Monday, February 22, 2010

The Blue Dahlia (Paramount, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Later I ran the videotape of The Blue Dahlia — whose soundtrack was virtually incomprehensible (I recorded this 11 years ago on an old Beta VCR, and my current Beta wasn’t always able to “grab” the linear soundtrack at the right angle — I ended up running the sound through the stereo and leaving the TV’s own speaker on simultaneously so we could hear the dialogue!). The movie is still problematical, with stunning supporting performances by William Bendix, Howard da Silva and Doris Dowling (who owns this movie, with her chilling performance as Alan Ladd’s unashamedly unfaithful wife, from her first appearance in it until she’s killed 24 minutes in) and a typically messy but evocative script by Raymond Chandler on the plus side, and routine performances by Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in the leads (I still wish this movie had been made with Bogart and Bacall in the leads — Lake even combed her hair back, away from her famous forehead, to look more like Bacall) and indifferent, unatmospheric direction by George Marshall, who worked well with Bob Hope (and handled the horror aspects of The Ghost Breakers well enough) but was totally at a loss with Chandler’s noir script. (Just compare his handling of the rain scenes with Howard Hawks’ direction of the similar scenes in The Big Sleep and you’ll get an idea of the difference.) The Blue Dahlia is one of those what-might-have-been movies, Chandler’s only original screenplay (well, at least the only one that was actually filmed) — though at this late date it’s easy to spot the contrivances in the script that were designed to give Alan Ladd’s fans what they expected (namely, a chance to beat up several people at once, and a scene in which he gets beaten by several people at once!) — and a story that deserved far stronger production support (like a director like Hawks or Huston, and a star cast worthy of the script and the supporting players!). — 3/19/95


Charles and I ran the movie The Blue Dahlia. I find that, while I can still fantasize a better version of this movie with Bogart and Bacall in the leads and Huston or Hawks directing, I’ve grown to like Alan Ladd a good deal better, especially after seeing some of his other films (particularly his others with Veronica Lake, This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key). While Ladd’s understated acting does sometimes become a caricature of itself — at times he makes Robert Mitchum seem like Richard Burton by comparison — it’s effective for the type of role he played in The Blue Dahlia (less so in a film like O.S.S., where he’s supposed to be a more conventional action hero — though O.S.S. is an historically important film because it was produced by Richard Maibaum, who wrote the screen adaptations of the early James Bond movies, and is therefore a direct ancestor of the Bond genre both personally and thematically).

Lake’s performance is also workmanlike, given her enigmatic character, and the story’s structure as a whole is a good illustration of Douglas Sirk’s interesting comment about how sometimes it’s good filmmaking to make your supporting characters more interesting and multidimensional than your star leads. In his interview with Jon Halliday, on the subject of the film Written on the Wind, Sirk commented (p. 116): “[T]here is the contrast of the still intact represented by Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) and Lucy Hadley (Lauren Bacall). Now these two were, box-office-wise, the real stars of the picture. And I think this was then, as before, a happy combination — to put your star values not into the so-called interesting parts, but to strengthen the other side by good names and first-rate acting. For an actor an eccentric role like the [Robert] Stack or [Dorothy] Malone parts certainly is always more rewarding to play than the straight ones. Now, this picture offered a quartet of equally competent performances and, as you know, Malone and Stack got Academy nominations [as best supporting actress and best supporting actor, respectively — and Malone won the Oscar in that category]. And there’s another thing — and please don’t smile at what I’m about to say — I had not only one split character in the picture, but two, performing their un-merry-go-rounds.”

Sirk’s analysis of his own film applies to The Blue Dahlia as well, in which the Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake characters are the star parts, but the interesting acting challenges and the multidimensional character roles belong to the supporting cast: most obviously to William Bendix’s brain-damaged war veteran and Doris Dowling’s chillingly effective performance as Ladd’s faithless wife (too bad she’s killed one-quarter of the way into the film). Howard da Silva’s nightclub owner (in partnership with an unscrupulous gangster) and Will Wright’s pathetic house detective (who turns out to be the real murderer — and one amazing aspect of this film is that Paramount had a contract player whose physical appearance and demeanor was so appropriately repulsive as to be perfect for this part) also have more complexity than the leads and the elements of “split character” Sirk talked about throughout his book.

The biggest weak links in The Blue Dahlia were the direction by George Marshall, which too often fell short of duplicating the atmospheric elements in Raymond Chandler’s script (the ones Wilder, Dmytryk and Hawks staged so ably in Double Indemnity, Murder, My Sweet and the original Big Sleep, respectively); and the inappropriate musical score by Victor Young — the main theme, in particular, is too romantic and unatmospheric for this type of movie. Also, the film would have been considerably more tragic had Chandler’s original intention been followed — according to Carl Macek in The Film Noir Encyclopedia, in Chandler’s draft script, Bendix’ character, “blinded and desensitized by the brutalizing effects of the war,” actually killed Dowling’s, but “the studio met with objections from the Navy and forced Chandler to rewrite the film implicating Dad [the house detective at Dowling’s bungalow court, played by Wright] as the murderer” — but as it stands, as the only film produced from a story Chandler wrote especially for the screen, The Blue Dahlia is a disappointment, a good film that could oh so easily have been great.

Charles, it must be noted, doesn’t care much for my parlor game of recasting the classic movies, either fantasizing what they might have been like with some of the actual casting suggestions at the time (i.e., The Wizard of Oz with Shirley Temple and W. C. Fields; Gone with the Wind with Tallulah Bankhead and Ronald Colman; or Sunset Boulevard with Montgomery Clift in the William Holden role) or making up cast replacements from the actors who conceivably could have played those roles at the time the films were made (i.e., Barbara Stanwyck replacing Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon; or Judy Garland replacing Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain). He commented, “Of course you can imagine any film being better if it had been cast with absolutely the best talent available at the time!,” and went on to prove his point by starting in to fantasize an alternate cast that could have improved Plan Nine from Outer Space — we eventually came up with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in the Gregory Walcott and Mona McKinnon roles (one can readily imagine Hepburn’s quavery intonations in the line, “Saucer? You mean, the kind from — up there?”), Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as the aliens who launch the dreaded “Plan Nine,” Marlon Brando as their superior “Controller,” Boris Karloff (“that limey cocksucker!”) filling in Bela Lugosi’s role, Lucille Ball (with red hair — we upped the budget to include Technicolor) in the Vampira character, Jackie Gleason as Tor Johnson, James Dean and Sal Mineo as the two policemen and Orson Welles as Criswell.

“Of course,” I pointed out to Charles, “if they remade Plan Nine today, Arnold Schwarzenegger would play the Tor Johnson role, James Cameron would direct, they’d spend $40 million on the special effects and the story would still be stupid.” “Yeah,” Charles replied, “but the people who went to see it would go, ‘Wow, what great special effects!’ and wouldn’t care that the story was stupid!” — 11/17/95


On Friday night I got to see The Blue Dahlia, the 1946 Paramount production that was the one original script by Raymond Chandler that was actually produced as a film. (He wrote another, Playback, for Universal in 1947 but it was not made — and, with his career in the doldrums after the death of his wife in 1954, Chandler reworked it as his last completed novel in 1958.) The movie remains a quite good film noir that could have been a good deal better; Paramount planned it as a vehicle for their star team of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (who had previously co-starred in This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key, the latter based on a novel by Chandler’s principal role model as a writer, Dashiell Hammett), which makes it rather churlish to think of what this movie could have been with the more powerful noir actors who were under contract to other studios at the time — Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum or Dick Powell. I remember on one go-round with The Blue Dahlia thinking what a fine movie this could have been with Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the Ladd and Lake parts — not that Alan Ladd is bad, actually; he’s certainly “right” for the part and yet the kind of riveting alienation Bogart could have brought to it is sadly missed (even though Bogart in 1946 would have been about 20 years too old for the part of a returning servicemember who had just got out of the Navy following World War II).

The Blue Dahlia was produced by former Orson Welles associate and future The Paper Chase star John Houseman, whose idea it was to have Chandler write a screen original (Chandler had made a great movie debut as co-writer for Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, an adaptation of a novel by Chandler’s Black Mask colleague James M. Cain, but his later assignments had been tearjerkers like There’s Always Tomorrow for which he was singularly ill-suited) and drench it in the Los Angeles noir underworld that had always provided him the best background for his fiction. But either Houseman or the “suits” at Paramount made a singularly inept choice for a director: George Marshall, who was best known as a comedy director (he was Paramount’s go-to guy for Bob Hope vehicles at the time). The film was also hurt by a badly compromised ending insisted on by the U.S. Navy.

The plot features three returning servicemembers, Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd), Buzz Wanchik (William Bendix) and George Copeland (Hugh Beaumont), who settle in the L.A. area after the war. Morrison lived there before in a suite of bungalows called the “Cavendish Arms” with his wife Helen (Doris Dowling, in a movie-stealing performance that regrettably ends when her character is killed one-fourth of the way through), but when he goes home he finds a wild party in full swing. Helen has been so licentious while her husband was away at war that most of her guests are startled as all hell to find out she has a husband; during the war she had written Johnny and told him their son Dickie had died of diphtheria, but the boy really was killed when his mom had a drunken accident in her car with him in it, and she’s so cruel that she actually welcomed the death of her son because having the boy had kept her from a full-tilt ride on the wild side with her friends — including her main squeeze, Eddie Harwood (Howard da Silva, playing farther up the social scale than usual but still doing subtle malevolence quite well), owner of the Blue Dahlia nightclub on the Sunset Strip. The club gives out blue dahlias as a trademark — dahlias aren’t normally blue but the club’s minions dye them that color — and Helen’s living room features a pot of them, prominently displayed.

Part of the problem with The Blue Dahlia is the sheer number of coincidences Chandler relied on in structuring his plot — Helen picks up Buzz at a bar and brings him home with her without having any idea that he’s a friend of her husband’s; and Johnny, on the run as the prime suspect after his wife is found murdered, meets and takes up with Joyce Harwood (Veronica Lake), estranged wife of his murdered wife’s boyfriend. Anyway, Helen is found, murdered, by the cleaning lady who comes in in the morning — and whose first intimation that something is wrong is the radio blaring an inane morning program (it’s the most creative scene in an otherwise surprisingly flatly directed film) — and the police assign the case to two sour-looking detectives who are convinced the husband is the killer, just as Johnny is convinced that Harwood is the killer — especially after he finds a note from his wife on the back of a photo of himself stating that Harwood is really the wanted criminal Eddie Bauer, still sought in New Jersey on a murder rap.

Chandler’s original choice for the killer is Buzz, who along with Helen Morrison is easily the most fascinating member of the dramatis personae; the script establishes that he suffered a severe brain injury during combat and was fitted with a metal plate in his skull, which renders him susceptible to serious blackouts and also makes him aurally allergic to swing, which he calls “monkey music” and reacts to so violently that when it’s playing in a bar he and his service buddies are in, he unplugs the jukebox and then rips the jack off the end of the cord. Chandler had the idea that Buzz would suffer a mental episode in Helen’s apartment and kill her with the gun Johnny had left there in a previous scene — and then the U.S. Navy got wind of the proposed scene and told the Paramount executives that if they sent out a movie in which the murderer was a brain-damaged servicemember rendered mentally ill by a combat injury, they would never again cooperate with any Paramount production. So Chandler was forced to write an alternate ending in which the killer turns out to be “Dad” Newell (played by the marvelously homely character actor Wil Wright), the Cavendish Arms’ house detective, and though Chandler gave him a nicely turned confession speech at the end his motive remains something of a mystery.

The ending, and Marshall’s almost total avoidance of the visual atmospherics usually indulged in by noir directors, weaken this movie but can’t eliminate its appeal altogether, and The Blue Dahlia is a good film for what it is but there’s also the unpleasant aura of what-might-have-been about it. Incidentally, the year after this film was made model and aspiring actress Elizabeth Short was killed in L.A. in a crime that is still unsolved — and she was called “The Black Dahlia” by a reporter that got his signals crossed and paralleled her demise to the events of The Blue Dahlia, which was playing at a theatre a block away from where she was found. The name stuck, and The Black Dahlia has been the subject of several books, including a novel by James Ellroy that has itself been filmed. — 2/22/10