing (leaving one dead, again the female); and the killing of a San Francisco cab driver. All three crimes, though certainly horrific, seem oddly lacking in tension, which is strange given Fincher’s past ability to create terrifying suspense in a number of his previous films, especially Se7en (1995). During the first half of the movie, the focus is on the newsroom at the San Francisco Chronicle, particularly investigative reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and the newspaper’s intrigued cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). {mospagebreak}
Very quickly, the public learns about the brutality of the Zodiac’s crimes, his strange cryptograms, his terrifying beliefs (that his victims will become his “slaves” in the afterlife), his audacious threats (that he’s planning to hijack a school bus and “pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out”), and his bizarre behavior (wearing a black executioner’s hood with a Zodiac symbol drawn across his chest during the picnic stabbings). At the same time, two detectives, David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), are assigned to the case of the murdered taxi driver, Paul Stine, and they begin wading through what will eventually amount to 2,500 suspects.
In the second half of the film, Graysmith steps forward. Avery’s alcohol and cocaine abuse have caught up with him, and he falls off the case. Armstrong also wants out, requesting a transfer to the department’s bunco division. Only Toschi is still on the case, and he eventually gives the inquisitive Graysmith some leads. In time, Graysmith’s obsession becomes all-consuming, and it leads him all over California seeking answers. He receives threatening, “heavy-breathing” phone calls, ignores his family, and destroys his marriage; but he does decide, among the two primary suspects, which one he believes is the Zodiac, although he can never find any solid physical evidence that the police could use for an indictment. This section of the film offers more suspense than the first half, but it’s emotionally hollow with little real impact.
Gyllenhaal’s Graysmith is a nerdy, bland, self-absorbed obsessive who never engages us beyond his dedication to the case. The scenes with his wife (Chloë Sevigny), which could have provided some depth, are virtually silent and fruitless. This is especially unfortunate given the surprising depth Gwyneth Paltrow’s wife character gave to the movie Se7en with just a few scenes of serious dialogue. Downey’s Avery is, unfortunately, nothing more than a hammy, clichéd, 1970s druggie, often mumbling incomprehensibly. Even the talented Ruffalo, with all his whispering and shufflings, fails to give a compelling sense of Toschi, the cocksure San Francisco detective who was the model for Steve McQueen’s Bullitt (1968) even before the Zodiac case broke open, and who later inspired Eastwood’s Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry and Michael Douglas’s role on the television show Streets of San Francisco (1972–1977).
If one runs down the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest thrillers, there’s not a single film listed that attempts to accurately portray a famous unsolved mystery. Zodiac tries to achieve some kind of dramatic closure by focusing on a particular suspect, and the film will surely convince most of its audience that that man was actually the killer. This makes sense, since the film is based on Graysmith’s two books about the case: Zodiac, a bestseller in 1986, and his more recent Zodiac Unmasked (2002). Naturally, both books implicate the same suspect as the film; the problem is that almost no one in California law enforcement believes that this admittedly despicable man was actually the Zodiac.
After the suspect’s first police interview in 1969, he was dismissed as “too tall” and “too bald,” and he went around bragging that he was a “Zodiac suspect,” which certainly doesn’t sound like the secretive serial killer. Despite the fact that his residences were extensively searched in 1972 and 1991, not a single shred of physical evidence was ever found to tie him to the Zodiac killings. The movie does admit that he was cleared by the primary handwriting expert, but it also casts aspersions on the expert’s competence while failing to mention the numerous other experts who supported his conclusions. The suspect was also cleared by fingerprint analysis, as well as an intense ten-hour polygraph test, which the film conveniently neglects. When the man died in 1992, tissue samples were removed from his brain, and ten years later his DNA was compared with the DNA collected from the saliva residue on the stamps and envelope seals of the Zodiac’s letters. The results, announced in 2002, revealed categorically that the man was not the Zodiac. Although the movie does mention the DNA tests in its “where are they now” texts at the conclusion of the film, very few people in the audience will allow that revelation to change their opinions.
Thus Fincher’s Zodiac, although a moderately entertaining film, turns out to be even less honest than the outrageously fictionalized The Black Dahlia: At least the latter was preposterous enough not to be taken seriously.

William Baer is a graduate of U.S.C. Cinema where he received the Jack Nicholson Screenwriting Award and taught in the Filmic Writing Program. He currently teaches English and film at the University of Evansville, Indiana, and is a frequent contributor to Creative Screenwriting.


  • Joanna Bogle

    Joanna Bogle is a writer, biographer, and historian. She relishes the new translation of the Mass, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, her own excellent local Catholic parish, traditional hymns (especially, perhaps, Anglican ones) rain, good literature, sleep, the English coast, Autumn, buttered toast, and a number of other things too precious and important to list here. Visit her blog.

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