The Back Dahlia is based on the novel by crime writer James Ellroy who also wrote "LA Confidential", so expectations were high when stylish suspense director Brian de Palma was lined up to direct the movie version. When Mark Isham was assigned as the film's composer, expectations were equally high over the film score, given that Isham is noted for the variety and inventiveness of his output. The sleeve notes tell us that when director and composer first met, de Palma said that he was looking for a "mournful trumpet score" whereupon Isham replied that he happened to be a "mournful trumpet player". So with this perfect match in place, Mark Isham set about creating exactly such a score true the film's 40s setting and film noir look, yet not locked in the past to give it the impact expected of modern audiences. Isham is indeed as well-known as a live trumpet player as he is as a film composer, and he has combined both those talents on "The Black Dahlia" soundtrack.
"The Black Dahlia - the Zoot Suit Riots" starts off with that moody trumpet over minimal string accompaniment, and quickly morphs into a dark and tough action track with brass and timpani. "At Norton and Coliseum" is more suspenseful and reflective, close to the traditions of film noir music, though less moody and more suggestive of underlying tensions which could erupt at any minute. Those eruptions threaten at points during the track and the solo trumpet enters against a percussive backing before violent rhythmic outbursts bring the track to an eventful conclusion. "The Dahlia" retains a degree of tension with the held string chord, while the thematic material swings between the light of tuned percussion and the darkness of disturbed cellos. "The Two of Us" is very much in a jazz idiom, with piano, strings and the solo trumpet carrying a mournful improvisatory line though ending in a more up-tempo mood. "Mr. Fire versus Mr. Ice" alternates between action and trumpet mood. "Madeline" is one of the female lead characters and her track seems to want to dance but with an air of femme fatale mystery building into a romantic climax. "Dwight and Kay" is a lighter jazzy track which builds into an unexpected climax of hope.
Tension immediately grips the air again with "Hollywoodland" with plaintive Cor Anglais punctuated with frequent outbursts, before the moody trumpet returns in "Red Arrow Inn". Isham again demonstrates his ability to slide effortlessly between moods, from suspense to action and vice versa, in "The Men Who Feed on Others" and the momentum of the track and its harmonic resolutions seem to suggest an inexorable slide towards tragedy. Although the score is grounded in acoustic orchestral instruments, this track closes with the hint of a theremin-like synth sound. "Super Cops" brings back harp, piano and strings in a romantic lounge style closing with some "good guy" brighter action, this time in a major key. "Death at the Olympic" returns to the harsh brass and timpani of the opening track whose rhythmic drive seems to suggest a debt to Leonard Bernstein in places. "No Other Way" is again led by Isham's moody trumpet and "Betty Short" is a quiet but sad character study. "Nothing Stays Buried Forever" is the longest track on the album and a fitting conclusion to the listening experience. It is true to the very essence of film noir music with its ambiguous blend between poignancy and suspense, until Isham's brief return to the trumpet theme which seems to usher in the vaguest hint of a happy ending.
We've not seen the film so this review looks at the album purely as a stand-alone experience. The film itself has received some mixed reviews with some filmgoers disliking the plot twists, but the soundtrack stands very well on its own and is highly recommended. The soundtrack album is available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.