Lake, Ladd and Chandler script help ‘Blue Dahlia’ bloom

Blue Dahlia posterThe Blue Dahlia/1946/Paramount/96 min.

Sitting here waiting for the Tigers game to start and for the bf to make dinner, I keep thinking of food metaphors. For instance: watching “The Blue Dahlia” is like ordering a blue-cheese burger at a steakhouse – tasty fare, but not quite as satisfying as filet mignon. So I have a one-track mind. I’m hungry.

That does, however, sum up “The Blue Dahlia” – it’s a pretty good yarn and in the hands of a more stylish director, instead of comedy specialist George Marshall, it might have been a true gem. In Marshall’s hands, the visuals are ho-hum, there’s not much atmosphere and there are several moments where the pace seems to idle. Overall, it feels a bit dated.

On the plus side, Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd lead a strong cast and Raymond Chandler received an Oscar nom for his original screenplay. (It lost to the British psychological drama “The Seventh Veil” by Muriel and Sydney Box.) Also, “The Blue Dahlia” has several famous location shots, such as the Brown Derby, and in 1947 the film’s title gave rise to the name of one of Hollywood’s most nefarious real-life mysteries.

This was Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake's third movie together.

This was Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake’s third movie together.

Ladd plays an ex-Navy bomber pilot named Johnny Morrison, who arrives in Los Angeles with two pals from the Navy. The three jump off the bus at Hollywood Boulevard and head to the nearest bar. Buzz (William Bendix) has sustained war injuries (he has a plate in his skull) and isn’t thinking too clearly; his foil is calm and level-headed George (Hugh Beaumont, aka Ward Cleaver on “Leave it to Beaver.”)

Next up for Johnny is a reunion with his wife Helen (Doris Dowling) at her bungalow apartment on Wilshire Boulevard. Not exactly a picture of wifely devotion, raven-haired, rye-chugging Helen is hosting a raucous party that night. (Doris Dowling’s real-life older sister Constance Dowling played shady lady Mavis Marlowe in the film noir “Black Angel,” also from 1946, based on a Cornell Woolrich novel and directed by Roy William Neill.)

Johnny (Alan Ladd) watches out for fellow vet Buzz (William Bendix).

Johnny (Alan Ladd) watches out for fellow vet Buzz (William Bendix).

After Helen confesses that her drinking led to the death of their son, Johnny pulls his gun out and considers using it, but changes his mind. Instead he drops the gun on an armchair, next to a blue dahlia flower from Helen’s, um, companion, slick and sleazy Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva). Harwood owns the Blue Dahlia nightclub, hence he hands out flowers.

Johnny heads out into the rainy night and hitches a ride with Joyce Harwood (Lake), a chilly blonde goddess with an air of mystery. She’s also Eddie Harwood’s estranged wife.

Helen (Doris Dowling) would rather drink a beer than win Mother of the Year. Her chum Eddie (Howard Da Silva) owns the Blue Dahlia nightclub.

Helen (Doris Dowling) would rather drink a beer than win Mother of the Year. Her chum Eddie (Howard Da Silva) owns the Blue Dahlia nightclub.

Well, as you know, no good deed goes unpunished in film noir and leaving the gun behind wasn’t the wisest decision on Johnny’s part. The next morning Helen is dead and Johnny tops the list of suspects. Others on the list include disloyal Eddie Harwood, the oft-confused and easily excited Buzz, who paid Helen a visit the night of her death, and ‘Dad’ Newell (Will Wright), the seedy house detective at Helen’s apartment complex.

In Chandler’s original script, Buzz did the deed but painting a vet in bad light would be courting disaster with the censors so Chandler had to revamp the story and find a new villain. Reportedly, Chandler, who was fond of drinking like a fish, locked himself away one weekend and got even more smashed than usual in order to cobble together the revised script, which the studio needed in a hurry because Ladd was called for military service.

A highlight of the flick is the wry banter between Ladd and Lake – this was the third of four films they made together (preceded by “This Gun for Hire” and “The Glass Key,” and followed by 1948’s “Saigon”) and by this time they have it down. Ladd snarls and pushes her away, Lake purrs and turns her nose up, aloof and amused.

Elizabeth Short became known as the Black Dahlia.

Elizabeth Short became widely known as the Black Dahlia after her death.

“The Blue Dahlia” also played a part in the aftermath of Hollywood’s most famous unsolved murder: Elizabeth Short, a pretty girl from a Boston suburb who came to Hollywood looking for adventure or a husband, whichever came first. Short was brutally killed; her mutilated body was found on Jan. 15, 1947.

As the police investigation progressed, Short became widely known as the Black Dahlia. Some say a Long Beach bartender dubbed her the Black Dahlia in 1946 because of her sometimes-theatrical appearance (acquaintances said she liked wearing heavy makeup and flowers in her hair when she dressed up); others attribute the moniker to journalists covering the grisly case. Either way, “The Blue Dahlia” movie triggered the nickname.

“The Blue Dahlia,” with its smart writing and solid acting, is required film noir viewing, despite its flaws. And I almost forgot  – there’s a great dry moment when the maid finds Helen’s body. No screaming or wringing of hands for this hard-living broad, just an “Oh brother” and a long sigh.

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Film noir titles to release on DVD from TCM and Universal, thriller marathon in January

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and Universal Studios Home Entertainment (USHE) are releasing a terrific three-disc DVD collection on Dec 3. Dark Crimes: Film Noir Thrillers highlights the work of legendary mystery writers Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich and Raymond Chandler.

The set includes:

“The Glass Key” (1942, Stuart Heisler) – Brian Donlevy, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake star in this stylish remake of the 1935 film based on Hammett’s popular novel. The story follows a ruthless political boss and his personal adviser, who become entangled in a web of organized crime and murder involving the daughter of a rising gubernatorial candidate. Akira Kurosawa once claimed this film to be the inspiration for his classic samurai flick “Yojimbo” (1961).

“Phantom Lady” (1944, Robert Siodmak) – A man arrested for murdering his wife is unable to produce his only alibi – a mysterious woman he met in a bar – in this adaptation of a Woolrich novel. Now his loyal secretary must go undercover to locate her. Ella Raines, Franchot Tone, Thomas Gomez, Alan Curtis and Elisha Cook Jr. star. A sexually charged drumming scene was reportedly dubbed by legendary musician Buddy Rich.

“The Blue Dahlia” (1946, George Marshall) – A WWII veteran who has been accused of killing his unfaithful wife races against time to find the real murderer with the help of a sympathetic stranger. Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix, Howard da Silva and Hugh Beaumont star in this John Houseman production. Chandler’s original screenplay earned an Oscar nomination.

Veronica Lake and Howard da Silva share a tense moment in “The Blue Dahlia.”

Dark Crimes: Film Noir Thrillers will be available from TCM’s online store, which is currently accepting pre-orders. TCM will show “The Glass Key” on Dec. 2.

Additionally, on Jan. 17, author and noir expert Eddie Muller will join TCM host Robert Osborne to present five memorable thrillers from the 1950s. The lineup is set to feature “Cry Danger” (1951, Robert Parrish) with Dick Powell and Rhonda Fleming; “99 River Street” (1953, Phil Karlson) starring John Payne and Evelyn Keyes; “Tomorrow is Another Day” (1951, Felix E. Feist) with Ruth Roman and Steve Cochran; “The Breaking Point” (1950, Michael Curtiz), starring John Garfield and Patricia Neal; and “The Prowler” (1951, Joseph Losey), starring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes.

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On the radar: Battle of the Blondes begins, AFI fest kicks off, poets ponder Los Angeles noir

Marilyn in "The Asphalt Jungle" tops the TCM list.

One more reason to love Turner Classic Movies: The network has compiled a list of 10 favorite movie moments featuring Marilyn Monroe. The list comes as TCM gears up for its Battle of the Blondes this month, which kicks off Nov. 2 with a Marilyn Monroe double feature.

First on the fave moments list is Marilyn looking up at Louis Calhern in the classic noir “The Asphalt Jungle” from 1950 directed by John Huston. Third on the list is her sexy walk in “Niagara,” Henry Hathaway’s 1953 Technicolor noir. (“Niagara” and 1959′s “Some Like It Hot” by Billy Wilder are tonight’s double bill.)

Throughout November, TCM will celebrate Hollywood’s greatest blondes. Each Monday and Wednesday night’s lineup will feature two blondes going head-to-head in a pair of double features, including Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield on Nov. 2, Veronica Lake and Lana Turner on Nov. 7, Judy Holliday and Jean Harlow on Nov. 9, Marlene Dietrich and Ursula Andress on Nov. 14, Carole Lombard and Mae West on Nov. 16, Janet Leigh and Brigitte Bardot on Nov. 21, Betty Grable and Doris Day on Nov. 23, Julie Christie and Diana Dors on Nov. 28 and Grace Kelly and Kim Novak on Nov. 30.

Leonardo DiCaprio

Best of the fest: The AFI FEST 2011, the American Film Institute’s annual celebration of international cinema from modern masters and emerging filmmakers, starts Nov. 3 with Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Noir gems include “Eyes Without a Face,” “The Killers,” “Nightmare Alley” “Le Cercle Rouge,” “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Topping my new-viewing list is: “Miss Bala,” “Art History,” “Carnage,” “Shame,” “Kill List” and “The Artist.”

The festival runs through Nov. 10 in Hollywood and I look forward to covering it.

Lines to remember: Continuing through Nov. 13, the Los Angeles Poetry Festival is hosting Night and the City: L.A. Noir in Poetry, Fiction and Film. There are readings, screenings and discussions in various locations. I’ve marked my calendar for the Raymond Chandler open reading on Nov. 6 in Hollywood.

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An impeccable noir and an insightful portrait: ‘Love Crime’

Love Crime/2010/UGC/106 min.

“Love Crime,” a splendidly suspenseful ride, just might be the late Alain Corneau’s best film. A great script, excellent actors, perfect pacing and a terrific final twist make this a must-see movie.

Sleek and savvy Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas), a powerful exec at a multinational company, seems to have a charmed existence – success, style, a glitzy social life and a gorgeous lover, Philippe (Patrick Mille). Reporting to Christine is ambitious, hard-working and eager-to-please Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier).

Their relationship is subtle and complex – a mix of admiration and affection, rivalry and rude awakenings. Isabelle’s first jolt is when Christine takes credit for Isabelle’s work. (In corporate life, really?) Acting as a pawn in their mind games and manipulation is Philippe, one of their many male colleagues. It’s not long before barbed convo at the water cooler shifts to a malevolent life-and-death battle. (In corporate life, really?) We see that Isabelle’s methodical, meticulous approach applies to every project she tackles, at the workplace and beyond.

Corneau, who died last August at age 67, referred to the film as one of his little Fritz Lang labyrinths. “It can be summed up very simply,” he said. “After you have committed the perfect crime, of which you will definitely be suspected, how can you prove you are innocent by making yourself look guilty?”

“Love Crime” is an impeccable noir with a stark look and restrained palette from director of photography Yves Angelo. It’s also an original, insightful portrait of two characters’ identities. Corneau, aided by co-writer Natalie Carter, explored fresh terrain by focusing on female characters. “I’ve recently discovered how exciting it is to have women in leading roles,” said Corneau. “I thought, without knowing why, that it would be more spectacular if the labyrinthine plot were feminine.”

Spectacular it definitely is; and of course sad that his first foray into the inner lives of women was also his last.

And one more thing. There’s particular attention paid to Isabelle’s blonde hair. She starts out with a mane of slightly messy curls; as she climbs the corporate ladder, she taps her inner Veronica Lake for a peek-a-boo effect that’s smoothly sexy and seductive. Looking good is always key, especially when you’re up to no good.

“Love Crime” opens Sept. 2 in Los Angeles and New York.

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A pre-fest chat with TCM’s Robert Osborne

TCM's Robert Osborne

Earlier today at a round-table interview, I caught up with TCM’s Robert Osborne, a veteran film historian and author, as the Classic Film Festival was setting up at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. Osborne said one of the festival’s strengths is its great mix in terms of programming, which sets it apart from today’s moviegoing where ”you have a choice of the same movie 15 different ways.”

I’ve always wanted to talk noir with him, so I asked him why these films have such enduring appeal. “We’ve always had murder mysteries and who doesn’t love that? They have an endless appeal. It’s the shadows and lights and tough people like Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino.

Setting up inside the Roosevelt Hotel.

“To call ‘Leave Her to Heaven’ [a 1945 movie that played at last year’s fest and stars Gene Tierney] a noir is stretching it – ‘Leave Her to Heaven’ is a lush Technicolor movie about rich people.

“My idea of film noir is people in the gutter – tough dames and guys in trench coats up to no good. And nobody did it better than Hollywood in the ’40s.”

As for his favorite femmes fatales, he names Veronica Lake, Lauren Bacall (in the Bogart films), Marie Windsor and Jane Greer, describing them “as very feminine women that were also dames who could give it as well as they took it.”

The TCM fest has a great mix of movies.

And what did he think of remakes such as HBO’s version of “Mildred Pierce” by director Todd Haynes, starring Kate Winslet? Osborne praised Winslet’s performance but said he was disappointed. “They told the whole story too closely; it was too long and drawn out and too ponderous. In the original [Michael Curtiz's 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford], writer Ranald MacDougall’s addition of the murder really made the whole thing crackle. [The remake] should’ve been three hours at the most. I’m not fond of remakes generally.”

What is he most looking forward to in this year’s fest? “Night Flight” by Clarence Brown, “The Constant Nymph” by Edmund Goulding, opening night’s “An American in Paris” by Vincent Minnelli, Leslie Caron’s special appearance, and meeting Peter O’Toole.

I also asked Osborne, who got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2006, if he had any advice for O’Toole who will be honored at a hand and footprint ceremony at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre this Saturday. “Behave!”

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Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd are smokin’ in ‘This Gun for Hire’

This Gun for Hire/ 1942/ Paramount Pictures/ 80 min.

Veronica Lake in “This Gun for Hire” from 1942 is an angel-food cake kind of femme fatale. Alan Ladd’s stone-faced, yet complex, hitman is a devil, but damn he’s debonair. He also likes cats and kids so it’s hard not to want to cut him some slack.

Veronica Lake

Lake plays a smart, svelte and stunning nightclub singer/magician named Ellen Graham who’s essentially engaged to amiable and solid cop Michael Crane (Robert Preston). Essentially but not officially engaged because there’s no ring or dress shopping, just some affectionate banter about getting domestic, which means darning his socks and cooking corned beef and cabbage.

But those scenes aren’t exactly sizzling with passion. That’s because of Ladd. It was his first major film and once he was aboard, director Frank Tuttle realized the actor was A-list material and changed the script to give Ladd more prominence. Even though you know Lake and Ladd aren’t going to end up together, there’s a mighty sexy undercurrent between them.

As Ephraim Katz of “The Film Encyclopedia” puts it: “She clicked best at the box office as the screen partner of Alan Ladd in a matchup of cool, determined personalities.” They went on to make six more flicks together, including noir fare “The Glass Key” (1942) and “The Blue Dahlia” (1946).

In this one, Ladd’s character, Philip Raven is on the trail of Los Angeles-based Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) a blubbery, unctuous exec at a chemical company who hires Raven to bump off his colleague, a blackmailing paymaster named Baker (Frank Ferguson). Gates then pays Raven off in stolen cash, a ploy to put him in the hands of the police.

But chemical formulas aren’t really Gates’ thing – on the side, he likes to chomp on peppermints, hang out in nightclubs in LA and San Francisco, and indulge his “vice,” as he calls it, as a part-time impresario. When he sees the head-turning Ellen perform in San Francisco, he’s hooked and invites her to perform at the Neptune Club in LA.

Ellen’s trying to get close to Gates, too, but not just because she craves the spotlight. She’s been recruited by a senator (Roger Imhof) who wants hard evidence that Gates is the Benedict Arnold of 1942, i.e., he’s suspected of selling chemical formulas to the Japanese. It is war time, after all.

So, as Raven tracks down his prey and eludes the police, Ellen juggles her high-minded snooping with sequin-drenched dress rehearsals. Before long, their paths are bound to cross, especially when they board the same train to LA …

Known primarily for musicals and crime dramas, and for naming names to HUAC during Sen. Joe McCarthy’s reign of terror, director Tuttle wasn’t what you’d call an artist or a poet, but he managed to make a top-notch thriller, based on one of Graham Greene’s best crime novels. True, the movie doesn’t do the book justice, but for every one of its 80 minutes, the film is engaging and entertaining.

Tuttle easily balances moody suspense, wholesome romance, patriotic duty and the not-quite-jaded vibe of young performers trying to earn a living at a nightclub. Cinematographer John Seitz (of “Double Indemnity”) lends his elegant eye to the lighting; the scenes of Ladd and Lake on the train and on the run are especially beautiful. Crisp dialogue comes from writers Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett, a Midwesterner whose stint as a night clerk in a Chicago hotel inspired the 1929 crime novel (and the 1931 film) “Little Caesar” as well as many other novels and screenplays.

Unrepentant and casual about killing for a living, Ladd’s performance is classic noir; it influenced Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai” from 1967. Unlike most femme fatales, Ellen Graham isn’t motivated by money or revenge but by doing her part for the war effort. Still, Lake gives us bemused detachment and a glimmer of tenderness; she also helps humanize Raven. And how could you not love her musical numbers and surprisingly modern costumes, especially the sleek black “fishing” garb with thigh-high boots? [Read more...]

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‘This Gun for Hire’ quick hit

This Gun for Hire/ 1942/ Paramount Pictures/ 80 min.

This role hardly qualifies Veronica Lake as a femme fatale. She’s loyal to her man, works for a living and helps out Uncle Sam. Shocker! That said, this movie is still full-on noir and Lake, who blazes a trail with hitman Alan Ladd, completely captivates. Laird Cregar delights, as always, as the peppermint-popping heavy. Based on a Graham Greene novel; directed by Frank Tuttle.

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‘L.A. Confidential’ a first-rate depiction of sun-baked sleaze

L.A. Confidential/1997/Warner Bros./138 min.

Life is good (and glitzy) in 1953 Los Angeles, if you don’t mind smoke and mirrors, hidden crime, rampant racism and more than a few dodgy cops. Corruption in the police force, long an undercurrent in classic noir, takes center stage in “L.A. Confidential,” a wry, stylish and devastating police drama directed by Curtis Hanson.

Hanson sets the tone of glib optimism masking darker secrets by opening the movie with shots of bright and cheerful ’50s postcards, the song “Accentuate the Positive (Eliminate the Negative)” and a Danny DeVito voiceover filling us in on some of the trouble that lurks in paradise.

The sophisticated script, by Hanson and Brian Helgeland, is based on the 1990 novel by James Ellroy, which cleverly weaves in actual Hollywood history while telling the see-speak-and-hear-all-evil story of three cops:

From left: James Cromwell, Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey

*The jaded and jazzy Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes (played by Kevin Spacey with a nod to Dean Martin) who pads his bank account by consulting for a TV police show (“Badge of Honor”) and feeding juicy info to “Hush Hush” tabloid columnist Sid Hudgeons (Danny DeVito). Sid meets looming deadlines with set-ups, celebrity exposés and the odd blackmail scheme. (“Hush Hush” magazine is based on the ’50s scandal mag “Confidential” and “Badge of Honor” is based on TV’s “Dragnet.”)

*Det. Lt. Edmund Jennings ‘Ed’ Exley (Guy Pearce), an ambitious newbie with a gift for finessing police politics. Exley wants to make his Dad proud, follows a strict moral code and doesn’t care about being one of the guys. And he won’t be, given that he testifies against his fellow cops and their part in “Bloody Christmas,” a true incident of LA cops beating up Mexican prisoners.

*Officer Wendell ‘Bud’ White (Russell Crowe), a thuggish beefcake who likes to take justice into his own hands, especially when it comes to violence against women. “His blood’s always up,” Exley says of White.

Presiding over the entire force and clashing with Exley in particular is Capt. Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), arrogant but understated until his latent psychopath rears his head.

“Bloody Christmas” is a mere prelude to a detailed catalog of vice and sin, as the story deepens and stretches to accommodate layer after layer of lies, double-dealing, betrayal and cover-up. Funny what can happen when mob leader and “honest haberdasher” Mickey Cohen (Paul Guilfoyle) — a real-life criminal — is getting a time-out in jail.

Central to the tangle is the Nite Owl case, involving kidnapping, rape, robbery and murder, which of course is not what it looks like. White’s ex-partner Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel) was among the bodies found in a dumpy diner, and, in pretty short order, three African-American guys with records end up taking the fall.

Kim Basinger won the Oscar for best supporting actress.

Additionally, the three cops find out about an upscale call-girl service, run by the suave, slick and urbane Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn). Patchett’s gimmick: All the girls resemble popular actresses — or they do after a few trips to a plastic surgeon. For instance, there’s a Veronica Lake look-alike named Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger). Sure enough, such a business did apparently exist in ’50s Tinseltown, as recounted in Garson Kanin’s memoir “Hollywood.”

Bud White proves to be both smart and strong as he asks the tough questions and finds their well-guarded answers, one in the form of a rotten, rat-infested corpse who turns out to be a fellow cop. Shocker!

More storylines surface, such as the romance between Bud and good-hearted golden-girl Lynn, not to be confused with Veronica Lake. (Btw, the Lana Turner mixup scene is a hoot!) And as is the case in noir, it’s not long before Exley meets Lynn and creates a triangle of treachery. As the threads of the story unravel, and we see more darkness and deceit, deadly shoot-outs and bloody dust-ups, it’s clear that all strands lead back to a central source of evil. Hanson and Helgeland, courtesy of Ellroy, tell a tense, crisply paced, funny and chilling story nestled in a near-perfectly rendered world of sun-drenched, sleazy LA.

A hit at the Cannes Film Festival, “L.A. Confidential” also ranked on most major critics Top Ten lists for 1997. The film received Oscar noms for best movie, director, editing, art direction, cinematography, adapted screenplay, supporting actress, sound and music/original dramatic score. Composer Jerry Goldsmith also scored “Chinatown” from 1974 and 1992’s “Basic Instinct.”  “L.A. Confidential” won two: Basinger for supporting actress; Hanson and Helgeland for the screenplay.

Hanson’s film stands up beautifully and certainly holds its own among the great neo-noir movies, in the tradition of “Chinatown” and “Body Heat.” Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times sums up the appeal this way: “Its intricate plot is so nihilistic and cold around the heart, its nominal heroes so amoral, so willing to sell out anyone and everyone, that the film is as initially unnerving as it is finally irresistible.”

That said, there are several snags on the accuracy front. [Read more...]

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