After a spate of low-grade noir recently, one of my readers issued the prescription of watching some good Alan Ladd film noir as soon as possible. Luckily I had a movie to fit the bill, The Blue Dahlia (1946), already and waiting in my tivo.
The Blue Dahlia is the story of a returning war hero, Johnny Morrison, who is greeted upon his return with the news that she's leaving him for another man, and that their son who died while he was away, was killed in a drunk driving accident and not from diphtheria which she'd let on her letters. Not exactly the home-coming any GI would want. It gets worse, after the understandable fight that ensues after hearing these two whoopers back to back, the fellow storms out, meets a beautiful, enchanting woman Joyce Harwood, (Veronica Lake) and spends the night with her (in separate bedrooms of course, this was 1946 people) in a hotel. Ladd learns that his wife has been murdered while he is checking out of the hotel. He nonchalantly goes about his business as the news of her death is played on the radio. He realizes that he is the chief suspect and his actions (fleeing the apartment in a rage, meeting a beautiful woman who is heavily connected to the case and leaving town with her) look mighty incriminating. It turns out Joyce Harwood is married to Eddie Harwood, the slimy owner of the club, the Blue Dahlia, and the man for whom Johnny's wife is leaving him. All these facts play across the couple's face plus a hundred emotions at once. If ever there were a single scene that sumed up power of showing versus telling in a movie, it's that one.
This is a masterfully told detective story. Director, George Marshall (Destry Rides Again), gives you just enough detail to keep you following along, but not so much that the solution is ever obvious. There are several skillfully placed red herrings that will trip up even the most die-hard detective story nut. The supporting cast is superb, especially William Bendix as Ladd's war buddy. But the real joy of watching The Blue Dahlia is watching Veronica Lake. The movie never drags when she's off-screen, but when she's on screen it comes to life. The quality of a film noir is directly bound up with the quality of its femme fatale. A good one will make the movie. A bad one (and I mean in acting ability and appeal, not morally bad) will ruin everything. See my review of The Lady in the Lake for further proof if required. Lake and Ladd have incandescent chemistry together. I hadn't realized it before watching one of their films, but they really are one of the great screen pairings. This was their third noir film together and you can see the benefit of the earlier two films in their first scenes in the car. There is a perfection of timing that actors who work well together have after two or three pictures that's always a joy to watch. Sometimes the later outings, though not as original as those that made them famous, can actually be more enjoyable for fans because of this perfection. Of course I haven't seen the Glass Key or This Gun for Hire yet.
The Blue Dahlia does suffer from one of my most frequent complaints about noir and that is the irrational behavior of its characters. Ladd's wife is a horrible spiteful person, and we come to understand why she would act that way out of guilt over her son's death. What is truly puzzling is why her lover would cheat on Veronica Lake with her. Even more baffling is that he almost leaves her over the affair. And then of course, one wonders what Veronica Lake is doing with sleazy Eddie in the first place.
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