30/01/2011

The Blue Dahlia (1946)

Sticking with Raymond Chandler, his only original script as a screenwriter was this angry noir about a US navy pilot who experiences one of the worst homecomings in all of fiction. Instead of being greeted by a loving spouse, Lieutenant Commander Johnny Morrisson (Alan Ladd) returns from bombing the South Pacific to find his boozy, resentful wife Helen (Doris Dowling) making out with another man at a wild party. Not only that, but she's killed their only son in a drunken car wreck and hasn't told him. Understandably a little perturbed when he hears the news, Johnny explodes and threatens her with his service revolver, only to storm out and leave the monogrammed gun at the scene. So when Helen is found murdered the next morning, Johnny winds up chief suspect and heads out on the run, determined to find the real killer.


George Marshall's film, produced by John Houseman, is solid enough genre fair but a little lacking in surprises, truth be told. Ladd and the exceptionally beautiful Veronica Lake, appearing together for the third time after 1942's Graham Greene makeover This Gun For Hire and Dashiell Hammett adaptation The Glass Key, are good value and there's splendid support from the likes of William Bendix (best know for playing the title role in The Babe Ruth Story, 1948), a spivy Howard Da Silva and Will Wright as a blackmailing hotel detective. The Blue Dahlia's main point of interest though is how topical and insightful it is on the subject of returning veterans and their difficulties readjusting to civilian life after the psychological traumas of combat. The swing from the gangster capers of the thirties to the brooding urban nightmares of the forties was always about the haunted generation returning from the horrors of the battlefield but rarely is the subject addressed as directly as in The Blue Dahlia, where the character of Buzz Wancheck (Bendix) personifies the issue. An army buddy of Johnny's discharged with shrapnel embedded in his brain, Buzz is fiercely loyal but also prone to violent migraines and bouts of amnesia. As one of the last people to see Helen Morrison alive, things are looking as bad for Buzz as they are for Johnny (and he would actually have turned out to be the guilty party had the US military not objected to that particular passage of Chandler's script). The film remains sympathetic to the disturbed Buzz, however, and deserves points both for its intelligent handling of his condition and Bendix's nicely judged performance (although his hatred of jazz, which the character repeatedly refers to as "monkey music", may not endear him to all modern audiences). Here's a nice introduction to Johnny and his pals from the beginning of the film:



Ultimately, perhaps the problem with The Blue Dahlia is that, without Chandler's original conclusion, it lacks any real social comment or narrative bite. The villains remain blackhatted mobsters and corrupt authority figures in a rather ho-hum, matter-of-fact sort of way. It's just business as usual, an efficient but too predictable off-the-peg studio thriller. However, even with the ending it does have, this need not necessarily have been the case. In a film like John Huston's Key Largo (1948), for instance, much more is made out of similar circumstances. There, the theme is very much that Bogie's returning soldier must accept the need to pick up his gun one more time, to right wrongs on the home front as well as overseas, by ridding his country of sneering hoods like Edward G. Robinson's Johnny Rocco, who dreams of dragging the promised land back to the bad old days. In The Blue Dahlia, they're just bad guys and racketeers. There's really not much more to it than that and Buzz's plight remains a sad side issue.

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