Sticking tough guys in crime scenarios doesn’t always result in dark cinema. But it can, as Mark Fraser recently discovered, further blur the distinction between a seemingly normal society and its dysfunctional underbelly.
During his analysis of George Marshall’s The Blue Dahlia – which appears as an extra on Arrow Film’s Blu-ray reissue of the 1946 movie – author Frank Krutnik reiterates his point that the key reason it is film noir lies in the fact it’s one of many “returning-veteran thrillers” produced by Hollywood at the end of World War II (Krutnik, 1991).
In these works, as with others like Edward Dmytryk’s Cornered (1945), Joseph L Mankiewicz’s Somewhere in the Night (also 1946), John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning and Robert Montgomery’s Ride the Pink Horse (both 1947), the story centres on ex-servicemen who, on coming home from military service, find themselves caught up in some kind of criminal conspiracy.
Early in his 1991 book A Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre and Masculinity, Krutnik suggests these thrillers provide a useful test case for examining the relationship between the cultural context of America in the 1940s and the “tough” thriller as a genre, whereby narrative essentially plays second fiddle to cultural and social issues as the protagonist undergoes “a standardised address within the generic mode of the thriller”.
The Blue Dahlia, the writer says, both presents and deflects its resonant scenarios (of sexual hostility, psychological disturbance and social maladjustment) via their placement within the crime movie, effectively providing a story-telling strategy that asks the viewer to consider “not just the primary issues which motivate the film, but also the evasions, displacements and blockages which characterise the processes of narrative ‘secondisation’“.
For cinema buffs (like this one), who have their own set views about what constitutes film noir, this approach can be a little problematic – something Krutnik acknowledges in his analysis of the movie when he admits a lot of noir is not usually conducive to clear cut love interests and happy endings, qualities which stress “integration at the expense of isolation and alienation”.
If anything, this counter observation sums up The Blue Dahlia fairly well. Although the film contains some visible bitterness, it lacks a pure meanness and ends up being far too tidy for its own good. Or, to put it another way, there always seems to be a torch light at the end of its melodramatic tunnel.
Regardless of this, Krutnik remains steadfast in his argument that noir should not just restrict itself to looking at society’s criminal underbelly and the morally ambiguous milieu in which it operates.
It also, he suggests, has the potential for social criticism; the ability to “set in motion some kind of counter-cultural current within Hollywood cinema”.
These considerations are important when determining whether or not The Blue Dahlia is truly part of the film noir canon or if it is merely another studio crime melodrama (in this case the producer was by Paramount Pictures) in which, by the end, all of the loose ends are neatly accounted for.
The movie starts when a trio of ex-air force servicemen – Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd), Buzz Wanchek (William Bendix) and George Copeland (Hugh Beaumont) – return to Los Angeles following a stint in the South Pacific, where their welcome is far from warm.
Just after getting off the bus, the shell shocked Buzz almost starts a bar room fight with a marine (Anthony Caruso) over some loud “monkey music” playing on the juke box, while Johnny, the only married man among them, goes home to find out his floozy wife Helen (Doris Dowling) is not only having an affair with racketeer Eddie Harwood (Howard De Silva), owner of The Blue Dahlia nightclub on Sunset Strip, but had also killed their son Dickie in a drink driving accident after previously claiming the poor boy’s demise was from a lethal bout of diphtheria.
Johnny, whose past disposition to violent outbursts is acknowledged in some early dialogue, slaps Harwood across the face before pulling a gun on Helen, after which he storms off into the night rain with suitcase in hand and hits the road. It doesn’t take too long, however, before he is picked up by curious driver Joyce Harwood (Veronica Lake), the separated spouse of his cuckolding wife’s current beau.
Meanwhile the volatile Buzz, who goes off to find Johnny, meets Helen in a bar. Not realising the woman hitting on him is his friend’s wife, he follows her back to her bungalow for a nightcap. The next morning she is found murdered.
Thus it is the death of the movie’s only real femme fatale which launches the film into its second act as Morrison – the authority’s key suspect – goes about trying to establish his innocence while, in the audience’s mind, there is the real possibility that either the mentally unstable Wanchek or crime-connected Harwood (who tries to break off his relationship with Helen just before her death) is the killer.
Although it expeditiously establishes all of these intriguing elements, The Blue Dahlia doesn’t really cut it as classic film noir for a number of reasons.
As suggested earlier, there is not a lot of existential ambiguity at work in the movie, with everything – from the characters and lighting (by Lionel Lindon) to the melodrama itself – being reasonably straightforward and by-the-studio book.
Even the input from well-known crime fiction writer Raymond Chandler, who penned the script (it was his first screenplay), doesn’t rescue it, with the final product lacking the laconic humour usually found in some of his better known detective novels (The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Good-Bye come to mind here). Furthermore, the movie isn’t that great a murder mystery, despite the fact it tries to create two key suspects during its first half hour. On this note, even the surprise twist ending lacks a bit of punch.
Having said all this, there are a couple of legitimate noir mechanisms in The Blue Dahlia which work quite well and give credence to Krutnik’s assertion that Hollywood crime films of the 1940s “reveal an obsession with male figures who are both internally divided and alienated from the culturally permissible (or ideal) parameters of masculine identity, desire and achievement” – qualities which have hounded the noir protagonist in many a movie.
When Johnny confronts Helen, for instance, it’s obvious he’s completely emasculated by her disdain for both him and his expectations of how she should behave.
“I take all the drinks I like, any time, any place,” she says contemptuously. “I go where I want to with anybody I want. I just happen to be that kind of a girl.”
Marshall and Chandler then take this further when Johnny pulls out his pistol – a symbol of his masculinity – but fails to use it, eventually dropping it on a chair and leaving it behind when he goes. The fact his gun is used by another man to kill Helen shows just how impotent this ex-serviceman is in the civilian environment.
Later, Johnny fails to act upon Joyce’s flirtatious verbal advances and instead chooses to walk away from her as if he is running away from something – a sure sign his manhood is wallowing in some shaky existential territory.
In the case of Buzz, the idea of fulfilling any desires and/or achievements definitely looks like becoming a thing of the past as the psychosis from his war wound (he has a steel plate in his head) seems to get worse with every passing minute.
Aside from the fact the monkey music (a term he uses repeatedly) drives him nuts every time he hears it, the poor veteran is so confused that, by the final reel, he is willing to confess to Helen’s murder despite not remembering it.
Then there’s George, who becomes something of a surrogate mother for his highly strung friend. Aside from doing the shopping and cooking after they move into an apartment together, he also has to bring Buzz into line during moments of stress while trying to keep tabs on his movements.
Even the relationship between Harwood and his business partner Leo (Don Costello) seems to contain a degree of intimacy which is exclusive of the fairer sex, particularly when the latter tells his friend that Helen’s presence affects them both. “We grew up together Eddie – you get in a jam, I get in a jam,” Leo’s says, suggesting things are better when there aren’t any pesky women around to muddy the waters.
And while most of the set pieces in The Blue Dahlia aren’t what one would call classic noir, the movie does have a couple of good dark scenes – the first being when Johnny is conned into taking a room in a seedy hotel, only to get violently entangled with its sleazy manager (Howard Freeman); while the second occurs when Leo and his gangster pal (Jimmie Dundee) kidnap the hero and take him to a deserted house, wherein they inflict a solid beating upon the returned war veteran.
Back in 1976, Film Comment’s Larry Gross summed up the (then) commonly accepted position on film noir when he said it emphasised “the personal, the psychological, the dream-like as opposed to the social, the moral, the realistic. Starting in a world of crimes, it makes the boundary between legal and illegal uncertain, as it does the boundary between rational and traditional”.
Using this methodology, it’s obvious The Blue Dahlia isn’t noir in any existential sense.
But Gross goes on: “Film noir postulates the existence of a ‘bad’ society, but the stress is laid on the efforts of the hero to extricate himself from that badness, rather than the social structure itself. Society and the individual are at odds without ever coming into view of each other.”
If this is the case, then there is an argument – as Krutnik maintains – that The Blue Dahlia deserves a place (albeit a rather small one) in the noir movement.
And, if one follows these trains of thought, it really does become difficult to truly differentiate between the criminal underworld and the rest of society. In this scenario there is ultimately no “us” or “them”.
Rather, the two are inextricably entwined.
Frank Krutnik: In a Lonely Street – Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity, Routlidge (London and New York), 1991, pp 65-72
Larry Gross: “Film Après Noir”, Film Comment, June/July 1976, p 44
Words by Mark Fraser
Top 10 Films reviewed The Blue Dahlia on Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Academy. The Blue Dahlia was released on dual format Blu-ray Sep 16, 2016.
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