The Blue Dahlia / The Glass Key

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Re: The Blue Dahlia / The Glass Key

#26 Post by colinr0380 » Mon Nov 25, 2019 5:07 am


I really enjoyed The Blue Dahlia, which turned out to have a strangely moral approach to justice that meted out punishments to those most deserving of it (Eddie Harwood and Helen Morrison, the cheating spouses of our central couple) whilst at the same time making their murders the only crimes committed in the film that the coppers particularly are interested in!

Helen is probably the true monster of the film in ignoring her war hero husband by not writing to him, throwing lavishly orgiastic parties out of her apartment complex and revealing to Johnny that she killed their child in a drunk driving accident, then laughing about it in his face, providing all the motivation for murder that one could ever want! It probably does not help Johnny's case that he is found by the extremely attentive to the comings and goings to Helen's apartment apartment night watchman/hotel detective shouting at Helen about the situation and shaking her about a bit.

Eddie is a villain but probably less 'deserving' and more pathetic, despite his superficial nightclub success (undermined a little in the admonitions from his business partner about his extra curricular activities when he is back in the club). He ends up losing everything over a dalliance (though his relationship with his wife is over even before that, it seems), is not particularly great at turning into a two bit hood once threatened with blackmail (I love that scene with the night watchman/hotel detective, who he pays off and lets have a drink and then once the guy leaves but the action continues with his wife coming in and them discussing their relationship that he is still playing around with the glass that the blackmailer was drinking from, until throwing it to smash into the fireplace in frustration at the very end of the scene! That kind of shows Eddie's insecurities in a nice way I think, as well as equating him with the blackmailer), and even gets killed accidentally in a struggle between two other characters over a gun whilst he is running around in the background of a brawl.

It is rather ironic that these characters end up 'getting what is coming to them' but in the most tangential ways possible, as if fate itself is having to step in to kill them because the characters who 'should' have committed the crime (the dreadfully wronged husband; the trophy wife) are too decent to have carried out a summary execution there and then! That also allows Johnny and Joyce to become a couple in an untroublesome manner at the end too, as they both have had their awful, philandering spouses killed for them rather than having to be suspicious of each other for having committed the murder! Similarly I like that Alan Ladd's Johnny is the innocent man suspected of murder and then actually turned into a killer by accident in the struggle for the gun causing Eddie's death! And maybe it is another comment on the war continuing back at home (though on the mental plane more than the physical one), as there are still fights for honour and justice to be done, some of which might involve roughhousing a little!

Of course the returning home from war element is there in Johnny and his two buddies George and Buzz, with Buzz being both physically and mentally traumatised by his experience having left him with a metal plate in his head, and flares of violent temper whenever anyone is playing wild jazz tunes (using let's say, 'language of the time' about it, which no other character particularly acknowledges as racist, but provides an extra frisson of on the edge tension now). The relationship between George and Buzz has a bit of an Of Mice and Men sense about it (even down to the more sensible character being named George!), and it seems inevitable therefore that Buzz is going to end up wandering into Helen's orbit before her murder and then being so addled that he even admits to committing the crime! Luckily in this more optimistic (? Perhaps just morally greyer) world he is not going to be used as the easy patsy for the murder, as the other characters want to get to the bottom of things rather than just ending the matter as simply and neatly as somebody just confessing to the crime!

Though one of the best aspects of the film is the way that it keeps suggesting (with the night watchman being watchfully present on the scene throughout the events of that night when Johnny fights with Helen, when Buzz enters and leaves, and then when Eddie enters and leaves her apartment) just how easy it is to just say one particular person committed the crime and have that be the end of it. In the classical manner with Johnny as the wrong(ed) man, but also with Buzz being an easy scapegoat due to his war injuries and violent temper, and even more daringly with Eddie as the more expected perpetrator as the bad guy figure who deserves punishment but who himself turns out not to have been responsible for Helen's murder. The otherwise rather standard revenge plot between Johnny and Eddie over who murdered Helen takes up a fair amount of the film, but is made particularly good by the character looking for justice taking it out on the wrong person they assume to have been responsible (though with reason!) and the 'responsible' character knowing that they did not do it but not wanting to admit to having been present in the apartment! So the 'wronged man' element encompasses multiple characters here.

It is ironic that the eventual murderer is tangential to all of the shenanigans, just jumping on all of the comings and goings to Helen's busy apartment that give them the opportunity to commit the crime. And in a way it beautifully undermines Helen's behaviours too, as she is not killed in a crime of passion by a vengeful husband, or by a lover trying to cover up his part in adultery, or even by a tempestuous war vet that she just picked up on a whim. She does not even commit suicide from guilt! Instead she dies by the hand of someone meant to have been watching over her, and everyone else in the apartment complex, for their own security, who themselves then pushed their luck by trying to blackmail others for a quick buck!

That's another theme that the film seems interested in that only gets underlined by the reveal of Helen's killer: older men grifting their way through the world, knowing that they have not got many options available to them in their working class service jobs compared to these newly returned soldiers or enterpreneurs. The night watchman/hotel detective "Dad" is the prime example of this (with the conversation with Eddie in the blackmail scene about being 57, with the more naïve Eddie saying that "Dad" still maybe has many good years ahead of him, if he does not push his luck!), but that also appears to be the reason behind the otherwise unnecessary seeming scene of Johnny being taken by a couple of guys to a run down motel and then getting payment demanded for their services in finding a room for him, as well as the couple of scenes with the very morally grey motel manager himself talking of having provided rooms for many people on the lam, though without that stopping him from blackmailing them in doing so! Like "Dad", that hotel manager is in the process of both creating and attempting to profit from a situation simultaneously! Making all these figures much more disturbingly two-faced than Johnny, Buzz or even Eddie, who are more driven by others into emotional outbursts where they conceivably could have killed, rather than coldly and calculatedly (albeit just as compulsively, as a kind of extension of their normal duties in their jobs!) killing as part of a new, urban, post-war survival strategy.

I also really liked that the film aside from the opening and closing titles only really features diegetic sound (the jazz tunes that are so important to the plot as affecting Buzz's mental state) and no underscore. That really makes the punch ups and gunshots feel much more impactful when they occur, as other than that it is all conversational dialogue. In a way the dialogue is the musical score, with the film continually pairing up different instruments (i.e. characters!) together and having them interact and play off or against each other to see how they harmonise with each other. That makes the rare occasions when the conversations fluidly move into violence a couple of times feel like the big 'cymbal crash' moments of the film! But really nothing beats the thrill of that final scene where all of the main cast (minus Eddie and Helen of course!) are gathered together in that one room and finally Johnny comes in as well, with everyone turning to him on his entrance, so that they can all start singing from the same sheet.

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Re: The Blue Dahlia / The Glass Key

#27 Post by colinr0380 » Tue Dec 03, 2019 4:58 am

That Screen Guild Theater radio adaptation of The Blue Dahlia was fascinating, especially for the ways in which it compresses the material into half an hour (or less, to make room for all of those Camel Cigarette ad breaks!). I think it is a pretty bad version of the story to be honest, streamlining it to a fault, but it helps to illuminate just how much the film itself gets right, and perhaps just how bad a 'conventional' filming of the story could have been!

The main difference has to be that the radio play eliminates arguably the most important aspect of the story that is its entire reason for being: mentally fragile men returning from the war and finding general licentiousness on the home front that might drive them to violent action in response. The radio version pretty much eliminates that backstory, especially because it removes the George and Buzz characters entirely! So it becomes more 'purely' about the main plot of a man who walks out on his cheating, child killing wife, has the vision of another possible relationship in the Veronica Lake character, and then has to clear his name when his wife turns up murdered.

I am not sure that this plot can entirely hold the weight of the entire focus of an adaptation by itself. I would generally agree with Frank Krutnik's sentiments in his interview that the relationship between Ladd and Lake is the weakest part of the film, though that seems intentionally so because the focus of the story is elsewhere (Literally in some cases, particularly the way that the first kiss between the couple that would normally be the grand climax of the narrative is perfectly completely ignored in the final shot of the film to instead focus on George and Buzz's reaction to seeing that Johnny is currently a bit busy with other matters!). It is there as an element of the story (the 'good wife turned bad/gangster's moll turned good' dichotomy), but really the film seems much less focused on the women as individuals but as symbols or signifiers embodying an idea about how the women provide the emotional stability to centre men (to let them fight for justice, and come back to a family home. Maybe that plays into the general fear of 'unattached older men' the film seems to have as noted in the previous post, as they all seem single and impulsive, preying on clients and customers), or alternatively in not providing that have potential to drive the men into crazy acts. In that sense Joyce, the Veronica Lake character, leaving Eddie Harwood is the death knell for that character from before the film even began (he has lost the centre of his world, even if he still keeps her picture on his desk), and instead of having any real agency of her own in the later scenes of the film she becomes the key to unlocking the mystery (by picking at the blue Dahlia flower in the same irritating way that Helen did, although she stops when Buzz asks her to), and is the signifier at the end more of Johnny having finally been able to escape from the clutches of Helen and now has a more suitable potential partner in Joyce instead. Sexual chemistry does not particularly matter (in fact it seems necessarily absent to contrast more pointedly against Helen's swinging house parties!), a stable stronger relationship between a couple of characters matched for each other (as arguably Helen and Eddie are in death) is the most important reason for the use of those characters in the film.

But to go back to the radio adaptation, this pushes that romantic angle (that really is not the point) much more to the foreground because it has stripped all of the other material about the return to a post-war society away. And it feels all the more phony for being exposed in that way, being forced to be another 'grand romance between Ladd and Lake!', when it is something a bit different than that.

Similarly with the removal of George and Buzz, that takes another potential killer of Helen from the story, and the most fascinating and controversial to consider one at that, so it just comes down to Johnny and Eddie having it out instead. But in a strange way the radio play does have one element that is different but works just as well as in the film, which is Eddie being shot not by Johnny and a thug struggling over a gun, but instead through a window by Helen's 'real' killer. Its a bit of a standard scene (and the actor playing Eddie in the radio version gets to massively ham it up in the death scene! Though that also seems to have been the only way that the adaptors can shoehorn a "Blue Dahlia" club name reference into the story to make sense of the title in this version, with the flower picking element having otherwise been removed!), and removes the irony of fate seeming to step in kill him, but it was a nice and obvious way for the radio version to kill off Eddie's character and to introduce the idea of a different character as the killer. Which remains "Dad" still but his character's motivations seem tellingly stripped back as well as, despite losing the scene of him trying to blackmail Eddie over his late night visit to Helen on the night of her murder (none of those multiple suspect back and forth antics watched from the bushes by the 'just passing' hotel detective turns up in the radio play, presumably both to streamline things and without Buzz doing it as well there would be no point in casting doubt upon Eddie being the murderer until the 'twist'), the character of "Dad" seems to be made into much more of a character wanting revenge on Eddie and that is why he killed Helen when he found out that they were having an affair. So in that character's final speech rather than any particularly sordid seeming compulsive behaviour motivating his killing of Helen (or a suspicion of the motives of 'unattached older men' in general, as in the film), he's doing it for well defined revenge purposes here. Which both ties up the plot neater than in the film, and makes it all seem more disappointingly mundane at the same time!

And after making the point about the lack of score on the film outside of pieces of music being played in the world that serve an important purpose, the radio play is slathered in an enormously over dramatic score used to transition between scenes, plus a syrupy love ballad for the scenes between Johnny and Joyce. That really does not work, and neither does the Ladd voiceover having to provide exposition to paper over reaction shots and scene changes for a non visual medium. Its trying to be a bit hard-boiled and laconic when really the character of Johnny is depressed and taciturn in the wake of Helen's revelations. That's not a character that really should be doing a heel turn shift into verbose soliloquy for the audience's benefit when he should be conveying nothing to anyone but a blank, shut down reaction in response to a fundamental betrayal (really it felt like a missed opportunity to actually adapt the story and have Joyce doing the voiceover from her bystander's perspective, but that might have run the risk of turning the story into something different!)

But whilst I think the radio adaptation does not work at all, it certainly makes me appreciate the film more. And gosh those cigarette adverts are amazing to listen to now, with all of the claims that "medical doctors have studied one hundred smokers for thirty days and found that Camel cigarettes cause no throat irritation whatsoever!", along with Lake providing the good news to patients in the Hollywood Veteran's Hospital that "your complementary cartons of Camel cigarettes are on the way" and exhorting them to "Smoke up, boys!"

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