Blue Dahlia, The (1946)

“Just don’t get too complicated, Eddie. When a man gets too complicated, he’s unhappy. And when he’s unhappy, his luck runs out.”

Synopsis:
A veteran (Alan Ladd) returning from active duty in WWII with his two buddies (William Bendix and Hugh Beaumont) is disturbed to learn that his wife (Doris Dowling) has been carrying on an affair with a shady nightclub owner (Howard Da Silva). When his wife is murdered later that evening, Ladd becomes a prime suspect and hits the road, accidentally meeting Da Silva’s estranged wife (Veronica Lake) along the way.

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Review:
The Blue Dahlia is notorious for being the only film with an original script by Raymond Chandler (his novels were all adapted for the screen by other writers) — and when reading about the trouble he had actually completing the screenplay, it’s easy to understand why. With that said, the film itself remains an enjoyable, if uneven, entry in the film noir genre — one which showcases Chandler’s typically pulpy dialogue and characters, and offers a reasonably satisfying cinematic experience overall. Diminutive romantic leads Ladd and Lake were cast together for the third time (after This Gun For Hire and the non-Peary-listed The Glass Key, both made in 1942), and they make a visually appealing “couple” — but the problem is that their “relationship” together (not to mention Lake’s ambiguously problematic marriage to Da Silva) is never adequately defined or developed. Chandler notoriously referred to Lake as “Moronica” Lake, and one can’t help wondering whether his disdain for her as an actress bled over into the lack of care he took in crafting her character. Regardless, it’s a frustrating flaw in the narrative.

The central murder mystery, however, remains both taut and suspenseful, with the killer’s identity coming as a true surprise (don’t read too much about the movie online, as most reviews immediately give away a form of spoiler). Ladd is appropriately brooding and wary — if ultimately not quite as charismatic as, say, Bogart — playing a veteran who comes home to a truly nasty “surprise” in the form of his openly disdainful and philandering wife (one desperately wonders what their relationship was like pre-war; what drew the two of them together in the first place?). Meanwhile, Bendix turns in yet another solid supporting performance in a critical role as Ladd’s plate-headed buddy; the opening scene in a bar nicely establishes his character’s bugaboo. Da Silva is equally effective in a tricky role as a nightclub owner with a shady past who seems to regret having gotten involved with Dowling in the first place, and Will Wright is instantly smarmy as a house detective who’s a little too interested in the welfare of his most attractive clients.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Stark, noir-ish cinematography by Lionel Linden
  • William Bendix as Buzz
  • Howard Da Silva as Eddie Harwood
  • Will Wright as “Dad” Newell
  • Fine, hard-boiled dialogue by Chandler: “It’s funny, but practically all people were strangers when I met them.”

Must See?
Yes, simply to see Chandler’s only screenwriting venture. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “Blue Dahlia, The (1946)”

  1. Agreed – a must (once, at least), as Chandler’s only original screenplay. And a nifty one at that. In fact, oddly enough, it’s the script that is the real star here. The film has decent performances, but it’s the way Chandler dovetails several genuine murder-suspect possibilities that keeps us interested. (With a little checking, you will discover that the film’s ending was apparently not what Chandler wanted. Ironically, what he switched the ending to – through pressure – actually works in the film’s favor.)

    Apparently as well, Chandler did not like director George Marshall, considering him a hack. (It seems Chandler had difficulty with a number of people in the movie industry – including Hitchcock, during the filming of ‘Strangers on a Train’.) Marshall’s work on ‘TBD’ reads as competent, even if it doesn’t read as the best ingredient for film noir. As a result, ‘TBD’ comes off more along ordinary murder mystery lines than noir, which is a bit of a shame. A bit more edginess in style would have been welcome. But that doesn’t take away from the power of Chandler’s structure and dialogue.

    I don’t actually have a problem with the little we know about Lake’s character. (And I doubt that Chandler would have allowed his distaste for Lake to influence his work on her role; I don’t believe the average writer operates that way – he would have his own interests at heart.) We know as much about her as we need to know and, even though Lake is included in top-billing, her function in the script is secondary.

    It seems ‘TBD’ was, to an extent, written under pressure (since Ladd was called to war, so film production went into overdrive). There’s much to be said for writing under pressure and Chandler had what was needed to step up to the plate. ‘TBD’ is not the best film of its type but Chandler definitely makes it worth a visit.

    Fave exchange:

    – “I seem to have misplaced your name at the moment.”
    – “Where were you keeping it?”

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