Two Film Noir Classics
Two classic films from the noir genre were written by novelists who both became major influences in the American film art of noir. As it happened, film noir emerged in tandem with war abroad and an ensuing criminality and distopian milieu on the streets.
Amidst a dark, hawkish atmosphere, Graham Green wrote This Gun For Hire, (1942) which starred two unknowns, at the time, Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd. Raymond Chandler wrote the original screenplay for The Blue Dahlia, (1946) also starring Lake and Ladd.
This Gun For Hire takes place in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where the immensity of industrial era bridges and skyscrapers create a sense of the surreal. The impossibly high-ceilings and great, marble entryways and columns of 20th century architecture bespeak the opulence of a wealthier era, but they are juxtaposed with more desperate times. The war has heaved up waves of violence in the form of criminality on the streets, brutality, paranoia, espionage and informants, as well as foreign agents, but also a new version of patriotism.
Alan Ladd plays Philip Raven, the antihero. Raven has a handsome face that invites admiration, but just beneath these quiet, good looks is a hardened killer – a gun for hire. Raven is a ball of seething, psychological baggage. Yet, in noir fashion, the oeuver informs the audience to feel a kind of sympathy for the criminal, quietly cheer for his escape and see him somehow transformed.
Raven is dealing with some diabolical characters, ranging from corrupt millionaires to duplicitous hired hands, who are surely just as sinister as Raven, if not more so, and certainly not as good looking. Raven is as tough as the steel of the Bay Bridge, but there is a hidden aspect to his personality revealed, for example, through his tender love of cats, indeed cats are the only creatures on earth for whom he instinctively shows any sign of love. In fact, Raven's temper flairs toward a woman who angrily swats away a kitten from drinking a saucer of milk, a scene which asks the question: who is more heartless, Raven or the people surrounding him? With his steady gaze and a certain boyish vulnerability, redemption seems to await Raven at every ensuing scene.
Enter Veronica Lake to rekindle that hope. She plays Ellen Graham, a petite blond with a sexy swagger who sings and performs a nightclub magic act that probably amazed audiences at the time and still earns appreciation for its camera wizardry. Veronica Lake became the quintessential, Hollywood starlet of the 1930's; she literally beams with light and sparkle. She is the kind of coquette that appeals to everyone, men and women alike. With her iconic, wavy, blond hair and her sweet, yet circumspect eyes, she is the one darling in the world to finally soothe Raven into some semblance of submission and even work a life-confession out of him.
Raven's confession tells his history: a victim of child abuse and unlucky circumstances which led to further hard knocks in an entirely unsympathetic world; he lived by brutality. This plot-development encompasses all of the tropes of noir: the psychology of antisocial behavior, the dreamlike quality of Raven's memories, aspects of dark and light, varying levels of violence and a general atmosphere of malaise.
There is also quite a lot of the gangster vernacular in this dialog. For example, Raven, with gun in hand, barks such invectives out as, “Alright, get 'em up!” As he corrals some traitors into a closet. Or when Raven asks Ellen, “Are you gonna marry that copper?”
More touchingly, when Ellen administers to Raven's wrist, which has been badly hurt, she observes,
“You're a funny guy. You like it,” (her fixing his wrist), “but you won't admit it.”
To which Raven responds in his tough-guy voice, “That's sucker-talk!”
The Blue Dahlia was written by novelist, Raymond Chandler. He wrote the novel and was then commissioned by Hollywood to write the screenplay – the only screenplay Chandler ever wrote. His story is the essence of noir and takes place in Los Angeles, Chandler's own familiar turf. The film begins with three war heroes just pulling into Hollywood after serving in WorldWar II.
Alan Ladd plays Johnny Morrison,a much more pshychologically sound, tough guy in this film. He's a little war-weary but completely devoted to his two buddies, and he's looking forward to going home to his wife – albeit with trepidation.
Johnny's wife is a Hollywood party girl, and all of the trouble seems to begin with her. Though she is beautiful, she alone embodies all of the dystopian, noir characteristics of cold indifference, the hard-edged vernacular, diseption and desperate histrionics covering up a suitcase-full of bitterness and fear.
In classic, noir fashion, guns and criminality lurk just under the surface of a rich and glamourous facade. Where civilians – whether they are only half-aware of the war, or just come home from it – weild a cocktail as readily as a pistol. Of course, there is a high-profile murder, making this story, at its core, a who-done-it puzzle. There are plenty of shady characters and suspects, but Johnny unfortuitously becomes the primary target in a convoluted manhunt, and thus, as in a Hitchcock thriller, the prime suspect must go underground and solve the mystery himself.
Once again, Veronica Lake is the ray of light in an otherwise dark, ambiguous world. As Joyce Harwood, she is the glamourous type, but she's also a loner, like Johnny. The dialogue between these two drives their possible romance. Joyce the coquette, picks up Johnny along Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu on a dark, rainy night, but Johnny doesn't trust anyone and hesitates before getting into her car. “Well, you could get wetter if you lay down in the gutter,” quips Joyce. Thus begins a tantillizing relationship sprinkled, as usual, with cheeky dialogue and plenty of chemistry.
The most touching as well as funny scenes involve Johnny's best and most devoted buddy, Bud, played expertly by William Bendix. His presence in the story reflects the violence of war upon human beings and their natural reaction to a brutal world. He portrays one of the only truly human characters in the story.
In watching Blue Dahlia and other noir films, you can see a piece of the history of gun violence in America. Pistols were available and ubiquitous in this genre. They symbolized a great deal and actually romantised the story, but as a thoughtful viewer, you perceive the fear and desperation behind carrying and using guns. Violence begets violence and also poses the question: does life inform film or does film inform life?