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Blue Dahlia, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Raymond Chandler is still pretty good, even without Marlowe."
4 stars

There are a lot of names that can lead a person to check out "The Blue Dahlia": while it was recently screened at the Brattle as part of a tribute to Alan Ladd, it's also a highlight for Veronica Lake and character actor William Bendix. Oh, and it's written by Raymond Chandler. That may not quite be a dream team, but director George Marshall certainly gets an enjoyable film noir out of it.

Johnny Morrison (Ladd), Buzz Wanchek (Bendix), and George Copeland (Hugh Beaumont) are returning home to Los Angeles from the war in the Pacific, honorably discharged; while George and the addled Buzz are looking for an apartment, Johnny aims to reunite with his wife Helen (Doris Dowling). Maybe he shouldn't have surprised her; he finds a party in full swing, with the guests including apparent lover Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva). He stomps out and starts hitchhiking to nowhere, coincidentally picked up by Eddie's spurned wife Joyce (Lake). The stink Johnny kicked up on the way out looks awful bad when Helen is found dead the next morning.

Writer Raymond Chandler is best known for his Philip Marlowe stories, most famously adapted to film with Humphrey Bogart playing the detective in The Big Sleep. That story is famously convoluted, and Chandler's plot for this movie is similar to it and his other novels, with sudden zigzags somehow adding up to a mystery story that may not quite be the fair-play puzzle of an Agatha Christie, but which reaches an end all the more satisfying because we like the put-upon hero. Johnny Morrison isn't really the Marlowe type, which is sort of a pity - there are few greater joys than reading the words Chandler puts in Marlowe's mouth - but there's honor to him, and even if the patter isn't as snappy as in Chandler's most famous works, there are still some great exchanges between the characters, Johnny and Joyce especially.

Ladd & Lake do their best work in some of their first scenes together, pondering the idea of becoming different people and unknowingly finding kindred spirits. They're a good-looking pair, well-able to get across the fact that, while Helen and Eddie have hurt them, some part of each recognized that their marriages were built on sand. Lake plays the cool one, while Ladd has a bit more fire to him, even when focused on finding his wife's killer.

They're good, but the supporting cast is what really makes the movie sing. Howard Da Silva's Eddie is in with gangsters, and we know that from his second scene, but he's surprisingly charming in a way that's not false or seemingly purposeful from his first. There's a similar charm to Will Wright as "Dad" Newell, a blackmailing hotel detective who is the sort of fun "extra" character that makes Chandler's convolutions worth it. William Bendix is the opposite as Buzz, abrasive and hostile from the word go (and he probably wouldn't refer to jazz as "monkey music" if the script were shot today), but the steel in his skull has left the character permanently confused, and Bendix does a fantastic job of bringing the horror of that situation forth.

It all comes together under the sure hands of George Marshall. He was a journeyman as opposed to a master, the kind of director who doesn't mess anything up but maybe doesn't quite push it into the canon of essential noir. Even without that distinction, the film still has a half-dozen things going for it, and most movies should be so fortunate.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=26006&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/03/13 19:39:29
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  19-Apr-1946 (NR)
  DVD: 10-Jun-2013

  N/A (PG)

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