Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Noir Reviews: The Blue Dahlia, April 1946

Thus far in our seamy traipse through the back alleys of film noir, we've viewed a screenplay co-written by Raymond Chandler and a film based on his novel Farewell My Lovely. Tonight (it's always night here) we consider our first film written by Chandler alone: an Alan Ladd / Veronica Lake vehicle called The Blue Dahlia.

This is the first Ladd-Lake noir I've reviewed, incidentally, but it's not the first they made. It followed This Gun For Hire (based on a Graham Greene novel) and The Glass Key (based on a Dashiell Hammett novel). I think the acting is best in This Gun For Hire. What fascinates me about The Blue Dahlia are the personalities involved in its making.

Ladd plays Johnny Morrison, a discharged naval officer returning home to find his wife dallying (well, more than dallying) with a shady nightclub owner. There's an extraordinarily tense and well-acted domestic scene, in which his inebriated wife reveals having killed their son in a drunk-driving accident. Things get ugly, he walks out, and she gets murdered. It's your standard whodunit, though it could have been so much more, about which more in a moment. I've never been much into mysteries; the mystery stories I like are compelling because of their action, whether or not I happen to know who the killer is. So I'm a bit tepid about The Blue Dahlia.

But it does contain some excellent noir sequences, mostly stemming from Johnny's descent into the social underworld after he becomes the prime suspect. (That's a theme we've been seeing a lot: the ever-present threat of slipping from an ordinary, respectable life into a world to which an entirely different logic pertains.) Other than his having served in the navy and married a tramp, we don't know much about Johnny, but apparently he's a tough guy. He gives a hotel owner who tries to blackmail him an efficient but thorough beat-down, and single-handedly takes out a few gangsters at a remote cabin.

I can see why some people find the Ladd/Lake pairing so compelling, but they're hardly at their top form here. Too well-known, I suppose. Veronica Lake's performance is particularly bland, and vastly inferior (to my mind, at least) to her work in This Gun For Hire. You're always reading about how short they both were and how this is the reason they appeared together so often; since I'm shorter than Ladd, and my wife is about Lake's height, I'm probably less amazed by this than other people, but I suppose it is usual to use tall people in movies.

Lake had a sad life, destroyed by alcohol and ending in destitution. Her last film, Flesh Feast, a low-budget horror picture shot in 1967, has a terse synopsis on Wikipedia: "While convincing everyone the flesh-eating maggots are for regeneration research, she simply wants to throw them in the resurrected Hitler's face, which she does." She died not long after of hepatitis and kidney failure.

The characters in The Blue Dahlia very well-drawn, as one would expect in a Chandler screenplay. The sneaky house dick, "Dad" (Will Wright), is particularly good, as are Johnny's war buddy, Buzz (William Bendix), and the nightclub owner (Howard Da Silva). Doris Dowling is excellent as Johnny's wife, Helen. Though not a large role, it's fairly subtle, as the script doesn't allow us to view her as a simple tramp, and Dowling performs it with considerable nuance. And the reaction of the maid upon finding Helen's corpse, when we expect her to scream but she just says something like "Oh, brother!", cracks me up.

The ending, unfortunately, is a bit forced, not to mention corny. But thereon hangs a tale. A legend, really.

[Spoiler alert!]

Apparently, Chandler originally had Buzz, a wounded veteran with a plate in his head, who suffers frequent blackouts and has a faulty short-term memory, as the killer. Buzz was supposed to have executed the wife under great stress and anger, and then blanked out completely, never putting his own thoughts together enough to discover that he is the culprit, though the fact becomes apparent to everyone around him. Unsurprisingly, the Navy didn't like this resolution, and Chandler was forced to change the ending. A massive bout of writer's block ensued. As studio pressure mounted, Chandler finally promised that he would complete the screenplay if he resumed drinking and was guaranteed six secretaries and two limousines standing by at all times. He finished the script in eight days, apparently more or less drunk the whole time. But what had been a daring psychological study had turned into a simple murder mystery.

All of which reminds me that I somehow skipped The Lost Weekend, in which Billy Wilder purports to explain Chandler to himself. It happens also to star Doris Dowling and Howard Da Silva. I'll go back to it right away.

* * *

I give The Blue Dahlia a grade of C for commonplace on the following scale:
  • A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
  • B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
  • C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
  • D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
Not a bad noir film, but it could have been ever so much better.

Takeaway quote:

"How often do they change the fleas?"

*** If you've enjoyed this review, maybe you'd enjoy my reviews of other noir films: IntroductionPhantom LadyDouble IndemnityMurder, My SweetDetourScarlet Street ***

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