Tuesday, July 22, 2014


George Marshall, 1946
Starring: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix

“Bourbon straight with a bourbon chaser.”

Three Navy pilots return home to California from the war in the South Pacific: Johnny Morrison, George Copeland, and Buzz Wanchek, whose lingering head wound causes him agonizing headaches and periods of black out. Instead of an enthusiastic homecoming, Morrison learns that his wife, Helen, has adopted a lifestyle of constant partying. She has had at least one affair and killed their young son when she drove drunk one night and crashed the car. Feeling murderous, he leaves her. Buzz, meanwhile, gets a call from Helen and goes to her hotel to look for Johnny. Not knowing who she is, he buys a drink and is coerced back to her room. She is also dropped in on by Eddie, her no good boyfriend, and “Dad,” the hotel detective. Later that night, she is killed and Johnny is the main suspect. Johnny, meanwhile, has found a new hotel and has crossed paths with the attractive Joyce. They hit it off, but she also happens to be Eddie’s estranged wife. Can he figure out who Helen’s killer is before he’s arrested?

This is the third pairing of film noir duo Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake after the excellent This Gun for Hire and the mediocre The Glass Key. The Blue Dahlia falls somewhere between the two, thanks to a hardboiled script from the master, Raymond Chandler. Chandler had an odd screenwriting career. Aside from The Blue Dahlia, he adapted James Cain’s Double Indemnity with director Billy Wilder and worked on Strangers on a Train with Hitchcock for a time, though his own novels – Lady in the Lake, The Big Sleep, and Farewell, My Lovely – were all adapted by other writers. He was nominated for an Academy Award for The Blue Dahlia, though he got stuck on the script and had to go on a massive drinking binge to finish it (he had a life-long struggle with alcoholism and was trying to abstain at that particular time in his career). It is his great dialogue that makes the film, with lines like “You got the wrong lipstick on,” when Ladd punches his wife’s lover in the jaw.

Chandler’s style of writing a mystery often without knowing the ending is obvious here as the film’s conclusion feels a bit slapdash and almost ludicrously tacked on. Buzz was initially supposed to have killed Helen during one of his blackouts. The military protested and objected to this portrayal of a solider as violent, unpredictable, and loose on the home front; their objects were strenuous enough that Chandler was forced to change the ending. Unfortunately his new ending is still overshadowed by the thought of Buzz as the killer, a powerful, frightening insinuation. William Bendix, also cast as the thug who nearly beats Ladd's character to death in The Glass Key, really shines here as the brutish, yet sweet and innocent Buzz, a man who relies utterly on Johnny as the stabilizing presence in his life -- after it has been destroyed by the war.

The Blue Dahlia is ultimately a more minor noir effort that perhaps suffers from miscasting. Ladd and Lake were both an attractive, but wooden pair and the film would have benefited from a more charismatic tortured lead (Bogart) and a leading lady with a mixture of innocent, sexuality, and desperation (such as Gloria Grahame). Though William Bendix practically steals the film from Ladd and Lake, Doris Dowling (The Lost Weekend) is quite good as Johnny’s immoral wife and it’s a shame she has such little screen time. While Buzz is a somewhat realistic portrait of men driven insane by the war and tormented by post-traumatic stress disorder, Doris is a seedy glimpse of the darker side of life on the home front. She hints at numerous affairs, debauchery, and alcoholism, the latter of which is responsible for her own son’s death. Another, somewhat similar victim of post-war debauchery and violence in Los Angeles, Elizabeth Short, was allegedly nicknamed “The Black Dahlia” after this film, which played down the street from a bar she frequented. She was brutally, gruesomely murdered a year after its release.

Though The Blue Dahlia is not a film noir classic, it’s still a worthy entry and fans of Raymond Chandler owe it to themselves to seek it out. Bizarrely, there is no official Blu-ray or DVD release, though it is available in the Turner Classic Movies “Dark Crimes” box set along with Ladd and Lake film The Glass Key, and Phantom Lady, based on a Cornell Woolrich novel. Though the Production Code generally frowned upon references to drinking or alcoholism, this film is full of them – thanks to Chandler, who was allegedly paid for the script with a case of Scotch – down to the famous line where Johnny orders “bourbon straight with a bourbon chaser.” Post-war debauchery indeed.

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