The Blue Dahlia, has three main characters returning to the United States, all dealing with the return in their own way.
When I first read about this movie at Turner Classic Movie’s website, I assumed it was related to ‘The Black Dahlia,’ the Hollywood flop from five or six years ago that was forgotten almost as soon as it was released in theaters to critical panning. Well, other than the use of ‘Dahlia’ in the title, there is no common link. Blue Dahlia is a solid, well-made film noir about a murder mystery in the Los Angeles club scene where everyone is shady and willing to backstab anyone else for their own gain. It isn’t held in as high regard as many other noir classics, but it is a very solid entry into a very deep genre of movies in film noir.
Returning to the States after receiving a medical discharge, former Navy pilot John Morrison (Alan Ladd) can’t wait to get home and see his wife, Helen (Doris Dowling). He finds something else though waiting for him as his wife has adopted a new partying lifestyle, including starting a relationship with slippery club owner, Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva). Morrison’s wife has a dark secret she reveals to John, sending him into a fit of rage that even has him thinking about killing her. Instead, he walks out on her, leaving his past life behind. The next morning though John hears radio reports that his wife has been murdered, and he’s wanted for questioning. With help from his former Navy buddies (William Bendix and Hugh Beaumont), Morrison goes about proving his innocence and finding his wife’s actual murderer.
The post subplot (soldier condition) is centered around William Bendix’s Buzz character, a tail gunner on Morrison’s bomber in the Pacific. Along with John and Beaumont’s George, Buzz received a medical discharge after sustaining a serious wound that tore away part of his skull. He now has a metal plate on the back of his head and is struggling with his readjustment to a more normal life. He freaks out at loud noises and any sort of music playing and has a temper that’s ready to snap at the drop of a hat. For a movie released in the years since the end of World War II, it’s refreshing to see such honesty in dealing with an issue that would have been affecting thousands of similar-minded soldiers all over the U.S.
As for the main plot with the murder mystery, director George Marshall knows what he’s doing. First off, if you think Alan Ladd’s character is the guilty party, shame on you. It’s Shane for goodness sake! He isn’t going to kill his wife! Several possible suspects are presented ranging from the obvious to the dark horse that most viewers will think did it to the actual murderer. I thought I had this one figured out, but the joke was on me. ‘Dahlia’ certainly does its best to keep you guessing, a nice touch amidst the typical noir conventions that viewers have come to expect.
Of the few movies I’ve seen Ladd in other than Shane, I’ve always been a fan of this underrated actor. He apparently did all sorts of things to take away attention from his lack of height (he was only 5’6), but his on-screen presence makes up for it. Ladd has this quiet intensity in his characters that give a feel of not knowing quite what the man is capable of. Here, he is pushed too far by his wife, and even though she is at fault for something horrific in her past, Ladd’s Morrison knows she deserved better than the fate she met. A worthy leading part for Ladd as he carries the movie.
The supporting cast is not made up entirely of home runs, but for the most part the casting works. Bendix especially shines as Buzz while Beaumont (later Mr. Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver) isn’t given as much to do. Da Silva is a great villain, a man with his hand in all sorts of shady dealings. Veronica Lake plays a less essential character early on who ends up playing a key role in the murder investigation as it develops. Ladd and Lake end up in a somewhat forced romantic relationship that ends up wrapping all the separate subplots together nicely in the end.
The Blue Dahlia <---trailer (1946): ** ½ /****