Out of the Blue and into the Black

The Blue Dahlia: written by Raymond Chandler; directed by George Marshall; starring Alan Ladd (Johnny Morrison), Veronica Lake (Joyce Harwood), William Bendix (Buzz), Howard Da Silva (Eddie Harwood), Doris Dowling (Helen Morrison), and Hugh Beaumont (George) (1946): A rare case of hardboiled detective great Raymond Chandler writing a new story expressly for the screen, The Blue Dahlia also shares a history with one of the most infamous Hollywood murder cases of all time.

Eight months after the film’s release, the mutilated body of an aspiring actress named Elizabeth Short was discovered. Her nickname was ‘the Black Dahlia,’ and forever after the movie and the still-unsolved case would be mentioned whenever the other was mentioned.

The movie involves the efforts of now-retired bomber pilot Alan Ladd’s Johnny Morrison, just home from the Pacific theatre,  to discover the identity of his wife’s murderer. And he’d better. He’s on the run from the “coppers” because he’s the prime suspect.

Ladd looks and acts polished and sharp throughout, though his character can also be stubborn and hot-headed at times. Given that he’s returned home to find an unfaithful wife and a son killed as a result of her drunk driving, and within 12 hours she’s been murdered…well, that can wear on a man. Especially when he flew 112 successful bombing missions. Screw those lightweights and their 50-mission caps.

The narrative twists and turns, to the extent that even though I’d seen the movie twenty years ago, I couldn’t remember who the killer was. Veronica Lake is beautiful and cool, as is Ladd, and William Bendix is believable as a wounded, shell-shocked comrade of Morrison’s who really hates big-band music and flowers. Apparently, Veterans’ Affairs wasn’t any better after WWII at looking after the wounded than it is now.

Some casual gunplay in somewhat unlikely locations will probably raise a laugh or two, as may Morrison’s amazingly hard head. He’s the Bruce Campbell of 1946. The direction is workmanlike, the script sparkling with tough/sentimental dialogue and weird little bits, including a scene involving a hood with a broken leg that seems like the Ur-Moment for all those scenes of talkative criminals in Quentin Tarantino movies. Recommended.

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