You know what I want to say in this article? This:
Alan Ladd is breathtakingly beautiful in this movie, and you should watch it just to spend 96 minutes basking in his glory. There. That’s all you need to know.
Unfortunately, that’s not a very long article, so I guess I’m going to have to elaborate on that a little.
Raymond Chandler wrote the story and the screenplay for The Blue Dahlia. He is my favorite author, and having his wittily acerbic words come out of Alan Ladd’s mouth is about as perfect as it gets, at least for me. Chandler wrote several other screenplays adapting other people’s work, including another one Ladd starred in, And Now Tomorrow, and the film noir classic Double Indemnity, which he co-wrote with Billy Wilder. But this is the only film Chandler wrote an original screenplay for. Which I think is a terrible shame, because it’s terrific. But Chandler felt upset with how Hollywood forced him to change the story, and that soured him on writing original screenplays.
Originally, Chandler wrote the story as a psychological thriller about three American servicemen coming home from World War II and dealing with how it’s changed them and their lives forever. And a lot of that still comes through. Johnny (Alan Ladd), Buzz (William Bendix), and George (Hugh Beaumont) are wartime buddies who arrive in Los Angeles together, fresh out of uniform and ready to taste the sweetness of civilian life. George and Buzz get an apartment together because George feels he should look after Buzz, who has a wartime head injury that causes him to have mood swings, memory lapses, and violent episodes. Johnny wishes he could stay with them too, but he’s got a wife (Doris Dowling) he doesn’t know well, the implication being theirs was yet another quickie wartime wedding. Johnny needs to go home to her.
It turns out Johnny’s wife is an unfaithful alcoholic. Disgusted with her behavior and in a rage when she reveals their young son’s death was her fault, not the result of an illness, Johnny threatens to shoot her. But he decides she’s not worth the bullet and leaves. Naturally, she turns up dead the next morning, shot with his gun he left behind. Naturally, Johnny is a suspect, along with his wife’s boyfriend (Howard da Silva), who owns the Blue Dahlia nightclub. The bulk of the film follows Johnny and the police as they separately try to solve his wife’s murder.
Raymond Chandler originally ended the screenplay with Buzz having executed Johnny’s wife because she tried to seduce him. He realized what she was, and he snapped. And then had no memory of it. But the studio was afraid the War Office would crack down on them if they released a film where a returning war hero was the villain, so they made Chandler rewrite the ending with a different killer. So what could have been a deeply fascinating look at the mental and emotional damage done during war turns into a more pedestrian whodunnit.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s still a fantastic movie. It still shows that soldiers can come home wounded in more ways than one, and that some wartime injuries will affect people for the rest of their lives. Johnny hasn’t fully dealt with his war experiences, as he’s prone to resorting to violence first instead of last to solve problems, expects people to obey him, and he sorts everyone he meets into either being a friend or an enemy.
Some actors might turn that kind of character fairly creepy, but Ladd’s sweet face and shy smile make Johnny so appealing that audiences are willing to get to know him before they judge him. Gradually, we see how the fresh hurt he’s suffered by his wife’s betrayals has him thinking no one in the world is worth trusting. And nothing in the world is worth living for, at least for a while. Then he meets a sweet young woman (Veronica Lake) and his outlook takes a turn for the more hopeful.
It’s no secret that I’m a devoted fan of Alan Ladd. About four years ago, I watched two of his westerns back-to-back and fell harder and faster for an actor than I ever had before. As I devoured movie after movie of his, my affection for him deepened. Into obsession? In a way, yes, since I will watch almost anything if Ladd is in it, even movies I would otherwise not like.
There’s something about his nice face coupled with his ability to project menace with a few clipped words that suits Ladd to film noir just perfectly, and it’s no wonder that a handful of his noir pictures, including this one, are classics of the genre. You can’t help but want him to be okay, no matter how dirty the situation he’s facing. Even though audiences can suspect for a while that maybe Johnny went back to the bungalow and killed Helen himself, they’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt long enough to find out who really did murder her.
Even if you’re not a Ladd fan, The Blue Dahlia is a gem you don’t want to miss.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s western fairy tale retelling novels are now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com