The Blue Dahlia is the only film scripted solely by Raymond Chandler. IMDb lists 40 films and TV titles to which Chandler’s name has been attached but most of these are adaptations by other writers of Chandler’s novels or short stories. At other times Chandler was part of a screenwriting team. Given Chandler’s antagonistic relationship with Hollywood, his partial involvement as screenplay writer on several films is not surprising. The circumstances which led to The Blue Dahlia were unusual and perhaps depend a great deal on how the studio system in the mid 1940s worked. Chandler’s time at Paramount was coming to an end but suddenly the studio was faced with a potential disaster. Alan Ladd, the studio’s leading male action star, was due to return to military service and they needed a property for him at short notice to go directly into production. John Houseman, a producer at Paramount at that time knew Chandler and he was the only one at the studio who shared an English public school background. He used this leverage to get Chandler to agree to write an original screenplay very quickly. George Marshall a veteran director who was very efficient if not particularly creative was assigned alongside Veronica Lake and William Bendix as the other two leading players, both of whom had worked with Ladd successfully at the studio.
Chandler wrote the first part of the screenplay quickly and just as quickly Marshall shot scenes. Soon Marshall ran out of scenes and according to Al Clark’s account in Raymond Chandler in Hollywood (Proteus Books 1982), Chandler experienced a writer’s block. The only solution to the problem, bizarrely, seems to have been that Paramount agreed to Chandler’s request that he be allowed to finish the script while constantly drunk. He’d been on the wagon for a few months and believed that the alcohol boost would enable him to write again. The studio agreed. At this point they would probably have agreed to anything. They had tried to offer Chandler a big bonus to finish the film but he’d been insulted by this affront to his professionalism. He was more concerned about letting down Houseman. The script was duly finished at some risk to Chandler’s health. But what kind of script could these circumstances produce?
The Blue Dahlia would eventually be seen as a typical film noir narrative. It begins with three navy aircrew returning from the South Pacific. The suggestion is that all three have suffered some form of exhaustion and Buzz, the William Bendix character, has a large metal plate in his cranium which causes him some physical distress and in an early scene reveals that it leads him towards some erratic behaviour. Jonny Morrison (Alan Ladd) is the officer pilot in the crew and the third member is George (Hugh Beaumont), a level-headed older man who was a lawyer before his call-up. I’m not so sure about the film noir status of The Blue Dahlia. Apart from the returning service personnel angle there isn’t very much that is distinctively noir.
The plot is, of course, quite complex but is focused on Johnny’s home visit where he finds his wife Helen (Doris Dowling) now resident in a ‘managed’ bungalow park in LA. She’s throwing a party and in an intimate conversation with the owner of ‘The Blue Dahlia Club’, Eddie Harwood (Howard da Silva). All is not well in the Morrison household and Helen has some explaining to do. After a row, Johnny leaves, throwing down his automatic pistol on top of the blue dahlia flower brought by Eddie. Johnny is walking in the rain when a car pulls up and a young woman (Veronica Lake) offers him a ride. So far everything is quite conventional. The characters of the bomber crew are perhaps different as a trio but there is nothing distinctive until this meeting of the film’s two stars. Neither character knows the other’s identity yet but there is a playfulness about the dialogue in the car and in the next scene when she stops at a hotel on the coast, the dialogue becomes enigmatic but still playful and it is delivered with pauses as he tries to say goodbye:
Lake: “What’s the idea?” (he tries to sneak off when she goes into hotel lobby)
Ladd: “It’s the end of the line.”
Lake: “Is it?”
Ladd: “It has to be. It’s a long way back to Malibu.” (that’s where she had been heading when she picked him up)
Lake: “What about you?”
Ladd: “I’ll make out and if I knew how, this is where I’d say thanks – for everything.”
Lake: “I didn’t do it for thanks.”
Ladd: “I know that.” (he turns and leaves)
Lake: “Well don’t you even say good night?”
Ladd: (stopping to reply) “Goodbye – and it’s tough to say goodbye.”
Lake: (she runs up to him) “Why is it? You’ve never seen me before tonight.”
Ladd: “Every guy’s seen you before, somewhere, the trick is to find you.”
I’m something of a novice at attempting to assess the quality of dialogue, but this exchange seems to offer something different. I think it demonstrates what Chandler could bring to screenplays. For my money it shows the attraction between the two characters with Johnny wanting to continue the verbal game they have been playing, but feeling vulnerable after the row with his wife and Joyce (Veronica Lake) still up for more. As in a romance narrative, we expect that their will be obstacles but we know their relationship will develop and they should be together at the end.
The problem with the story is that while the relationship is developing, the narrative is interesting but once we are into the the last third it begins to struggle. It seems that Chandler’s ending caused problems for the US Navy who then put pressure on the studio. The ending we have now doesn’t work in terms of the ‘reveal’ of the killer of Helen Morrison. When Johnny learns he is a suspect, that will be one barrier to his immediate future with Joyce as he will be on the run or trying to clear his name. It seems that director Marshall also changed the script in the last scene. The final scene is also ironic in the way it rounds up all of the characters for the reveal, much like the ending of an Agatha Christie story. Chandler at other times seemed to want to avoid such set-ups, feeling that he was writing very different kinds of crime fiction.
One pleasing aspect of the film for me is the camerawork by Lionel Lindon. He had spent all of his career at Paramount in 1946 having finally moved up to cinematographer in the early 1940s after many years as camera crew. If the film does not display the more expressionist work seen in Double Indemnity, also at Paramount, it does at least suggest an attempt to use compositions in interesting ways. In the two stills above Lindon appears to be aiming for deep focus compositions which link characters at crucial moments. I’m not sure that the focus is as sharp as it should be but it is clear enough to work. The Blue Dahlia is clearly an ‘A’ feature, showcasing Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. I’m not completely sure about these two but Ladd certainly has a gravitas and a calm authority that works well (but he seems very jowly for a relatively young man). But his short stature is sometimes a problem. It’s OK when he is paired with Lake but confusing when he is seen with Doris Dowling who clearly has to stoop at times. The supporting players are good and Howard Da Silva especially stands out. Veronica Lake had a relatively short career blighted by alcohol but in the mid-1940s she had a significant following, largely it seems because of her hair. In this film her character resembles some of Chandler’s young women in other stories. The Big Sleep, the Chandler adaptation by Howard Hawks also came out in 1946. It would be interesting to compare Alan Ladd’s relationship with the Veronica Lake character in this film with Bogart as Marlowe dealing with General Sternwood’s daughters.
Raymond Chandler received a second Oscar nomination for his script, this time for him alone after the joint nomination with Billy Wilder for Double Indemnity. But the recognition didn’t dissuade him from leaving Hollywood and Paramount. He would return for an abortive attempt to work with Hitchcock on Strangers on a Train (1950), but that’s another story. The Blue Dahlia is available as a Blu-ray in the UK from Arrow. The disc includes a video presentation by Frank Krutnik, author of In a Lonely Street: film noir, genre, masculinity (Routledge 1991). The Paramount trailer below emphasises the three studio contract stars who had played together successfully in several features.