The Blue Dahlia
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Alan Ladd stars in The Blue Dahlia (1946) as Johnny Morrison, one of a threesome of World War II veterans who return to the home front disillusioned and broken by what they find there. The world has turned rotten while the buddies were away fighting the good fight in this scathing film noir, part crime story and part social commentary. While the mentally unstable Buzz (William Bendix) - whose war injury has left him disoriented and hostile - and his unofficial caretaker George Copeland (Leave It to Beaver's Hugh Beaumont) find bachelor lodgings together, Johnny returns to his wife, Helen Morrison (Doris Dowling), and young son for a long-anticipated reunion. Rather than welcoming her husband home with open arms, however, Helen treats his return as an imposition and is clearly romantically entangled with Eddie Harwood (Howard da Silva), the owner of the Blue Dahlia, a posh local bar.
Helen then delivers the ultimate bad news: driving home drunk one night from a party she also killed their only son in an accident. A distraught, heartbroken Johnny stumbles out of her bungalow and is later picked up by a luminous, kindhearted blonde - Joyce Harwood (Veronica Lake) - who also happens to be the estranged wife of Eddie Harwood. When Helen turns up dead, Joyce sticks by Johnny, trying to help him shake the murder rap. As the film unfolds, the net of suspicion is cast on a variety of people who knew the dead woman while screenwriter Raymond Chandler's pessimistic script implicates an entire society for its unsavory tendencies. The morally tainted worldview is well illustrated in one piece of dialogue. When suspected of murder, Eddie responds, "I don't happen to be that kind of a rat," to which Johnny matter-of-factly replies, "What kind of a rat are you?"
The Blue Dahlia was the first original screenplay for famed hard-boiled novelist Raymond Chandler, although several of his books, including The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, had already been brought to the screen. He had also contributed to a number of Hollywood scripts such as Double Indemnity (1944). Originally, Chandler's story fingered Buzz - disoriented by his war injury -- as Helen's killer. But under pressure from the Navy, the studio forced Chandler to change the murderer from a war veteran to a civilian.
Ultimately, the identity of the killer is almost irrelevant for, as Chandler wrote in 1950, "the ideal mystery was the one you would read if the end was missing."
"When I first went to work in Hollywood a very intelligent producer told me that you couldn't make a successful motion picture from a mystery story because the whole point was a disclosure that took a few seconds of screen time while the audience was reaching for its hat. He was wrong, but only because he was thinking of the wrong kind of mystery." The Blue Dahlia nevertheless retains a grim pessimism about how drastically the world had changed since the three soldiers set off for war. While men and women engage in festive revelry on the homefront, oblivious to the suffering of the men overseas, there is a deep camaraderie between not only the three soldiers, but another anonymous serviceman they meet in a bar who backs down from a fight when he sees that Buzz has been injured in the war. There is also an implicit critique of men like Eddie who have made their fortune selling booze and engaging in dirtier dealings while avoiding military service. Chandler was himself a veteran (of WWI) and his bleak mysteries are colored by the grim experiences he endured in battle and upon his return. While The Blue Dahlia stands as a first-rate crime thriller, it earns extra points for its depth and insight in depicting a corrupt, cynical world that, to the three vets, probably doesn't look like one worth fighting for.
Producer: John Houseman
Director: George Marshall
Screenwriter: Raymond Chandler
Director of Photography: Lionel Lindon
Production Design: Hans Dreier, Walter Tyler
Music: Victor Young
Cast: Alan Ladd (Johnny Morrison), Veronica Lake (Joyce Harwood), William Bendix (Buzz Wanchek), Howard da Silva (Eddie Harwood), Doris Dowling (Helen Morrison), Tom Powers (Capt. Hendrickson), Hugh Beaumont (George Copeland).
BW-96m. Closed captioning.
by Felicia Feaster