The Blue Dahlia

Written by Joe D on February 22nd, 2010

The story goes that Paramount desperately needed to make a film in a hurry, Alan Ladd their box office giant was due to report for military service and they wanted a film to exploit his fame before he went in.

Ladd, a grip turned actor, for a non-actor he’s very good

So they asked Raymond Chandler to write a script in record breaking time. He asked for and got a bunch of special conditions that he insisted were absolutely necessary for him to finish on time. He wanted to work at home, he needed two cars and drivers at his disposal, round the clock stenographers and nurses and an unlimited supply of alcohol. Chandler felt the only way he could deliver was to be constantly inebriated, I guess this got his creative juices flowing. He delivered the script. Is it a film noir? Maybe but it does veer from the form in certain significant ways. The story starts with three returning WWII vets arriving in Hollywood, U.S.A., Alan Ladd, William Bendix and Beaver Cleaver’s future dad Hugh Beaumont. They stop in a bar for a celebratory drink and we learn that Bendix has a “plate in his head” from a war wound, also he is driven to near insanity every time he hears “monkey music” or big band swing/jazz. A soldier playing a tune on a juke box is the object of Bendix’s maniacal ire. This is an interesting twist, I always felt that WW II era big band music was almost a drug, that it relaxed soldiers far from home, reassuring them with it’s soporific harmonies that everything was going to work out, they’d return home to Mary Lou and grow old under the apple tree. Here Chandler takes the musical promise of normalcy and shines a bright light of reality in our faces by having it inspire madness and murder in the damaged mind of a returned veteran. The other false promise, the faithful wife awaiting her returning husband is likewise demolished when Ladd finds a wild party in full swing at his wife’s “bungalow apartment”, not only that but he sees his spouse smooching on nightclub owner-racketeer Howard DaSilva.

Evil Sparkly Doris with corrupt nightclub owner/paramour DaSilva

She delivers the coup-d’etat by informing Ladd that their son Jimmy died after she drove drunk and crashed. Doris Dowling plays the evil wife and she is pure nasty badness. OK, usually the femme fatale dupes the man, lies to him, appears sweet or sexy somehow lures him to his doom, like Eve with her Apple, not Doris! She is so nasty and evil she’s lucky Alan Ladd doesn’t kill her himself. She winds up dead pretty quickly which is another curve thrown in the noir structure, the femme fatale is killed in Reel One! Then we get some great Chandler set pieces, Ladd meets Veronica Lake in the rain, (Chandler called her”Moronica” Lake), the house dick (Will Wright) starts blackmailing everyone in sight and is treated like dirt by everyone in the film! He is at the absolute bottom of humanity, I found myself laughing out loud as one character after another insulted, degraded, and humiliated him, maybe I should say tried to humiliate him because he didn’t care, he just wanted a few bucks, or a cigar or whatever he could cadge from anyone in his path.

Ladd and Lake in fake Malibu. The poor, beautiful junkie paid dearly for fame.

There’s an incredible character- Leo(Don Costello), he’s DaSilva’s partner in the night club and he is great, a true Chandler character, a gangster that wears thick glasses, he looks more like an accountant than the cold blooded killer that he is. I think he’s a truer picture of what a lot of these racketeers were like, they considered themselves business men and killing was simply a part of their business. A sharp observer like Chandler surely based this guy on a real gangster in the papers at that time. Then there’s the obligatory kidnap the hero, take him out of town, tie him up, beat him into unconciousness scene. Just like in The Big Sleep where it happens to Bogie. A great bit of action occurs when Leo, who has injured his foot in a struggle with Ladd, is soaking his toe in a basin of hot water supplied by his kind henchman, Ladd awakens from being slugged and tips a table over that smashes down right on Leo’s injured toe! The reaction from Leo is classic! And I’ve never seen that particular move in a fight scene, another Chandler stroke of genius. There’s plenty of snappy patter such as “I’m not that kind of a rat” “Oh,what kind of a rat are you? or when Lake picks up Ladd in the rain ” I guess you could get wetter if you lay down in the gutter” etc. Chandler knew how to write that kind of stuff. Another anti-noir element is the lighting, there’s no use of shadows, venitian blinds, smoky silhouettes in this film. It actually looks like a Monogram el cheapo. The sets are crummy, under decorated, limned in just a few shades of gray, they actually remind me of the sets from the Abbot and Costello television show.

Cheapness Personified!

The whole production looks grade Z, which is kind of surprising since Ladd and Lake were big box office at the time, having recently struck gold in This Gun For Hire. Another weird aspect is the almost total lack of background music. The only music in the film is the big band stuff that drives Buzz (Bendix) into homicidal amnesiac rages. Most films of this era had incidental music playing under dialog scenes. This has none. Was this a budgetary consideration? I don’t know, the flat lighting and skimpy set design speaks more of the rapidity with which they needed to make this film, they were under the gun with Ladd’s induction looming. But I feel that the cheapness of the sets, the flat lighting and the lack of music works for this film, it makes it more creepy, it’s harder to dismiss it as a piece of fluff, it gets under your skin like the home movies of a serial killer. It’s more real, lifelike in it’s mundaneness, not movielike.


The one prop they seem to have spent any money on at all is the neon sign that bedecks the front of DaSilva’s nightclub, a large gaudy Blue Dahlia. That’s the name of the club. I think it represents a lot to Chandler and this story. Da Silva publicizes his club by handing out Dahlias dyed blue. Veronica Lake picks at one absent mindedly in DaSilva’s office triggering an outburst from Buzz “She was picking at a flower just like that when I killed her!” Buzz the disturbed veteran is the murderer! The Dahlia, an exotic hot house flower represented sex,debauchery, corruption to Chandler. Just like the opening scene in The Big Sleep that takes place in General Sternwood’s green house. Exotic flowers are perverse to Chandler, decadent. The fatal combination of Dahlia and “monkey music homicidally unhinges Buzz. I think it played out like this, Buzz met Johnny’s wife in a bar, not realizing who she was. They went to her bungalow to have sex, he couldn’t perform, she taunted him, tore up the flower( masturbated?) drove him to murder.

Femme Fatale Doris about to get her comeuppance from Shell Shocked Steel Plated Buzz

The film ends with Will Wright being named as the killer but in Chandler’s original script it was Buzz, the Navy intervened and demanded the script be changed, they didn’t want a veteran to be portrayed as a murderer. Chandler strongly objected to this but he was overruled. The film was a big hit and several spin-offs or rip offs were made in it’s wake, notably The Blue Gardenia by Fritz Lang. Shortly after this film’s release a young woman was hanging out in a drugstore in Long Beach, she had wavy black hair and a soda jerk referred to her as The Black Dahlia in a joking reference to this film. Thus pinning a name on one of the most famous unsolved murder cases in the history of L.A. and further assuring a place in history to this strange bit of celluloid.

Beth Short bedecked with flowers, the real Black Dahlia

The beautiful Veronica Lake was in reality a troubled young woman. Her husband and director Andre deToth revealed that she was a heroin addict and an alcoholic during her meteoric rise to fame. She was found near the end of her life working as a bar maid in NYC. She achieved the fame girls like Elisabeth Short ( Black Dahlia) came to Hollywood to find yet she wound up working in a bar, a fate Beth Short might have shared if she’d lived.

Arnold Laven, R.I.P.

Written by Joe D on September 21st, 2009

Producer- Director Arnold Laven has passed on. He’s responsible for a large amount of influential film and television. I just read a great interview with him the other day. It was done for the Noir City Sentinel, the newsletter of the Film Noir Foundation and you can read it here. I was so impressed with this interview I ordered the DVD of Laven’s directorial debut, 1952’s Without Warning, one of the first serial killer pictures and full of great Los Angeles location photography. I will post about it once I get it.

Besides his great film noir work Laven was in a large way responsible for two giant Western television sagas, The Rifleman and The Big Valley. Both big sources of inspiration for a generation of filmmakers including Quentin Tarantino who has expressed as much to me.

He also directed Tim Holt’s last picture The Monster That Challenged The World, Laven and Holt met many years earlier on the set of The Arizona Ranger and became good friends. He talked Holt out of retirement to make this SciFi /Horror movie. It has a gripping scene of a woman and a young girl trapped in a closet as the monster breaks through the door to get them. Check it out.


The Locket

Written by Joe D on August 26th, 2009

The Locket is a wonderful psychological noir featuring Robert Mitchum playing a Greenwich Village artist. It’s directed by John Brahm, a German ex-pat who learned his stuff at UFA then came over here to avoid the Nazis and made some great films. I got turned onto him through the 20th Century Fox Horror Classics dvd collection, featuring three films directed by Brahm- The Undying Monster, The Lodger, and Hangover Square. These are all great and definitely worth watching.


German Genius- John Brahm

A little research led me to The Locket, an RKO gem lensed by one of my favorite cameramen, Nicholas Musuraca (the original Prince Of Darkness). Brahm also directed a Raymond Chandler based film, The Brasher Doubloon, aka The High Window, a Vincent Price vehicle The Mad Magician, and the super groovy Hot Rods To Hell! He then directed a lot of cool TV, Outer Limits, Man from U.N.C.L.E. etc. An interesting note, Brahm directed some episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he directed a version of The Lodger years after Hitchcock did and Hitchcock’s Marnie is very similar to The Locket, but in my opinion inferior to the earlier B&W noir. The Locket is not on dvd but you can watch it as I did on YouTube.

The Locket- Part1

Deadline U.S.A.

Written by Joe D on April 17th, 2009

Last night I went to another screening, part of the 11th Film Noir Festival at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood USA. One of the films shown was Deadline U.S.A., the directorial debut of Richard Brooks, who shot to fame soon after with his mega hit Blackboard Jungle. Brooks had been a newspaperman and the veracity his experience brings into play is eye-opening. The scene at the paper are great, especially the scenes in the printing room, these were the days when the paper was printed on giant machines directly downstairs from the reporters desks. A lot of important action takes places right there in front of, over and in the enormous presses. It’s also a very timely piece as the subplot has to do with the selling and closing of a vital newspaper something we are being subjected to on a daily basis across our country, probably across the world. Eddie Mueller (programmer of the Noir Fest) spoke before the screening. He said his father was a newspaperman and this was his favorite film. Then he asked how many people in the audience were in the newspaper game, I would say about half of the crowd raised their hands, this film is beloved by journalists and I can see why. It’s really about the power of the press, about the principles of journalism that inspires a young person to pursue a career in that hallowed field. And never have I seen the ideals of reporting better illustrated, a sensational story of a nude blonde, wearing only a mink coat is fished out of a river, one paper plays it up in true tabloid style, Humphrey Bogart’s paper “The Day” reports it unsensationally.
Bogart plays editor Ed Hutcheson, a tough, obsessed genius newspaperman, unafraid to take on the biggest gangster in town, uncompromising, a beautiful performance. The supporting cast is loaded with great character actors, Kim Hunter as Bogie’s ex-wife, Ed Begley, Jim Backus, Paul Stewart, you’ll see a gallery of faces that you recognize from many films. But the real stand out for me was the dialogue, some of the best, funniest, on the money verbiage I’ve heard in any film. Brooks really knew what he was talking about or should I say writing about.

Brooks on the Right
Michael Cimino was a friend of Richard Brooks and he told me a story about him once. It seems Brooks had just come to Hollywood and he got a gig writing something for Orson Welles. Welles was making Jane Eyre at the time over at Samuel Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood ( across the street from the Formosa Bar) Brooks lived nearby and one night as he was typing feverishly in his apartment, he heard someone yelling his name. He looked out the window and there was Welles, in full Jane Eyre makeup, driving a horse and buggy from the film, out in the street in front of Brooks apartment. ” Brooks, where are my pages! I want my pages!” Welles shouted, urging the young writer to hurry up and finish his assignment. Welles had just taken off from the set still in character, driving a horse and buggy he drove in the film out the gate and down the streets of Hollywood to check up on his writer. Those were the days! But see Deadline U.S.A. if you can, it’s not out on DVD but somebody at Fox should take note and release this wonderful film for the world to enjoy and treasure.annex-fontaine-joan-jane-eyre_01.jpg

Welles in the Buggy with Joan Fontaine

11th Annual Film Noir Festival Alias Nick Beal, Fly By Night

Written by Joe D on April 6th, 2009

Wow! Two great unknown (to me) noirs at the 11th annual Film Noir Festival at the American Cinematheque (Egyptian Theater Branch). First up Alias Nick Beal a supernatural Noir Morality play that features a career best performance by Ray Milland and is cited by it’s director ( John Farrow, dad of Mia) as his best film! It is great, beautifully art directed and shot with a great Franz Waxman score, a terrific Audrey Totter turning in a wonderful portrayal as a washed up actress, now semi-hustler bar crawling, drink stealing lush, fighting other chicks in waterfront dives. Seduced by devilish Ray Milland in a part (to quote Eddie Mueller) he was born to play. This movie is rife with an ahead of it’s time savagery especially as directed at Audrey Totter! There is a scene of Milland coaching her for a romantic encounter with Good Guy Thomas Mitchell that has to be seen to be believed, it’s that good! Fog, waterfront dives, a Salvador Dali inspired apartment, all add up to an eerie ,unsettling atmosphere that works like gangbusters. Check this one out.
The second half of the double bill was the 75 minute
Fly By Night. This B movie has a 1930’s serial plot, involving spies, an insane asylum, a mad scientist, mistaken identity, a super weapon that the spies are after, etc. But it is so funny in such a natural unforced way, it rises way above the subject matter. Richard Carlson was never better and Nancy Kelly is super, a beautiful funny performance. Robert Siodmak’s talent is evident from the first frame to the last, this movie oozes a charm and sophistication that will seduce anyone and make them a fan. There is a car stunt, where the two on the run protagonists drive a car in reverse off a car carrier truck as it’s barreling down a highway ,it rocks! Also the finale involving the scientist and chief spy had the audience cheering. And kudos to the programmers for putting this fast paced funny film as the second half of a double bill,it made what could have been a long night extremely enjoyable.

Tonight at The Egyptian

Written by Joe D on April 3rd, 2009

Here’s a preview of one of tonight’s films screening at the Egyptian theater in Hollywood as part of the 11th annual Film Noir Fest, it’s from Alias Nick Beale directed by John Farrow.

It screens with a rarity directed by super noir sytlist Robert Siodmak, called Fly By Night. Check out this article on the maestro Siodmak, Here.

Film Noir Fest at The Egyptian

Written by Joe D on March 26th, 2009

The Egyptian Theater in Hollywood is hosting the 11th annual Film Noir Festival starting on Thursday April 2nd with OUT OF THE PAST (arguably the best film noir of all time) and the ultra-rare COMPANY SHE KEEPS. Here’s the link to the schedule. Be there!

French Crime at the Egyptian

Written by Joe D on September 4th, 2008

Saturday September 6 the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood U.S.A. will screen two classics starring Jean Gabin. The Sicilian Clan at 7:30 pm and the ultra-rare Moontide at 9:30. The Sicilian Clan also features two other Titans of Cinema acting, Alain Delon and Lino Ventura. What a great opportunity to see these greats in 35mm! Here’s the trailer!

Moontide features sexy, smart Ida Lupino and the ever popular star of Hollywood epics, Bette Davis melodramas and Italian Space operas, Claude Raines. Go see them! You Must Obey!
Sunday they’re showing the unseen House On The Waterfront a gritty tale of a tugboat captain emeshed in an intrigue involving his daughter, a gangster, a diver and a corpse trapped in a sunken ship that’s about to be salvaged. Then the incredible grandaddy of French noir Touchez Pas Au Grisbi. A great movie ! I reviewed it at length here. Go see it! You Will Love It! Bravo Cinematheque! Here’s the schedule: Cinematheque
It’s all part of a celebration of Jean Gabin and a new book about him : World’s Coolest Movie Star: The Complete 95 Films (and Legend) of Jean Gabin, the author, Charles Zigman will be there as well.

Sweet Smell Of Success & The Lost New York

Written by Joe D on September 1st, 2008

SSOS just showed on TCM as part of a Tony Curtis retrospective.

Sidney Falco on the threshold of Success, the entrance to “21”

This time it really brought back memories of Lost New York. Some of the spots are still there but they’re not the same. First off, this is an incredible movie. Great classic performances out of Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Great dialog, “Match me Sidney.” ” I’d hate to take a bite out of you, you’re a cookie full of arsenic.”

One of Burt’s Greatest Roles
There’s more quipping in this movie than any other that I can think of. ” Here’s your head, what’s your hurry.” It does not stop. James Wong Howe’s cinematography is amazing, they went for a reverse, long lenses to shoot long shots, exteriors of NYC stacked up in a telephoto lens, wide angle lenses for close ups, distorting, paranoid, powerful images of the characters and this technique works incredibly well. The characters jump off the screen at you with all the dynamism of a Steve Ditko comic.

Pure Genius!
The environs of New York never looked better. Great locations! Shots of a bygone NYC. There’s a scene at A Times Square hot dog stand, you can picture Jack Kerouac walking in. It reminds me of Papaya King, a stand I used to frequent. Two dogs and a papaya drink for $1.50! That was a deal!

Time Travel via HotDog Stand!

Hey Kerouac! Pass The Mustard!
All that stuff in midtown, the 40’s and 50’s , the “21” club, the Ed Sullivan Theater, the crummy offices, the streets, J.J.(Burt Lancaster) lives in the Brill Building, 1619 Broadway. I used to work there, there were a lot of editing rooms in that building. Saturday Night Live had offices there, I once had a run in with a belligerent John Belushi on the service elevator.

Sidney in the lobby of The Brill Building, 1600 Bway was right across the street
Reverse on the Brill lobby. This was it, Tin Pan Alley!

Across the street was 1600 Broadway, the National Screen Services Building. They had a ton of cutting rooms in there as well and it was one of the last buildings in the city to have elevator operators! Next door was the Rincon Argentina, a great restaurant, full of editors at lunch time, half a chicken, french fries, salad for $3.59, plus a demi boutee of house red for a buck! Those were the days. So to see J.J. and Sidney cruising my old neighborhoods blew me away. I worked up the street at my friend’s company “CineHaven”, 254 W.54th street. Rumor had it that Marlon Brando and Wally Cox were roommates there in the 50’s.

I used to work (and crash) right up the street!

Just up the street from Studio 54 and Trans Audio , a mixing studio with a lot of cutting rooms. But back to SSOS, the bar that Martin Milner plays at when Sidney sets him up, I think it’s by the old West Side Highway, the location is so cool, Sidney up on the overpass signaling Kello the bad cop to get Martin. Incredible!

West Side Highway Location?

Evil Cop Harry Kello beats up Jazz Guitarist Martin Milner
Life imitates Art, Miles Davis was beaten up by a cop on 52nd Street while standing outside a gig

The great Chico Hamilton Quintet appears in the film and they are excellent. Great score by Elmer Bernstein, great screenplay by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, great direction by Alexander Mackendrick.
Chico Hamilton on drums, the guy on cello is Fred Katz, he wrote the super cool score for Roger Corman’s Little Shop Of Horrors!

Great characters, supposedly J.J. was based on Walter Winchell, the influential columnist. It’s an interesting character, he wraps himself up in the flag spouting a lot of rhetoric about patriotism, all the while spewing vitriol on everyone he doesn’t like, and if anyone complains, they’re un-American! A petty tyrant whose motivations are his personal vendettas and small minded attacks pretending that he’s doing it for the good of his “60 million readers”. I think this is a very timely character, as relevant now as back then, even more so. We’ve got a J.J. Hunsecker in the White House, only without the witty quips. The movie introduces the wonderful Susan Harrison, what happened to her?

If you want to get a feel for that old lost New York check out this guy, Jean Shepherd. He had a late nite radio show broadcast from NYC, I’d listen to him when I was a kid. Sometimes he talks about NYC and it doesn’t get any better than this. He also wrote the Christmas Story film. Here’s a link to some of his shows. Here it is : Jean Shepherd Shows
flatiron.jpgI used to live around the corner from the Flatiron Building, an early structural steel building in NYC courtesy of Chicago architect Daniel Burnham

The Exiles to screen at UCLA

Written by Joe D on August 13th, 2008

Finally they restored Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles! They’re screening it at the Billy Wilder Theater August 15 through August 23 also it’s going to be shown across the country check here for your area. I’ve never seen this film but I’ve wanted to see it for a long time. The true story of a Native American community on Bunker Hill in Los Angeles.
Bunker Hill is a mythical part of LA that was dismantled during the 60’s and replaced with office buildings, it was a neighborhood of crumbling Victorian mansions, some carved up into rooming houses and Angel’s Flight was smack dab in the middle.
This neighborhood features prominently in pulp writing(Chandler, Ellroy) and classic film noir. So come on down and check it out! Los Angeles does have history, it’s just buried under a strip mall.
Here’s the trailer:

Underworld U.S.A.

Written by Joe D on June 15th, 2008

Akira Kurosawa sued Sergio Leone claiming that Leone ripped off Yojimbo and based his Per Un Pugno De Dollari on it. Leone claimed that it was a common story used many times before notedly by Dashiel Hammet in his novel Red Harvest. A story about a gangster who infiltrates a gang and plays one side against the other.


Samuel Fuller, Maverick
That is exactly what happens in Sam Fuller’s excellent Underworld U.S.A. Cliff Robertson grows up on the wrong side of the tracks, as a youngster he witnesses his father’s demise at the bloody hands of a group of thugs in a back alley. The young protagonist swears to take vengeance on the men who offed his old man and when he grows up he starts tracking down the killers. They have moved up in the world becoming big time gangsters and Cliff uses everyone to set them up, the police, the gangsters themselves, even the woman he loves. This movie pulls no punches, a hit man runs down a 10 year old girl after befriending her and giving her some gum.

Richard Rust, Psycho Killer with Cliff Robertson
It seems her bookkeeper father has disappeared with some sensitive information about “Mr. Big”. Robert Emhardt the large guy with the snide attitude is great as the Big Boss, after Cliff (Tolly) sets up one goon, Richard Rust the happy hitman douses the poor slob with gas and lights him up. Emhardt is watching from the back seat of his his ’60 Caddy , he leans forward with a cigarette, “Gimme a light.” he orders.


Last One In Is A Rotten Egg!
This film is great, it really demonstrates how to make a lot out of a little, something Fuller was a master of. It inspired many filmmakers and is chock full of great ideas executed with style and power. Check it out.

Poorman’s Process

Written by Joe D on May 18th, 2008

Here’s a little behind the scenes footage that demonstrates how we did our poorman’s process shot in my film One Night With You. Joe Montgomery met a couple of old time Hollywood Cameramen and learned a lot of the techniques perfected during the film noir days. This is one of them. You get to see the set up and then the final scene. Check it out!