The Blue Dahlia
I feel faced with generational disparity when prompted with boring film noir like the Raymond Chandler penned The Blue Dahlia (1946). I’m too young to be among the latter-day film scholars who decided that the writer was the best thing to ever happen to the crime drama since Claire Trevor. But I’m also too old and weary to stop myself from comparing the film itself to more apt Chandler screenplays, like 1944’s Double Indemnity or 1951’s Strangers on a Train. All I can do for now is throw my hands up in surrender, citing flat artistry, phoned-in performances (aside from affable lug William Bendix), and an overly complicated script as the reasons for The Blue Dahlia’s standing as the noir classic which tried to be but never was.
No surprise, since the conditions under which it was made were hardly dreamy. Thumb through the depths of the godsend that is Wikipedia and it’s clear that the product in front of us is a result of a myriad of studio stresses. Consider that the film started shooting before Chandler was even finished with the screenplay (with the man’s heavy drinking wasting additional time in wrapping things up), that the studio had to deal with the stresses of leading man Alan Ladd possibly getting drafted, and that Chandler himself developed an intense, unfounded dislike for heroine Veronica Lake which ensured bountiful on-set tension.
In the end, The Blue Dahlia was a hit, a box-office bonanza which briefly revitalized Lake’s flagging career and brought Chandler an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. But 70 plus years later, the movie feels like a noir dazzler that forgets what it means to sizzle. It has the blueprint in place to help itself work up toward the dizzying heights set by the aforementioned masterpieces but doesn’t have the passion to get there. It feels like exactly what it is: a movie made with high anxiety by severely talented people.
The feature, plodding if competently made, is headlined by Ladd, here playing a discharged United States Navy officer readjusting to civilian life with cohorts Buzz (Bendix) and George (Hugh Beaumont). Named Johnny Morrison and hoping his life will return to its comfortable predictability after he settles back into domesticity, he’s surprised to arrive home and find that his spouse, Helen (Doris Dowling), is having an affair with Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva), the owner of the local Blue Dahlia nightclub.
Enraged, Morrison walks out, gets drenched by the evening rain, and is coincidentally picked up by Harwood’s wife, Joyce (Lake), with whom he exchanges flirtations and eventually rooms in a Malibu hotel later that night (in separate quarters, no less). Come the next morning, Morrison decides that he might as well give his marriage a chance – not necessarily his wife’s fault that she got lonely in his absence.
But blasting radios announce that such is no longer an option for the former army man: Helen has been found murdered in their home, a handful of bullets having penetrated her heart. Morrison, of course, is the prime suspect. Helen’s widespread extramarital activity was well-known to most, and it would make sense that he retaliate in such a callous manner. Forced to go on the run, Joyce by his side, Morrison must clear his name, clever amateur detective work getting him far.
But we’ve seen this all before – The Blue Dahlia is a run-of-the-mill wrong-man story which isn’t helped by Ladd’s decidedly unsympathetic exterior (he seems relatively inclined to beat up his wife, even if she is venomous) and by the lack of urgency clearly a result of the movie’s slapped together middle and final acts. The ending is particularly a let down – the reveal is scarcely juicy and the manner in which it’s delivered is straight-faced rather than gasping. This story should be told with Hitchcockian flair, and yet it always seems to be at a standstill. For a better Ladd/Lake pairing, look in the direction of their first collaboration, This Gun for Hire (1942). That film knew how to use them. The Blue Dahlia doesn’t. C