Friday, August 12, 2016

"The Blue Dahlia" (1946)

The Blue Dahlia (1946) tells the sad tale of three Navy bomber crewmen returning home from the war.  Marital infidelity, mental instability, and murder collide in typical noir fashion in this classic written by none other than Raymond Chandler, directed by George Marshall, and produced by John Houseman.

When Lt. Comdr. Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd) returns from the war, he discovers that his wife Helen (Doris Dowling) is cheating on him with Eddie Harwood (Howard da Silva), who owns the Blue Dahlia nightclub and is involved in various shady goings-on.

He punches Harwood and breaks up the party his wife was throwing at their bungalow.

Meanwhile, Morrison's friends Buzz (William Bendix -- Ladd's real-life best buddy) and George (Hugh Beaumont -- yeah, Ward Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver) find an apartment together because Buzz needs looking after.  He has a metal plate in his head from getting wounded during the war, he has problems with short-term memory loss, he gets confused easily, and he can be very aggressive.  Loud music aggravates all those problems whenever he hears it.

That first evening, Morrison confronts his wife about her cheating, her alcoholism, and her party-girl ways.  She insists on continuing to drink in front of him, which he tries time and again to stop.  But she likes alcohol and seems to be trying to provoke a fight over it.  She tries to hurt him by confessing their son's death was her fault, and Morrison roughs her up a bit.

Right from the first, we've known their marriage was unhappy from the way Morrison grimaced when his pals told him he was lucky to be coming home to a wife.  There's some suggestion that he had been physically abusive before.  Because this is noir, I can accept a hero with dirty hands, but nothing Morrison does in later scenes with another woman suggests that he is a habitual woman-beater.  I, for one, don't get the sense that he's going to go on and abuse the next woman in his life -- he's not at all like Bud White (Russell Crowe) in L.A. Confidential, whom I love but also worry about and fear.  Maybe this is because Alan Ladd is my shining star right now -- that's certainly possible.  But I'm sure that if he wanted to play Morrison as thoroughly volatile and abusive, he could.  He gives off an impatient, violent vibe at the beginning, but the absence of it later makes all the stuff earlier feel like it's just meant to make the audience doubt whether or not Morrison kills his wife.

Because the wife dies.  Shot with Morrison's gun, which we saw him drop on the chair before he walked out on her.  Dude, don't leave guns lying around, especially in the same room as a drunken and desperate woman.

He walks off into the rain and meets up with Joyce (Veronica Lake), who turns out to be married to Eddie Harwood, the guy who's been cuckolding Morrison.  Unhappily married, as she's basically a girl scout and doesn't like the way he earns his money or treats people.  Or the fact that he's running around on her, of course.  She's on fairly friendly terms with him for all that, though.  It's kind of odd that a straight-shooting, nice girl like her married him in the first place, but he says at one point that he married her before she could find out what he was, so that somewhat explains it.

Anyway, the police want to question Morrison about his wife's murder, but he assumes they'll pin it on him, so he runs from the police while trying to figure out who did kill her.  And that's what makes up the bulk of the film.

The first time I watched The Blue Dahlia, I was confused by the ending.  Well, not exactly confused -- exasperated, maybe.  While I love mysteries, both in books and on film, I don't like mysteries where all the clues turn out to be bright red herrings.  The kind where, when they reveal the culprit, you can't look back and say, "Oh, of course!  It had to be that person."  Agatha Christie does that too often, which is why I'm not a fan of a lot of her stories.  Raymond Chandler doesn't do that.  And when the ending of Dahlia felt that way to me, I got grumpy.

You see, Raymond Chandler is my absolute favorite author (I've written about him several times on my book blog), and this is the only film he wrote an original screenplay for, so I've been pretty jazzed up to see it for a long time.  And when I finally did, it was after falling head-over-heels for Alan Ladd earlier this year, giving me two reasons to be excited to see this particular noir classic.  So my disappointment was confusing, and my confusion was disappointing, if that makes sense.

However, I went ahead and watched Dahlia a second time, because I sort of hoped maybe it wasn't so bad after all.  And guess what?  It wasn't!

The second time through, knowing who the killer is, everything did make a lot more sense.  Not complete sense, and a lot of stuff still smells of red herring, but it does work, at least.  However, I learned recently that all this annoyance is actually not entirely Raymond Chandler's fault!

I learned from The World of Raymond Chandler -- In His Own Words (edited by Barry Day) that the US Navy didn't like the way the screenplay originally ended.  In a letter Chandler wrote to James Sandoe in 1946, he said, "What the Navy Department did to the story was a little thing like making me change the murderer and hence make a routine whodunit out of a fairly original idea.  What I wrote was the story of a man who killed (executed would be a better word) his pal's wife under the stress of a great and legitimate anger, then blanked out and forgot all about it; then with perfect honesty did his best to help the pal get out of a jam, then found himself in a set of circumstances which brought about partial recall" (p. 145).  But the Navy objected to having an injured serviceman be the killer, so Chandler had to change it.  (See pages 140-145 of The World of Raymond Chandler for the full story.)

The whole film sets up Buzz (William Bendix) as the killer, and when at the last moment it turns out he's innocent, the story deflates for me.  But that's a fairly minor quibble, in the end (even though I've spent all this time discussing it), because the acting, dialog, and cinematography are very enjoyable.  And now that I know that Raymond Chandler wasn't really responsible for that irksome plot twist, I'm happier.

The acting ranges from good to excellent to acceptable, which is about what I hope for in a movie, really.  Alan Ladd and Howard da Silva are good, William Bendix is excellent, and Veronica Lake is acceptable.  I like her character and her acting a lot better in This Gun for Hire (1942), but she's fine here.

The camera work is nice.  Nothing hugely showy -- you won't suspect it's directed by Otto Preminger, by any means, but it's solid.  The parts shot in the rain have the most atmosphere, and some of them are beautiful, like these:

And, as you'd hope would be the case with a screenplay by Raymond Chandler, much of the dialog is fantastic.  A few of my favorite lines:

"It seems I've lost my manners.  Or would anyone here know the difference?" (Morrison to his wife's party-happy friends)

"Well, you could get wetter if you lay down in the gutter."  (Joyce to Morrison when she offers him a ride in the rain)

"Every guy's seen you before... somewhere.  Trick is to find you."  (Morrison to Joyce)

"Maybe you'd like it better if I minded my own business."
"Think you could?"
"I could try."  (Joyce and Morrison and Joyce again, with the sort of caustic flirting Ladd excelled at acting and Chandler excelled at writing)

"It's a terrible thing for the hotel."
"Kinda tough on the Morrison dame, too."  (Hotel detective and policeman discussing the murder)

"I seem to have misplaced your name at the moment."
"Where were you keeping it?"  (Hotel detective and Buzz)

"I don't happen to be that kind of rat."
"What kind of rat are you?" (Harwood and Morrison)

So is this movie family friendly?  As film noir goes, it's fairly tame.  Lots of alcohol use, and the issue of marital infidelity is key, but the violence is actually fairly minimal.

This review is my first entry into the Film Noir Blogathon hosted by The Midnite Drive-In.  Please check out that blog for links to all the great blogathon entries over the next few days.  I'll be reviewing The Glass Key (1942) for this event as well, so stay tuned for more noir Alan Ladd :-9


  1. Oh, but I LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVE Agatha Christie!!!!!!!

    Naw, that's okay ;-) I do love her, though. She's probably my favorite mystery author.

    This looks like an awfully dark movie . . . which makes sense, since it's "film noir," after all. Say, does Alan Ladd ALWAYS pair up with Veronica Lake? It seems like you see them together in movies quite a lot.

    1. Yeah, my mom loves Agatha Christie too. I don't mind some of her stories, and can read one once in a while, but overall, not for me.

      This one isn't nearly as dark as the one I'll be reviewing next, but it's not light and cheerful either. Tame for noir, but still dark enough to qualify for the genre.

      Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake made 7 movies together. In three of them, they played themselves -- they were sort of rah-rah support-the-war-effort films. I've seen 3 of the remaining 4, and the last is on my list of must-sees.

      But you see, Alan Ladd was very short for a leading man, only 5'7" or so (my height!), and Hollywood at the time couldn't fathom an audience accepting a leading man who was not tall. It didn't matter so much in This Gun for Hire because he wasn't a star yet, but it wasn't long before the studio decided they needed to "hide" his height. Veronica Lake was just barely 5 feet tall, so even in heels, she was still shorter than him, which made the studio pair them a lot. Plus, they did have a nice, combative chemistry that worked well for the noir vehicles the studio put them in.

    2. 5'7"? That's not SO short . . . but I guess standards for attractiveness were generally narrower back then. "Tall, dark, and handsome," etc. ;-)

    3. Jessica, I agree. I know quite a few men who are shorter than I am. But in the late '30s and early '40s, you'd better be all of "tall, dark, and handsome," and Ladd was short, fair, and handsome -- they didn't trust his charisma and talent, which was dumb, as he became one of the biggest stars around from the mid-'40s to the mid-'50s. In fact, he initially was told he couldn't get any major roles not because he was short, but because he was too blond! Tsk tsk. But hindsight is better than foresight.

    4. Weird, huh? Personally, I think blond guys are quite cute ;-)

    5. I tend to go for the darker guys, but there are a handful of blonds (Alan Ladd, Vic Morrow, Heath Ledger, Chris Hemsworth, Josh Holloway) that I do adore.

  2. I love the moody feel of this movie and the tough talk, and the sweet talk (Johnny's line to Joyce). I chose the paint colour for my living room because they called it Blue Dahlia.

    1. Caftan Woman -- that must be a gorgeous color for a living room! The flower on my blog header is a "star-sisters" dahlia that I planted in my container garden this year in Alan's honor.

      Anyway, yes, this movie has a great feel to it, and the more often I watch it, the better I like it.

  3. LOVE the hardboiled, snappy dialogue of Raymond Chandler, and the whole milieu of this film.

    I did not know Ladd and Lake were paired because they were both so diminutive...they really did have good screen chemistry, though. Veronica is always rather flat and wooden in her delivery, I agree, but she is a beautiful doll, with that beautiful, flowing peekaboo hair.

    Looking forward to seeing this one, you've totally sold me on it!!

    1. Chris, from the first time I read The Big Sleep in high school, I was hooked on Raymond Chandler. No one does snappy dialog, tough-talking characters who are nice underneath, or scintillating description like he does.

      Veronica Lake never claimed to be a great actress. I think she's very good indeed in This Gun for Hire, but most of the other things I've seen her in, she's simply acceptable. She's got more snap to her in The Glass Key than she does in Dahlia.

      Hope you can see this soon! I'm so thankful that it's available on DVD.

  4. I got a 10 disc set that I mentioned in the response to you accepting a position in my blog. I got it mainly because it had 9 movies I hadn't seen (the 10th one was "Double Indemnity") and it turns out this is one of the other 9. Now I have to watch it as soon as time is available, even if you did let a spoiler slip by by saying it's not Bendix's character who is the killer (although that would make sense in a traditional mystery, it's not the one all the clues seem to point to... Thanks for joining. (Yours is the first one I'll personalize by the way.)

    1. Quiggy, I have eyed up that same 10-disc set because I don't have "Double Indemnity" yet, and some of the other titles were appealing too. But I got this as a stand-alone instead.

      And yeah, I know I did spoil that one thing. I figure any movie that's more than 50 years old, I don't have to get tooooo nervous about spoiler alerts. But I didn't tell who the killer really is!

      Thanks for hosting! I'm enjoying reading through the entries as time permits.

    2. And I finally watched it this morning, since my internet was down and I couldn't do squat when I woke up. And boy did the end surprise.

    3. Quiggy, I know! That ending really threw me for a loop the first time. I had to watch it again not long after to see if it all made sense or not.

  5. I've only seen the first part of this film, and that was years ago. But your thorough review has shown me that I've been missing out on a great film, and I'll be tracking this down ASAP. :)

  6. Enjoyed your write-up on "Blue Dahlia," which I need to look at again. I am also a Raymond Chandler fan ["he wrote like a slumming angel" someone said] and thought his prose was beautiful without ever being overdone. The film versions usually change the stories quite a bit. I still have to catch up with James Garner's "Marlowe," which is based on Chandler's "Little Sister."

    1. Thanks, William! Yes, I love that description of Chandler's writing. (I also love what Chandler said of Hammett, that he took murder out of the parlor and put it back in the gutter where it belonged.) I haven't seen "Marlowe" yet either, but it's on my list!

  7. Such a great film. Doris Dowling, who I really only know from this and Bitter Rice is ruthless and Bendix is simply never better, which is saying something given his fine work five years either side of this flick.

    1. Gogilesgo, I've never seen Dowling in anything else, but I agree she's very effective here. I've seen Bendix in a bunch of things now, since he and Alan Ladd made lots of movies together, and I have never seen him better than here. Masterful and nuanced work.

  8. Dowling scored a great bit in THE LOST WEEKEND from 1945. I have seen her a few other times in 50's tv series etc. BITTER RICE I have here but must admit to not seeing it yet. A solid actress imo.

    Nice write-up by the way.

    1. Gord, it's been a looooooong time since I saw The Lost Weekend -- I totally didn't remember she was in that! I'd like to see it again at some point, as I remember it being completely fascinating.

      Thanks :-)

  9. Hey there! I watched this movie twice this week - it almost got to be my movie club's pick for June, but then there was a problem with other people not being able to get hold of it, so I ended up just watching it because :) Sadly the dahlias I planted last year seem to have expired over the winter, but I did buy a new bulb for this year... Can I ask a weird question? I had the idea that this movie started with a bus driving through night rain. (Instead of the rain-less daytime bus we do get.) Is there another Alan Ladd movie that starts with a bus in rain, do you know?

    1. VT, oooh, I bet that was fun, watching it twice in one week!

      I've never managed to get dahlia bulbs to survive the winter either. I've even done the whole thing where you dig them up and dry them out and keep them in the garage, but it hasn't worked for me. Just have to get new ones again.

      Hmmmmmmmm. I'm trying to remember Alan movies that have him on a bus, and I can't think of any that start with a bus in the rain. I think he steps off a bus toward the beginning of Hell on Frisco Bay, but I don't think it's raining. China has a big part in the middle where he's driving a truck in the rain. He arrives on a train in And Now Tomorrow. That's all I can think of right now.

      The only other noir I can think of that starts with a bus, and possibly rain, is Fallen Angel, but that's Dana Andrews, not Alan Ladd.

    2. However, there ARE a lot of Alan Ladd movies I haven't seen yet!!!

  10. I suspect I'll stumble across the rain-bus opening years from now and wonder why it feels important to see.
    But if I remember too, I'll let you know which movie it really was and which actor, too!

  11. To. Too. Yep. :)


Agree or disagree? That is the question...

Comments on old posts are always welcome! Posts older than 7 days are on moderation to dissuade spambots, so if your comment doesn't show up right away, don't worry -- it will once I approve it.

(Rudeness and vulgar language will not be tolerated.)