This enjoyable murder mystery conceived by Raymond Chandler is primetime film noir, even while it falls somewhat short of its contemporaries in terms of visual style. Unpretentious director George Marshall may not demonstrate much flair for iconic noir compositions, but he displays a great talent for conveying how suddenly people can become irritated with one another, and how quickly a setting of calmness can mutate into a scene of violence. Set in a nation reconfigured during WWII, the characters who occupy this distinctly LA-based landscape know each other's weaknesses and are all too eager to exploit them.
Back from serving in the South Pacific, a trio of veterans disembarks a Hollywood-branded bus and enters the nearest place in sight that dispenses bourbon. The three United States Navy fliers are Lieutenant Commander Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd), George Copeland (Hugh Beaumont) and Buzz Wanchek (William Bendix). Almost instantly, the hot-tempered Buzz takes issue with the upbeat song blasting out of the watering hole's jukebox, and even pushes around the guy (Anthony Caruso) who selected the tune. Without question Buzz is shell-shocked; he has shrapnel lodged in his skull, suffers from memory loss and endures a debilitating headache whenever he hears what he pejoratively deems "monkey music." The scuffle is broken up and the fellow military men share an "it's all good" moment, but the sequence casts an ominous shadow over what should be a day of cheerfulness. "Well, here's to what was," Johnny coldly summarizes.
The ensuing scene is even more intense than the establishing sequence. Johnny drops by unannounced on his wife Helen (Doris Dowling) at her bungalow residence within Cavendish Court in Santa Monica. The porcelain-skinned beauty is busy hosting a lively party, and seems disappointed to receive her returning veteran husband, who has been placed on the inactive list. In attendance is her current romantic interest Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva), who owns a local nightclub called The Blue Dahlia. Johnny would like to resume a relationship with his wife, but the more Helen reveals about herself, the more hopeless the situation appears to be. She condescendingly calls Johnny "hero" and tells him their son did not die from diphtheria as she originally had stated. In truth the boy was killed in a car accident caused by his mother's drunken carelessness. Since that event, she has become a witch of a woman who does as she pleases, everyone else be damned. The defeated condition of the married couple is emphasized by the heavy rainfall that commences after Johnny learns the bleak truth about his son's death. Congruent with CONFLICT (1945), SCARLET STREET (1945), MILDRED PIERCE (1945), THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946) and many other noir films of this timeframe, the marriage under consideration in THE BLUE DAHLIA is a flower without bloom.
Joyce Harwood (Veronica Lake) is injected as the positive counterpart to the thoroughly contemptible Helen character. Like a little blonde angel from heaven, she scoops up Johnny on a rainy night, and is shown repeatedly in idealized portraits (even the best of noir women seldom can live up to those framed images to which men cling). It is suggested Joyce is on the outs with her husband Eddie because of his tendency toward shady business dealings. When her antithesis Helen is found dead on her davenport, a head-scratcher of a case is born. Helen was such a miserable person, any number of people may have had reason to kill her. A man of few words and a strong moral code, the prime suspect Johnny becomes the film's hard-boiled investigator. Joyce does not view Johnny as the type of man who would knock off his wife, while the police seem less charitable. Thus THE BLUE DAHLIA serves as an early example of the "wrong man" film noir subgenre that would gain traction with titles such as DARK PASSAGE (1947), DESPERATE (1947), HIGH WALL (1947) and THE BIG CLOCK (1948).
As designed by screenwriter Raymond Chandler, THE BLUE DAHLIA is dripping with sordid noir characters, some of whom seem to have slithered out of the gutter amid the drenched city streets. The Scotch-swilling, unfaithful wife Helen probably is less known to noir fans than Chandler's more iconic femme fatale characters who heat up the screen, i.e. Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) from MURDER, MY SWEET (1944) and Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) from THE BIG SLEEP (1946). Though when Helen laughs after revealing her young son's tragic cause of death, to conjure up a more reprehensible noir dame would be a challenging matter. In a nice thematic touch, the nighttime rain (cleansing?) has given way to sunshine once her corpse is discovered. Another useless broad is the overly-friendly, drunken blonde (Vera Marshe) in attendance at Helen's party, who does nothing to advance how men might think of her gender.
Not to be outdone by the aforementioned females, there are plenty of deplorable males on hand. The scumbag "Dad" Newell (Will Wright) is an opportunistic bottom feeder and one of the most manipulative of noir lowlifes. The pleasant front desk attendant has the right idea when she brushes him off early in the film. Eddie Harwood may be having an affair, but that is not necessarily why his wife ran away from him. Clearly Eddie has more than his share of baggage. His business partner Leo (Don Costello) serves as Eddie's bookkeeper, but perhaps not his best friend. Leo implies Eddie factored in the murder of a man named Quinlan. One gets the feeling Leo would not be above using that information to his advantage. Similarly, Helen reminds Eddie she could make him pay for his past when he lived on the East Coast under an alternate identity. Supporting characters that seem to have emerged from under a rock include the thugs (Frank Faylen and Walter Sande) who recommend a nearby flophouse after Johnny is turned away from a more respectable establishment. The off-the-beaten-path hotel is managed by Corelli (Howard Freeman), who operates on the same level as the creeps who bring in Johnny. Then there is the more complex case of Buzz Wanchek, who seems to have a problem with everyone, as when he repeatedly disrespects a "copper" for no apparent reason. The post-traumatic stress case's disdain for "monkey music," a term with obviously insensitive connotations, is at odds with his deep affection for the well-being of his friend Johnny. The war has converted Buzz into a divided personality, protective and sweet at times, needlessly aggressive on other occasions. The theme of multiple identities, a frequent noir bullet point, extends to Johnny (Jimmy Moore) and Eddie Harwood (Bauer), who both out of self-preservation assume new identities.
THE BLUE DAHLIA was the first and only produced original screenplay from the noted crime novelist Chandler, a WWI veteran whose experiences in combat no doubt informed his written work. While writing THE BLUE DAHLIA, the well-known hard drinker's creative process surely was sacrificial to his health according to the memoirs of producer John Houseman. Chandler struggled mightily in his attempt to finish his screenplay as the director George Marshall began filming the work in progress. Because Marshall was catching up to Chandler, the writer felt he would have to abandon the studio environment and immerse himself in the bottle at home to finish the script. Though working from home was atypical of the Hollywood process, the plan resulted in the screenplay's completion and Chandler's second Academy Award nomination (the first was for DOUBLE INDEMNITY , on which he served as a co-writer). The film's conclusion differs from Chandler's original treatment; according to the author, censors did not like the idea of a veteran being responsible for the murder of Helen. Chandler was not a fan of Marshall, who introduced other changes into the original script.
A faithful adaptation of the written material or not, THE BLUE DAHLIA received positive notices and performed well at the box office, perhaps in part due to its final scene that opposes much of the pessimism that precedes it. Johnny and Joyce, both victims of mates who strayed from them, will be afforded a second chance as the story concludes. Both strong people, the two appear to have a good chance to make a go of it together. After THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942) and THE GLASS KEY (1942), THE BLUE DAHLIA was the third film to feature Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. They would team up once more for SAIGON (1948).
Now available on a dual-layered Blu-ray disc from Shout! Factory as part of their SHOUT SELECT product line, this edition of THE BLUE DAHLIA looks far superior to the Universal DVD rendition issued in 2012 under the Turner Classic Movies Vault Collection stamp. Though the packaging announces framing at 1.33:1, the new scan is framed at 1.36:1, which is a much closer approximation of the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The crispness of this excellent HD transfer compared to the DVD from 2012 is easy enough to appreciate in the following screen captures.
|Shout! Factory Blu-ray|
The supplemental material adds considerable value to this Shout! Factory release. The audio commentary track with film historians Alan K. Rode and Steve Mitchell is one of the best recordings I've heard from a preparedness standpoint, even though it never sounds overly rehearsed. Rode is especially good as he challenges some of the myths surrounding the film's colorful history, especially in regard to producer Houseman's perhaps self-serving account of Chandler's screenwriting endeavors that supposedly threatened the production schedule. Rode says Houseman's recollections do not withstand scrutiny very well. For instance, Rode has found no evidence to confirm Marshall ever approached a point in the production when he was running out of screenplay to film. Chandler's claim that he was forced to alter his planned conclusion for his script due to pressure from the U.S. Navy could not be substantiated by Rode either, and the notion that the studio had to rush THE BLUE DAHLIA to completion before its star Alan Ladd had to return to the service makes no sense. There already were multiple Ladd vehicles in the can at the time.
On a rather depressing scale, Rode reveals unflattering details about Veronica Lake, particularly in regard to her questionable professionalism on the set. According to his review of THE BLUE DAHLIA's shooting schedule, her featured scenes required many takes, which suggests the actress was ill at ease with her dialog. Chandler derisively labeled her "Moronica" because he felt she only maintained credibility as an actress through silence. Lake developed a reputation of being difficult to work with, and her later years were accelerated by heavy drug and alcohol abuse. She died of hepatitis at the age of 50 in 1973. Her ashes went unclaimed for three years at a funeral home.
Another welcome bonus feature of this Shout! Factory edition is The Screen Guild Theater's radio broadcast of THE BLUE DAHLIA (28m 27s), which originally aired April 21, 1949, with Ladd and Lake in their original film characters. This greatly condensed version of the film is marred by audio hum, but is understandable for the most part; just be ready to crank the volume. The radio episode’s sponsor Camel motivates the listener to enjoy their smooth brand of healthier cigarettes—quite a hoot to hear today. The remaining supplements include a theatrical trailer (2m 31s) and a very extensive photo gallery (5m).
This healthy Blu-ray disc must be considered one of the year's most important classic film reissues.