Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Blue Dahlia (1946)

The Blue Dahlia is another film noir where every detail counts. Add in the fact that Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay, and the details seem to count even more. Chandler has been accused of writing incomprehensible plots in his Philip Marlowe novels. I disagree with this assessment: His plots aren’t incomprehensible; readers of his books and viewers of this film just have to follow the details like any good detective follows the clues, and the screenplay for The Blue Dahlia is no exception. Of course, it helps to see the film more than once, which is a lot easier to do today with current technology.

You can see The Blue Dahlia at the Internet Archive (click here). A version dubbed in Spanish and with English subtitles is apparently in the public domain.

The Blue Dahlia was the third film noir collaboration for Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (they made a fourth film, an adventure film called Saigon). Two of the Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake films noir were released in 1942 and one in 1946:

This Gun for Hire (May 13, 1942)—Click here for my blog post about this film.

The Glass Key (October 14, 1942)—Click here for my first post about this film. I wrote about the film a second time for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s 2020 Fall Blogathon: Politics on Film.

The Blue Dahlia (April 19, 1946)

The Ladd/Lake chemistry was supposedly a big draw, but they don’t actually spend a lot of time together onscreen for The Blue Dahlia. Joyce Harwood (Veronica Lake’s character) makes her first appearance about a half hour into the film. Viewers see her photo during the first half hour because her husband Eddie Harwood keeps one and refers to it. Lake and Ladd certainly had star power and box office draw by this time, however, and the film was a success when it was released in 1946.

The story starts with Johnny Morrison, George Copeland, and Buzz Wanchek, who are back home in the United States from World War II service in the navy. Buzz suggests a drink to say goodbye, and they head to the nearest bar. Buzz gets into a verbal altercation with another soldier in uniform over the music he is playing on the jukebox. Buzz was severely injured during the war; he says that he has a plate in his head. Later in the film, viewers learn that Buzz also suffers from memory problems. Music seems to trigger his PTSD episodes.

Johnny Morrison was a lieutenant commander in the navy. He flew successful missions in the South Pacific and has a hero’s reputation. After his drink with his wartime buddies, he goes home to the Cavendish Court Hotel and Bungalows to find his wife Helen partying and dating someone else: Eddie Harwood. Johnny sees Eddie kissing his wife goodbye, and lands a punch before Eddie leaves, much to the displeasure of Helen. She isn’t impressed with a hero who cannot control his violent impulses and makes this clear to Johnny.

(This blog post about The Blue Dahlia contains spoilers.)

Helen told Johnny in a letter during the war that their son Dickie died of diphtheria, but he really died in a car crash when Helen was drinking and driving. Johnny and Helen argue when she reveals the true circumstances of his death. The war hero is not above getting physical with his wife, and it draws the notice of Dad Newell, the house detective for Cavendish Court. He tells Johnny that he should draw the blinds if he plans on pushing his wife around. (This is 1946 and film noir: Newell doesn’t tell Johnny to stop menacing his wife.) Johnny decides to leave Helen, but before he does, he approaches her with his service revolver. She shrinks from him, and he says, “That’s what I oughtta do. But you’re not worth it.” Then he throws the revolver onto an upholstered chair and leaves it behind.

Helen calls Buzz and George. She tells Buzz that Johnny walked out on her. This upsets Buzz, although he has never met her before, and he pays Helen a visit. While waiting for her in the bar (apparently an amenity for residents of the Cavendish Court), he meets her and flirts with her, but he doesn’t know yet who she is. She invites him to her bungalow, and the next time viewers see Buzz, he has wandered back to the apartment that he now shares with George. He cannot account for his whereabouts thanks to a memory lapse and the confusion caused by his wartime head injury.

Helen calls Eddie Harwood, distraught that Johnny has left her. She threatens Eddie with blackmail when he tells her that he wants to break it off. He made this decision after Johnny punches him, but the following conversation with Leo makes him more convinced of his decision:

Leo: “You, uh, you ever know a guy named Quinlan?”

Eddie Harwood: “Never heard of him.”

Leo: “Did a stretch somewhere back east. Not interested, huh?”

Eddie Harwood: “Don’t get cute with me, Leo.”

Leo: “Nothing cute about it. I heard this Quinlan spoke to you in the parking lot the other night. When you were with Mrs. Morrison. Called you by some other name.”

Eddie Harwood: “Did he?”

Leo: “Not if you say he didn’t. But it doesn’t matter now, anyway. Quinlan was bumped off a few nights ago over on East 5th.”

Eddie Harwood: “What makes you think I’d be interested?”

Leo: “Just don’t get too complicated, Eddie. When a man gets too complicated, he’s unhappy. And when he’s unhappy, his luck runs out.”

This conversation is antithetical to noir in general. Leo seems to imply that Eddie Harwood can control his life and that fate plays no role whatsoever: If Harwood can keep his life simple, he can avoid complications. Harwood is willing to cut ties with Helen. He knows that her husband is back and has already been on the receiving end of a punch because of it. In spite of his reservations, however, Harwood agrees to see Helen Morrison. And, of course, Leo is wrong in the end.

Helen is murdered on the same night that Johnny is back for the first time after his stint in the war. He and Harwood are seen with Helen that night by many witnesses, and Buzz drops by to talk to her after her split with Johnny. Thus, there are plenty of suspects in the subsequent murder investigation:

Eddie Harwood: Newell, the house detective, sees Eddie Harwood enter and leave Helen Morrison’s bungalow. Harwood’s motive would be Helen’s attempt to blackmail him (viewers learn the details of her threat later in the film).

Buzz Wanchek: Buzz cannot account for his whereabouts around the time of Helen’s murder.

Johnny Morrison: Johnny argued with his wife over the death of their son and her drinking. Their disagreement was ugly enough, and Newell happens to see Johnny’s more violent side.

By the time that Johnny meets Joyce, his wife Helen is already dead. He learns of her death and the fact that he is a suspect later because of a radio news story. Joyce Harwood’s first appearance is the same night that Helen is murdered, when she offers Johnny a ride in the rain. She plays an odd game with him: After seeing the initials J. M. on his suitcase, she guesses his name to be Jimmy Morse. Even odder is the fact that she never mentions her name, and Johnny has no idea that she is married to Eddie Harwood.

According to Wikipedia, the murderer in Chandler’s original screenplay was Buzz: “Originally, Chandler intended the killer to be Buzz having a blackout. However, the Navy did not want a serviceman to be portrayed as a murderer, and Paramount told Chandler that he had to come up with a new ending.” I found this bit of information intriguing, as was my discovery that the film’s screenplay had been published as a book. Chandler is one of my favorite detective/pulp novel writers. Reading the screenplay might reveal how much the original screenplay matched the released version of the film. And maybe I would learn something about the enigmatic conversations between Johnny Morrison and Joyce Harwood because their attraction to one another was one of the mysteries of the film for me. What did they see in one another?

I wondered a bit about the title, too. The Blue Dahlia is the name of Eddie Harwood’s nightclub. He’s not such a minor character: He is Helen Morrison’s boyfriend while her husband serves in the South Pacific during World War II, and he is one of the suspects in her murder. Harwood doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time, and none of the characters, including Harwood, spend much time in his nightclub. But he uses blue dahlias as his calling cards, and they provide some clues during the investigation, so the title works on more than one level, even if the clues don’t have a direct connection to the identity of Helen Morrison’s killer.

The Blue Dahlia is one of those films that reveals more and more with each viewing. I’m not sure that Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake have much chemistry in their respective roles. Ladd’s not playing the role of homme fatale, and Lake’s not the femme fatale. No one plays either part in this film noir. But the details of the murder mystery keep everyone guessing, and some details can be easily overlooked with just one viewing. We are lucky to have the technology today that allows films, including The Blue Dahlia, to be seen again and again.

April 19, 1946, release date    Directed by George Marshall    Screenplay by Raymond Chandler    Music by Victor Young    Edited by Arthur P. Schmidt    Cinematography by Lionel Lindon

Alan Ladd as Johnny Morrison    Veronica Lake as Joyce Harwood    William Bendix as Buzz Wanchek    Howard Da Silva as Eddie Harwood    Doris Dowling as Helen Morrison    Hugh Beaumont as George Copeland    Tom Powers as Captain Hendrickson    Charles Anthony Hughes as Lieutenant Lloyd    Howard Freeman as Corelli    Frank Faylen as the sting operator    Don Costello as Leo    Will Wright as “Dad” Newell

Distributed by Paramount Pictures    Produced by Paramount Pictures