The Blue Dahlia has a strong reputation as a prime example of Film Noir. While it is true that the themes are strong and the story suitably cruel, it has dated. Compared with The Third Man just three years later, there is little of the smooth sophistication that would come to be associated with the genre.
And that is precisely why it shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s a routine, almost mundane studio release in many respects, batting above its weight with a tough, witty Raymond Chandler screenplay, bitter characters and an excellent cast. The unremarkable, even clumsy direction and editing, if anything accentuate the rough, dirty atmosphere.
The story follows Alan Ladd as discharged navy officer Johnny Morrison returns home to Hollywood. His wife, waspish Helen (Doris Dowling), is having an affair with the owner of the Blue Dahlia nightclub and so Johnny is prime suspect when she is discovered murdered. Somewhat shoehorned into the narrative, but bringing a spark to every scene she is in, Veronica Lake plays the mysterious Joyce who is drawn into helping Johnny.
Lake also brings a needed spark to her scenes with Ladd who plays a thin line between stoic and laconic. While often parodied, it is to a purpose, even if it is an acting style of its time. In many ways, the unflappable calm hero of course became a staple of Western and Noir, the two genres converging in modern examples like The Driver with Ryan O’Neal, or the still further distilled version with Ryan Gosling in Drive.
To those modern genre twists that owe a debt of thanks to Blue Dahlia we might even add the superb L.A. Confidential. It shares a song and locale; and a brazen plot device even specifically allows Kim Basinger to play a Veronica Lake look-alike.
So why does The Blue Dahlia endure so? Like all the best Film Noir, it’s as much about what you can’t see as what you can. Peel back the convoluted layers and you find Chandler-fueled sexual and political sub-texts. Even the raw premise has a dash of cynicism; returning soldiers emasculated and treated like criminals, while their wives have affairs with the real villains, who hide murky pasts by running glamourous businesses. The underlying pent-up frustration of the narrative is embodied no more perfectly than by the brilliant William Bendix as Buzz, one of Ladd’s army pals. Thanks to an injury leaving a steel plate in his head, he is unpredictable, dangerous, yet endearing and perversely entertaining. Between Bendix’s antics and Lake’s natural luminosity, clean-cut and seemingly dull Ladd is exceptional for holding our attention with so little. Like Dana Andrews, it’s as if he is pretending that Noir doesn’t stretch him. The proof is in the result though and attention rarely wanders.
For most of it’s run-time, The Blue Dahlia stutters and seems old even before its time. It has its moments though with several scenes of understated power that surprises. Outside of the largely studio driven genre that would become known as Film Noir, cinema was rebuilding the skills so defined by the end of the silent era. But what George Marshall’s film seemingly lacks in visual integrity, it makes up for with a revolutionary screenplay that enjoys showing off its dark heart.
The 4:3 mono transfer is suitably rough and inconsistent. Signs of age have not been entirely cleared up, but strangely, it suits this dirty, little gem of a film. Contrast and sharpness is excellent throughout.
This is another exceptional release from Arrow all round and presents a difficult film at its best.
Selected Scene Commentary by author Frank Krutnik: It’s unusual to not have a feature-length commentary, but Frank is insightful and the more focused approach suits the inconsistent film, which he also introduces.
1949 Radio Dramatization: Starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, this is a curious treat. Radio play versions were common at the time, so these re-releases really capture the atmosphere.
Trailer and Still Gallery
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