Unlike The Big Sleep, which was based on a Raymond Chandler novel but written for the screen by other writers, The Blue Dahlia was written specifically for the screen by Chandler. One would have hoped the outcome would have been better than this, the weakest of the Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake film noirs (with William Bendix who also appeared in The Glass Key). Not to say the film doesn't have some redemptive qualities, which it certainly does. One such quality is the tension Chandler weaves between the characters.
The basic plot of the film is that returning veteran Lt. Col. John Morrison (Alan Ladd) returns from the South Pacific with his buddies Buzz and George (William Bendix and Hugh Beaumont). Morrison returns to a wife that doesn't like him and the ghost of their son that haunts their marriage. Helen Morrison, since Morrison's departure into the Navy, has become raging partygoer involved with a local night club owner Eddie Harwood (Howard da Silva). Eddie is estranged from his own wife who has left him because of his shady business dealings. With such tensions in the plot there are bound to be conflicts and these conflicts, as in any Chandler story, will lead to murder.
Helen Morrison is found dead on a quiet sunny morning. The night before had been stormy, reflecting the emotional storms that had been raging. Johnny returns home to find a drunken party, his wife kissing another man, and confronts the fact that his son was killed while Helen was driving home from a party. His wife had written him that "Dicky" had died from diphtheria. Eddie, after being punched by Mr. Morrison, tells Helen he wants to "call it a day". She threatens to reveal something about his past. Buzz, who learns that Johnny has run off, starts looking for him, and ends up in Helen Morrison's apartment. All three become suspects in Helen Morrison's murder.
Buzz himself is one of Chandler's most interesting characters. Shrapnel embedded above his ear makes him intolerant of certain noises, such as big band jazz. He calls it "monkey music". He is also slowwitted and suffers from memory problems, but whether this is a natural occurrence or the result of his injury is never specified.
Johnny and Joyce Harwood (Veronica Lake) meet in a fairly contrived manner, she picks him up while he's walking out of town. There is instant chemistry between the two, as she tries to guess his name and he doesn't let her know his true identity. They are both heading out of town; running away from their troubles. "Every guys's seen you before, somewhere. The trick is to find you," Johnny tells Joyce as he parts from her company. He can't stay with her because he feels obligated to his wife. It's a relationship that will further conflicts within the story.
With all the tensions that mount in the film, its resolution is rather mundane. The killer is revealed at the end of the film after Johnny has been beaten up (Alan Ladd's characters seem to do that in these films), Eddie has been killed, Johnny "proves" Buzz didn't kill his wife, and Joyce and Johnny support the others alibis. It's, again, a fairly contrived part of the story, where the police solve the murder by gathering all the suspects and allowing the real killer to reveal himself, Nero Wolfe style.
Despite the shortcomings, The Blue Dahlia is an enjoyable film. Ladd and Lake finally have parts that make great use of their chemistry on film together. Chandler's dialogue is crisp and witty. The story may not match his prose work, but it is a wonderfully tension filled story. It has been an obvious inspiration for future noir influenced writers, such as James Ellroy who has a novel entitled The Black Dahlia. The Blue Dahlia is an important part of the legacy Chandler left to those who enjoy good crime fiction, it's just not his best work.
Text (c) LCB 2000
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