B&W, 1946, 96m.
Directed by George Marshall
Starring Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling, Hugh Beaumont Arrow (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), TCM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Universal (DVD) (UK R2 PAL), Koch (DVD) (Germany R2 PAL)
Far more famous for its place in Hollywood lore than as an actual film, this entertaining postwar noir was cobbled together quickly when star Alan Ladd was enlisted for military service with only a short period of time to shoot his scenes. At the height of his tenure as a screenwriter, legendary hardboiled novelist Raymond Chandler demanded unheard of accommodations (some possibly apocryphal, such as being allowed to work drunk from home) to quickly crank out his first original solo screenplay, and the released film went on to inspire the nickname of one of Los Angeles’s most famous crime victims, Elizabeth “The Black Dahlia” Short.
The third of four starring vehicles for Ladd and Veronica Lake (in between The Glass Key and Saigon), this moody outing plays on the fears of many soldiers returning home as recently retired pilot Johnny Morrison (Ladd) comes home from the South Pacific to find his irresponsible and alcoholic wife (Dowling) in the arms of Eddie (Da Silva), owner of the titular nightclub. Coupled with the fact that her boozing may have killed their son, there’s plenty of motive for Johnny to bump her off – which becomes complicated when she does indeed turn up dead after Johnny lights out for the night and catches a ride with Eddie’s unhappy spouse, Joyce (Lake). Now fingered as the obvious suspect, Johnny also has to contend with two fellow returning veteran buddies, Buzz (Bendix) and George (Beaumont, Ward Cleaver himself), the former coping with some particularly violent demons of his own.
Apart from some last-minute script tinkering that changed the culprit’s identity, this is a slick and enjoyable thriller that ranks with the strongest of its era. Ladd and Lake are a magnetic team capable of hypnotizing the camera as always, and fellow Glass Key alum Bendix matches them with the most volatile and fascinating character in the film, one who fits the uneasy post-World War II mindset a bit too well for comfort. Workmanlike director George Marshall never really settled into one genre or style, so he has the good sense here to just sit back and shoot the actors with just enough shadows and neon to give it that unmistakable noir stamp.
Arrow Video’s UK Blu-ray from 2016 marks the film’s high-definition debut, and it’s a welcome step up from its SD counterparts; the UK and German DVDs were utterly miserable ports of an ancient broadcast master, while the TCM one improved things quite a bit. The transfer quality is similar to Arrow’s simultaneous HD rendering of The Glass Key; it looks like a nice 35mm print, about on par for the elements Paramount passed on to Universal when the rights shifted years ago, meaning there’s a significant amount of film grain but also quite a bit of depth and detail. The LPCM English mono audio sounds razor sharp, with optional English subtitles provided (the first time for this film as well, apparently).
Noir expert Frank Krutnik (author of In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity) offers both a video featurette (26 mins.) and a selected scene audio commentary (9 mins.), exploring its odd place in the noir canon despite lacking some of the key elements (no flashbacks, voice over, etc.), the strong role of producer John Houseman, and its representation of Chandler's tough writing style. Also included is a Screen Guild Theater dramatization of the story from 1949 ("brought to you by Camel cigarettes - not one single case of throat irritation!"), with Lake and Ladd reprising their roles for a compact half-hour version that hits all the high points. The theatrical trailer and a gallery of stills and poster art rounds out the package, which comes with reversible packaging featuring the original poster art and a new design by Tonci Zonjic; the first pressing also comes with a liner notes booklet featuring an essay by Film London’s Adrian Wootton.