The Blue Dahlia (1946)
“Double dame trouble! Double-barrelled action!”
Director: George Marshall
Cast: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix
Synopsis: An ex-bomber pilot is suspected of murdering his unfaithful wife.
WARNING! This review contains SPOILERS!
Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and William Bendix were re-united for the first time since The Glass Key (1942) (they’re all credited in Star-Spangled Rhythm (1943) and Duffy’s Tavern (1945), but those movies were all-star collaborations, which don’t really count) in The Blue Dahlia. It’s the only original screenplay hard-boiled crime writer Raymond Chandler wrote, and he was none too pleased with the movie by all accounts. Chandler had originally wanted the killer to be the character played by Bendix, a shell-shocked war veteran with a metal plate in his head, but the US government balked at the idea of a returning servicemen being a killer, so Paramount had the ending changed. Chandler also disliked the choice of Veronica Lake — whom he referred to as ‘Moronica’ — for the leading lady role. The movie isn’t without its faults, but is not quite as bad as Chandler would have us believe.
Alan Ladd plays Johnny Morrison, a pilot returning from the war with his two buddies, George (Hugh Beaumont) and Buzz (Bendix), to discover that while he’s been away his wife, Helen (Doris Dowling) has been living it up following the death of their young son. In fact, a party is in mid-flow when he returns home unannounced, and Johnny spies Helen kissing nightclub owner Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva) goodbye. After an argument with his wife during which Johnny pulls a gun, he goes for a walk in the rain and is offered a lift by an alluring blonde who just happens to be Joyce Harwood (Lake), Eddie’s wife. Now, I don’t know about you, but I tend to find coincidences like this just a little too much to swallow. I mean, really — what are the odds? And Chandler only has himself to blame for that one.
Anyway, Johnny and Joyce hit it off in the way that only movie characters can under such circumstances. He tries to look cool as he sucks hard on a barely-lit cigarette in an attempt to get it burning while she casts flirtatious sidelong glances in his direction. But Johnny’s a married man and resists the obvious temptations on offer. The next morning, he hears on the radio that he’s no longer a married man but a wanted one following the murder of his wife. Of course, we know Johnny’s innocent, so who did kill Mrs. Morrison?
Well, it wasn’t Buzz, I’ve already told you that, but there are plenty of other suspects, and Chandler weaves an unnecessarily complicated tale around the mystery, even though you get the impression he’s more interested in capturing the mood of the times than serving up clues to a whodunit. It’s pretty interesting stuff, though, and the supporting characters have a depth to them that’s pretty rare for this kind of movie. Da Silva gives an arresting performance as the slick and not unlikeable nightclub owner who may or may not be the culprit, and Bendix is enjoyable to watch as he flirts with madness every time someone plays some of that ‘monkey music’ on the juke box.
Unfortunately, that tacked-on ending doesn’t really make the mark. After setting Buzz up as the culprit, the enforced change means that much of what we’ve seen regarding his character serves no purpose other than to provide the audience with a whopping red herring, even though that clearly wasn’t the original intention. The character who eventually turns out to be the villain isn’t exactly thrown into the circle of suspicion at the last moment, but it’s still pretty obvious that he was originally in the frame. So Chandler was right on that score at least — an otherwise decent movie’s badly damaged by that ending.
(Reviewed 21st August 2013)