Wednesday, August 10, 2016

OVP: The Blue Dahlia (1946)

Film: The Blue Dahlia (1946)
Stars: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix, Howard da Silva, Doris Dowling
Director: George Marshall
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Original Screenplay)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

There's no genre in probably all of filmdom that I love more than film noir.  I have a penchant for "women who lie to themselves," romantic epics, and cerebral dramas, but at the end of the day you put me in front of a detective film with a jaded lead and a beautiful but dangerous woman in his romantic sights and I'm truly set.  This is why I picked The Blue Dahlia off of my DVR (again-trying to clean that thing out a bit over the next month), hoping that some interactions with the likes of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake would be a great start to the week.  Unfortunately, the film doesn't have enough of a vested interest in its supporting cast and can't hold together its mystique (likely due to some famed offscreen issues with writer Raymond Chandler) to really graduate to a classic film noir.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film follows Johnny Morrison (Ladd), a discharged US Naval officer who is coming home to see his wife Helen (Dowling), only to find that she's clearly having an affair and throwing a gigantic party and killed their son in a drunk driving accident (it's a lot to take in in the first ten minutes of the movie).  Johnny threatens to kill his wife, but doesn't, and leaves, eventually meeting a woman on the street named Joyce (Lake), while Helen manages to get into all sorts of mischief, eventually blackmailing her lover and going home (unknowingly) with one of her husband's best friends.  Helen is found killed, and naturally Johnny is suspected, but while on the run-from-the-law he pursues the truth and eventually discovers the real killer.

It's the stuff of classic detective boilerplate, and with a writer like Chandler one should assume that it'd be better than it is, but the film lacks a few key elements that make for a truly interesting film noir.  For starters, the side characters, and really all of the characters, aren't that interesting.  Casting Ladd as the main character makes sense, but the rest of the cast isn't distinctive enough, and in particular the women don't stand out enough in the cast.  Chandler purportedly hated the film's leading lady, nicknaming her Moronica Lake, and while she was famously difficult to work with, he didn't give her a lot to do in the role other than occasionally seem mysterious and pretty.  It's hard not to think that a better actress like Rita Hayworth or Gene Tierney might have been able to find something stronger in the part, but Joyce is underwritten, and Helen is a bit of a cartoonish harpy-overall, his treatment of women isn't strong, and his work with men is hardly distinctive, not drawing the characters diversely enough, save for William Bendix' drunk-and-frightened Buzz, the highlight of the picture.

The ending also doesn't work.  Purportedly this was the studio's fault, as Chandler initially meant for Buzz, while in a blackout, to be the killer, and this made the most sense as it was disturbing and played into a number of the red herrings (as Buzz was arguably the only character who had no legitimate reason to want Helen dead), but the producers didn't want a naval officer to be portrayed as the killer so Chandler changed the ending and as a result sacrificed what was working in the film (the natural weirdness of a mystery where the killer was the only person who didn't want the victim dead).  By doing this, they might have appeased audiences but they hurt the film overall, and as a result it's a pretty lousy detective film.  There's moments to enjoy (I liked Lake's chemistry with Ladd better here than I did her films with Fredric March and Joel McCrea, and I get why they were paired together quite often), but overall this is pretty disappointing.

Those are my thoughts on this detective film.  It's relatively well-reviewed, so I'm likely in the minority here-anyone want to come to the picture's rescue?  Is it weird that this film essentially is remembered now for its connection to the entirely unrelated Black Dahlia murder?  If you haven't seen it, weigh in on your thoughts on Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, and Raymond Chandler in the comments!

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