January 28, 2019
Raymond Chandler’s only original screenplay serves as the vehicle for one of the four times Alan Ladd paired on screen with Veronica Lake, this time in a murder mystery set against the backdrop of a postwar Los Angeles housing shortage.
Stars Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix, Howard da Silva.
Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake co-starring in Raymond Chandler’s only original screenplay sounds well nigh irresistible on paper, and 1946’s The Blue Dahlia mostly satisfies the concept’s potential as well as intriguing additional considerations that go tangentially beyond sleuthing the murderer of boozy Mrs. Ladd (Doris Dowling). These last include portrayals of the postwar L.A. housing shortage — which is why the future Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont) has to shack up with William Bendix here — and also the as yet un-termed PTSD, which is more serious in the latter’s case because he’s also wearing a metal plate in his head, which makes him susceptible to mentally incapacitating migraines.
As the leader of these three vets who all served together, Ladd comes home to discover that Dowling has spent their wartime marriage pouring booze and quite likely sexual favors as well during constant partying in their courtyard apartment while her husband was away being a busy Navy flier. Before long, someone bumps Dowling off, and we sense pretty soon that it may not have been her nightclub proprietor/adulterous squeeze (Howard da Silva) — a not unagreeable type with an understandable sad-sack dimension because he’s squandered the affections of his own wife (Lake — who at this point still had the allure that drove real-life servicemen wild and doesn’t do a bad job of it today). As a result, and as the two leads commence some detecting work in an attempt to exonerate eventual suspect Ladd, it’s a toss-up as to whether they’ll get together romantically. More than not, this is a movie about men, though Dowling does really give it her all in limited screen time.
Of all people, the director here is George Marshall, whose career spanned about 55 years of non-stop work without too many permanent wave-makers to show for it. For posterity’s sake, you do have to give him Destry Rides Again and also the insane cult-heavy farce Murder, He Says — atop, for pure entertainment, not infrequently pleasing vehicles starring the likes of Bob Hope, Glenn Ford and Debbie Reynolds. Plus, lest we forget, the singular Red Garters for your LSD trips. Even so, finding style points in his work over more than a half-century is at least as tough as finding Doris Dowling’s murderer — nor is Marshall’s the face you’d see if you looked up “hard-boiled” in a slang dictionary. At one point, Dahlia Blu-ray commentator Alan Rode (paired with filmmaker Steve Mitchell) concedes that perhaps Marshall didn’t get every last ounce out of this project that a more stylish director might have.
Even so, this is a good time at the movies, and whenever I’d program UCLA’s 35mm print of Dahlia at the AFI Theater many lifetimes ago, we always got good (also enthusiastic) houses. Bendix, Dowling, da Silva and (as da Silva’s crooked partner) Don Costello are all exceptional here, Ladd-Lake chemistry is again palpable, and as the sleazy house detective who snoops on everyone at Dowling’s apartment, the instantly recognizable character actor Will Wright may have had the best role of his career. The picture also has a Paramount luster that always made it my favorite studio when growing up — something very dispiriting to think about when you read the recent New York Times article chronicling the studio’s train-wreck fortunes over, by this time, many years. This said, it looks to me as if — in a cursory run through it — that the Arrow Region ‘B’ edition of Dahlia has a bit more visual snap.
But it doesn’t have Michael Curtiz’s recent biographer Rode, who (with good-foil Mitchell) is personable and in all ways compassionate talking about the personal problems of the two leads — dominated in both situations by alcoholism but, in Ladd’s case, further exacerbated by the added insecurity over his short physical stature that sparked a lot of cruelly stupid jokes. The commentary is also on target enough to note that actor Costello sports a broken toe (which, when it’s pointed out, we can see) after a late-movie fight scene that went awry. Matters obviously weren’t breaking Costello’s way because shortly thereafter, he accidentally killed himself with a pill overdose amid sleeping problems; Dahlia was his last film.
Having worn his miner’s cap into the studio files, Rode also casts a lot of doubt on producer John Houseman’s have-to-be spurious assertions about certain aspects of the shooting that were part of his biographical writings. For his part, co-commentator Mitchell wonders if Chandler’s script was originally intended to veer in another direction, given that Bendix’s character does seem to change marginally late in the game, which further clutters what is both the movie’s penultimate and worst scene (aside from a delicious “Columbo”-like capper at its very conclusion). It’s an Agatha Christie knock-off where all the suspects are gathered in one room and, of all things, we get a target-shooting exhibition right in the police precinct (uh, huh). The movie’s finale, though, is kind of cute, almost anticipating the wrap to Rio Bravo.
Thanks to Shout Select (which has just put out the Ladd-Lake-Bendix The Glass Key), Kino Classics and France’s Elephant Films, a whole bunch of Universal-owned Paramounts are finally hitting Blu-ray near-simultaneously — all from the old MCA package that first sold to TV in the late 1950s and remains the single greatest TV movie package ever. Rode notes that the final of four Ladd-Lake teamings remains very obscure (and going from its rep and my own memory, not very good). But with a title like Saigon, maybe even it will eventually show up in high-def; you can’t say its title lacks a promotional hook.