Yesterday I watched This Gun for Fire, with Veronica Lake, who I have always liked, and Alan Ladd, who really impressed me in his role. Much like the American film-going public in 1942, I was hungry to see the two paired up again.
While This Gun for Hire was adapted from a published novel by Graham Greene, The Blue Dahlia was written for the screen by Raymond Chandler. Legend has it that Chandler got writer’s block halfway through the script and finished it drunk. This might have been the onset of a downward spiral. In 1951, Chandler was fired as the scriptwriter of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train for being constantly drunk in story conferences and belligerent with the director. Chandler very well of might have been drunk when he wrote The Blue Dahlia, as the story meanders this way and that, making the plot twists a bit much even for a film noir. But this being a Chandler script, there is some good suspense and the characters have a bit more psychological depth than the average film noir.
Alan Ladd plays Johnny Morrison, a Navy pilot who is put on the inactive list after flying over 100 successful missions in the South Pacific. He returns home to Hollywood with his war buddies George(Hugh Beaumont), who has been discharged due to failing eyesight, and Buzz (William Bendix), who was released after a head wound that left him with a big metal plate in his head. Johnny goes home to find that in his absence, his wife has turned into an alcoholic party girl who is fooling around with a crooked businessman (Howard Da Silva ) who runs a nightclub called the Blue Dahlia. The party breaks up and the couple have a fight during which she reveals that their son did not die of diphtheria as she had written, but was killed in a car crash while she was drunk behind the wheel. The next morning she is found shot in her apartment. Naturally, suspicion falls on the husband, who takes it on the lam.
Although Ladd got top billing for the film, and his character is the leader of the trio of GIs who start the story rolling, the more complex character is his friend Buzz, who, because of his head injury, suffers from memory loss and spells off uncontrollable anger brought about by pop tunes, which he calls “monkey music”. There are reports that Chandler’s original screenplay identified Buzz as the actual killer, and this was changed after the US Navy complained about depicting a traumatized soldier as a killer, and either the script was changed, or a new ending was filmed. Either way, it adds yet another twist to the story and makes the character even more interesting, as he honestly can’t remember where he was and what he was doing between going to see the murdered woman and returning to his friends in a daze hours later.
This is the third or for pairings between Ladd and Veronica Lake, and the duo were a major selling point for the film. But Lake’s character, the estranged wife of the owner of the Blue Dahlia, is rather awkwardly injected into the story when she just happens to pick up Ladd as he walks through the rainy streets looking for a hotel room. He accepts a ride, but resists her attempts to get to know him better. After he learns that he is wanted for questioning in connection to his wife’s murder, she finds herself in the position of helping him run from the police, similar to her role in the first Ladd-Lake film, This Gun for Hire. The big shortcoming of this film is that Ladd and Lake characters are the weakest in the film. Ladd’s character is given little complexity, other than grieving over his dead son, an emotion which is quickly swept away. Then it is never really explained why Lake’s character is so interested in helping this man who may or may not be a murderer. This is not like Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, in which a wrongly accused man kidnaps a woman forcing her to help until she finally comes around to believe that he is indeed innocent, or like Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, helping Cary Grant who very well may be a dangerous man, out of a sense of adventure. Lake helps Ladd simply because audiences wanted to see them on the screen together.