Saturday, July 24, 2010

Oscar Noir - The Blue Dahlia (1946)

Thematically and elementally, The Blue Dahlia (1946) is an exemplary pillar in the Film Noir historical cannon. The hero isn’t a detective, and he isn’t thwarted by a femme fatale, but director George Marshall’s mystery encapsulates the war-time shift into darker narration – the feeling that our Americana had been irreversibly corrupted, that our world had transformed into a place capable of global genocide and atomic force, and that an oily darkness was slowly burrowing a hole deep into our collective souls.

If that sounds dramatic, it’s meant to – violence has always been a part of human existence, but never had it been so widely and transformatively witnessed and digested. And at the forefront of taste-making entertainment for the increasingly restless masses, Hollywood both reflected and capitalized on that growing dramatic conscience.

Dahlia stars Alan Ladd as Johnny Morrison, a naval officer back from the war, only to find the world he knew gone, and a tarnished replica in its place. His wife (Doris Dowling) has become a boozing socialite who killed their son in a drunk-driving accident, and is now unabashedly drowning her sorrows in the arms of another man.

His best buddy Buzz (William Bendix) is suffering crippling headaches and black outs due to the plate in his head, and when Johnny has a blow out with his wife one dark and rainy Los Angeles night, Buzz goes to her to smooth things out for him. The next morning the wife is dead, Johnny is the prime suspect, and Buzz can’t remember what happened.

We know Johnny’s innocent – he spent the night driving around with Veronica Lake’s fetchingly dangerous Joyce, who just so happens to be the wife of Howard Da Silva’s Eddie, the man Johnny’s wife was so blatantly carrying on an affair with. Of course, Eddie’s real name isn’t actually Eddie…and thus the twisty-turny narrative begins, winding deeper into noir's dark and complex downward spiral.

The hard-boiled narrative comes courtesy of the great Raymond Chandler, and plenty of quick-fire wit and repartee comes with it.  "You gotta have more sense than to take chances with strangers like this," Johnny says to Joyce after she picks him up from the side of the road.  "It's funny, but practically all the people I know were strangers when I met them," she replies.

It may be Marshall’s name on the production bill, but this is Chandler’s film through and through. The actors don’t speak his dialogue as much as dance through it, playing off each other like partners in a dirty angry death waltz. Chandler was once knows as the Los Angeles Laureate, and his masterful understanding of human nature and dialogue is on full display here. It’s truly awe-inspiring.

At the same time, his narrative feels simultaneously over-busy and lackadaisical – there is very little necessity here, and only a passing sense of dramatic tension. The mystery, it turns out, isn’t really the point – it’s the players in this dinner theater that really matter.

Ladd is typically charming and nonchalant, and as such makes for an excellent Chandler protagonist. And of course Lake is mysteriously appealing, a passive fatale, perhaps the most dangerous kind. The point here is that each and every one of these people is broken in some way. Johnny’s anger is clawing at him, bringing him to the brink of domestic violence. His buddies don’t care if he killed his wife – they stand behind him, bonded by war… as if that somehow makes murder an appropriate task.

The rest of the world is filled with gangsters and hard-nosed cops who care more about being tough than getting justice.  And it's all literally soaking in booze, the outward pouring of Chandler's own struggles with alcoholism, which he gave into in order to complete this film.  Hell, the "title character" in this flick is actually a bar.

If there’s balance in this world (and there has to be), it's in the struggle – the inner understanding that they, the players, are capable of breaking all the rules in this game, and that they must struggle not to.

So while the directing is average and the plot hasn't held up over time, the themes and values and (especially) Chandler’s witty back-and-fourths and humanistic appreciation make Dahlia a sturdy touchstone in Hollywood’s violently dark noir genre.

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