The Blue Dahlia (1946)
The Blue Dahlia (1946)

Genre: Film Noir Running Time: 1 hr. 36 min.

Release Date: April 19th, 1946 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: George Marshall Actors: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling, Tom Powers, Hugh Beaumont, Howard Freeman, Don Costello, Will Wright

 


 

T

hree soldiers returning home to Los Angeles aren’t quite sure what to expect when they revisit the lives they left behind. Navy Lieutenant Commander Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd) has a wife, Helen (Doris Dowling), waiting for him; George Copeland (Hugh Beaumont) is sent back with faulty eyesight; and Buzz Wanchek (William Bendix) has only a metal plate in his head for his troubles. At Johnny’s house, Helen is clearly disinterested in rekindling their relationship. She’s already moved on, caring little for reminiscing about the young son they lost, content instead to party with a new, exciting crowd. This basic setup is very similar to “The Best Years of Our Lives,” released later the same year (1946).

But then the plot deviates. Johnny leaves when Helen drunkenly admits that it was her fault that their son Dickie died – but not before threatening her with his gun. She phones Buzz in a panic, which becomes more complicated when his war injury keeps him routinely muddled and forgetful. He heads to her place to console her, but winds up taking her out into the rainy night. To shake things up further, shady Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva) has been seeing Helen, after his wife Joyce (Veronica Lake) left him for dealing with crooked partner Leo (Don Costello) at the Blue Dahlia nightclub. At the same time, Joyce coincidentally picks up Johnny, giving him a lift out of the storm, in the direction of Malibu. The following morning, the radio announces the discovery of Helen’s lifeless body in her private bungalow.

In “The Blue Dahlia,” the classically convoluted film noir premise takes more than thirty minutes to reveal the first murder victim. Character development is solidified through numerous interactions between all of the major players first – and even Lake doesn’t make an appearance until more than twenty minutes have passed. Once again, Ladd and Lake make an appealing onscreen couple (having previously appeared together in “This Gun for Hire” [1942] and “The Glass Key” [1942]), trading insinuative repartee and cynical comments as they strike up a spontaneous romance amidst vexing entanglements – namely Morrison’s suspicion in Helen’s murder case. She’s motivated to aid him for unexplained, suspicious reasons (or perhaps a misplaced attraction, as in 1950’s “In A Lonely Place”); and he inexplicably abandons a walk on the beach with the ravishing blonde.

Like most of Raymond Chandler’s stories (this one an original screenplay, not based on one of his novels), a crime’s aftermath is shown with the lead antihero solving the mystery alongside the audience. The chief protagonist is also the prime suspect, making his sleuthing expeditious yet oddly never agitated (fortunately for him, his description is grossly generic, despite looking like a movie star). He’s incautious, reckless, and continually surrounded by distrustful characters inhabiting seedy locales. “Dad” Newell (Will Wright), the experienced house detective, is just one of those unscrupulous men, with ideas on blackmailing everyone he meets. But, amusingly, his venal loyalty is no match for Joyce’s effortlessly seductive influences. The sharp dialogue follows Chandler’s greats, brandishing wisecracks, metaphors, and answering interrogations with redirected questions, while criminal endeavors and violence organically work their way into the script. And the finale is smartly unpredictable, though by the time the killer is revealed, some of the steam and intensity has dissipated.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10