Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Blue Dahlia

THE BLUE DAHLIA               B                     
USA  (96 mi)  1946  d:  George Marshall

Bourbon straight with a bourbon chaser.       —Buzz Wanchek (William Bendix)

You've got the wrong lipstick on, Mister.       —Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd)

It’s funny, but practically all the people I know were strangers when I met them.     
—Joyce Harwood (Veronica Lake)

Like all the modern day era directors named Marshall, George Marshall was primarily a comic director before making this film, where he serves in a functional role, little more than moving the right pieces around, but hardly visionary or exemplary, where screenwriter Raymond Chandler may have actually directed several of the scenes.  This film is noted as being the only original Raymond Chandler script in Hollywood, though several of his books have been adapted, where the script was unfinished when filming began and production was about to be shut down as he developed writer’s block.  Already a hurried production, as actor Alan Ladd was being recalled for military service, so the terms Chandler demanded to finish the script on time was to start drinking again, as he felt he wrote better under the influence, also an in-home round the clock nurse to help moderate his alcohol intake, so as an alcoholic he wouldn’t drink himself into a stupor, and a car which drove his finished pages to the studio every day.  John Houseman, from the Orson Welles Mercury Theater group, was the producer on the Paramount film and he felt inclined to agree to these outlandish terms, offering in addition a $5000 incentive to finish on time, which he did, as otherwise everyone would simply be fired.  This is also the third of four films where Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake would work together.  While the two of them were never close, the diminutive Ladd at 5' 5” enjoyed working with her as she was just under 5 feet tall, and this is one of their better efforts.  The snappy and crisp Chandler dialogue, which was the film’s only Academy Award nomination, works to their benefit, as they have some terrific lines together, always keeping one another at arm’s length, but just barely.  After Lake died, it was revealed by her husband, director André de Toth, that she was a heroin addict and an alcoholic during her starring roles at Paramount, earning $4500 a week, which is why they never renewed her contract, eventually working as a barmaid near the end of her life, drifting from one cheap hotel to the next, where she had frequent arrests for public drunkenness. 

Like many of the war pictures in its day, the film opens with out of uniform soldiers returning home to Los Angeles on a bus, where they experienced a close camaraderie of serving together, but become anonymous figures upon returning home.  Alan Ladd as Johnny Morrison definitely fits that bill, even though he has a wife to come home to, while the other two, William Bendix and Hugh Beaumont, are envious.  But when Ladd arrives, his house has been taken over by a drunken crowd of perpetual party revelers, led by his wife, Doris Dowling, who is on the arm of a crooked nightclub owner Eddie Harwood, Howard Da Silva, whose career was blacklisted for the decade of the 1950's.  Da Silva, Dowling, and Frank Faylen (a small-time hood) all just finished working together on Billy Wilder’s THE LOST WEEKEND (1945).  Dowling is from the theatrical school of bold dramatic expressions, wearing lavish and spectacular gowns that might feel more appropriate in a highly decorative Josef von Sternberg film.  Her stand-offish behavior towards Johnny, not to mention being caught in a kiss with Harwood, sends Johnny back out the door, where in typical noirish fashion it has become an evening downpour of rain.  With all the hotels booked, he’s aimlessly roaming the streets, suitcase in hand, until a car pulls up and offers him a shelter from the storm, driven by Veronica Lake.  While exploring the entire Los Angeles vicinity together, from Hollywood, Santa Monica, to Malibu, they immediately hit it off, but with vague sarcasm and clever comebacks.  They are easily the glue that holds this picture together, but keep getting separated after a news report announces the murder of his wife, where Johnny is the lead suspect, spending the rest of the film on the run while the police are searching for him, leaving him little choice except to find the killer himself. 

While some of this does in fact resemble Howard Hawks’ THE BIG SLEEP (1946), another Chandler novel with Bogart and Bacall which may have borrowed liberally from this film, especially the scenes where the hero gets double crossed, beaten up and captured in an out of the way location, the claims that Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (1961) and the Coen Brother’s MILLER’S CROSSING (1990) also drew wholesale from this film are less obvious, as Ladd is hardly in a position trying to keep two warring sides at bay and instead is a returning war hero who has to reestablish his heroicism back here on American soil.  While not officially a detective, Ladd is placed in the position of being a detective in having to solve the crime before the police make an arrest.  In this respect, the film has more in common with THE THIN MAN (1934), where the non-explicit, bordering on dysfunctional relationship between Ladd and Lake is a stark contrast to the cozy marital bliss of William Powell and Myrna Loy, who represent the security, peace and prosperity of the pre-War years.  After the war, a man’s got to settle his own affairs with little or no help, where Bendix returns with a serious war injury, with a metal plate placed in his head, where he is constantly growing mentally agitated at the least provocation, especially the sound of American jazz music, which causes headaches and mysterious blackouts, continually demanding that people “Turn off that monkey music!”  Bendix was Chandler’s inadvertent killer in the initial script, where in noir films a character suffering from temporary amnesia is as familiar as the common cold, and everything leads up to his odd yet plausible police confession, which was unacceptable by the U.S. Navy, refusing to allow the depiction of a wounded war veteran as the damaged killer in a high profile Hollywood production coming so close to the end of the war.  The Navy threatened to refuse to cooperate in any future Paramount production, causing a hastily altered Raymond Chandler rewrite, which is really just a stab in the dark and the film’s weakest link.  Like the much publicized OJ Simpson murder case which captivated all of Los Angeles for months, there were really no other suspects.

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