The Net (UK 1953)

What a strange mix of ingredients The Net presents. At first glance this should be a prestigious ‘A’ feature with the distinguished director Anthony Asquith and a fine cast headed by Phyllis Calvert and James Donald and a strong supporting cast of character actors. It’s a Two Cities film and it’s made at Pinewood for Rank – but it’s only 86 minutes long. Why is it not included by Wikipedia in its ‘select list’ of Two Cities films? The answer probably lies in its mix of genres and the recognition that science fiction is the main genre with a spy thriller and romance also worked into the narrative.

Science fiction was generally a despised genre in the UK of the 1950s, though in retrospect certain films such as the Quatermass series (i.e. including TV serials) have since gained much respect. One of several useful American reviews of The Net (it was renamed Project M7 in the US and released in 1954 as the ‘B’ picture alongside The Creature from the Black Lagoon) suggests that it was the first UK science fiction film since The Shape of Things to Come (1936). I can’t think of another science fiction title during the 1940s. The Net was based on a novel by John Pudney, an intriguing figure who was known as a poet and writer and who, during the Second World War, joined the RAF and worked as a ‘creative writer’ at the Air Ministry. Several of the films that made use of his writing had themes relating to flying. Ironically he was also the father-in-law of the UK film studies pioneer Victor Perkins. Pudney stood as a Labour candidate in the 1945 General Election in a safe Tory seat and his political connections may have informed his writings in the early 1950s. His 1952 novel was adapted by William Fairchild who was a prolific screenwriter in the 1950s.

The model’s design is displayed in this alternative poster/lobby card

In the ten years from the end of the Second World War, the UK economy was under great strain as the country struggled to rebuild after wartime damage, repay American loans and deal with the end of Empire. The one hope for an industrial revival based on new technologies was the lead in aviation design, a more positive legacy of war. Unfortunately, both the Labour and Conservative parties were wedded to a Cold War policy that required the UK to have its own nuclear deterrent. The British film industry produced several films in the decade that focused on aviation and especially on aviation developments and nuclear research. In David Lean’s 1952 film The Sound Barrier an aircraft manufacturer attempts to develop a new jet fighter that will be operational at speeds over Mach 1, breaking the ‘sound barrier’. Lean’s film uses aircraft which are recognisable from the period and it was a box office hit. The Net imagines a much more advanced experimental programme which pushes it into science fiction. (The sound barrier had been ‘broken’ in 1947, but not by operational aircraft which were only just beginning to go into service in 1953.)

Lydia and Dr Leon enjoying viewing ‘What the Butler Saw’ on a trip away from the Project.

The experimental project is located on a coastal site somewhere in Southern England where Professor Heathley (James Donald) leads a team developing the M7 aircraft intending to fly beyond Mach 1 at high altitude. If successful the project is intended to lead to developments of a spacecraft. The ‘Net’ of the title is metaphorical possibly referring to the claustrophobia of the project personnel and to the restrictions placed on Heathley by the civil servant who is his effective manager on site (played by Maurice Denham). It may also refer to the idea of a ‘network’ of spies expected to be attempting to infiltrate the project. Robert Beatty plays the Project Security officer. Heathley plays a form of ‘mad professor’, who is completely immersed in his work. He plans to test the aircraft himself instead of using a professional test pilot. He also neglects his wife Lydia (Phyllis Calvert), who is pursued by the charming and eloquent  Dr. Alex Leon (Herbert Lom). This and a second relationship between two younger members of the project team (played by Muriel Pavlow and Patric Doonan) make up the romance element.

James Donald as Prof. Heathley in his futuristic flying suit.

I’m not very familiar with Anthony Asquith’s work and not a big fan of the films I have seen. He was the son of the Liberal Prime Minister H. H. Asquith and a celebrated director from the 1920s to the 1960s, but this film seems restricted by a low budget. Much of the film is set in the project offices, Heathley’s home or the control room for the flight tests. The interior scenes are quite ‘stagey’, but sometimes the night time scenes have more atmosphere. The M7 aircraft is a model that seems to have drawn on aspects of different new jet types in development at the time. Its fuselage and especially the nose section resembles the Handley Page Victor (which didn’t fly until December 1952) and the delta wing was a feature of various designs including the Avro Vulcan (which first flew in August 1952). These two bomber designs were both intended to deliver nuclear weapons in the future but they were much bigger aircraft than the M7 is intended to represent. The M7 design also incorporates engine intakes which look familiar from the design of the de Havilland Comet which was introduced as the world’s first commercial jet airliner in 1952. Bizarrely, the M7 is seen to be a seaplane for take-off and landing. I’m no aeronautical engineer but this sounds implausible. It does, however, fit in with the other aspects of the film, including the control room (which can take over the controls of the aircraft in flight) and the futuristic helmet and flying suit (see the above film still). I’m reminded of the boys’ comic paper of the 1950s, the Eagle and the adventures of ‘Dan Dare’.

The Net is a strange representation of issues that were certainly important in the early 1950s. I did find it entertaining and it wasn’t a struggle to watch but the budget restrictions and the implausibility of the plot in the context of 1952 were hard to take. I think Phyllis Calvert was wasted and I was egging her on to enjoy a fling with Herbert Lom. James Donald is fine in a role he seems quite suited to. The real weakness of the narrative is that the villain, the spy, is obvious from fairly early on. Whether this is the fault of the script, the direction or the performance of the actor concerned I couldn’t decide. I decided to watch The Net because in my research into 1953 film releases in the UK I noticed that Phyllis Calvert was on stage in Blackpool at roughly the same time this film was in cinemas. I think too that a tie-in cigarette advertisement in 1953 featured her role in the film. She was also appearing in Ealing’s Mandy (UK 1952) in second run cinemas. Perhaps because of this, I came to The Net with the wrong expectations? The Net was broadcast on Talking Pictures TV some time ago and I recently watched a recording. Talking Pictures TV has announced a new online service to be launched on December 1st. This is an exciting prospect and I’ll report on it in due course.

Pandora’s Box, (Die Büchse der Pandora, 1929)

This is a film classic from Weimar cinema and it is screening in its original 35mm format as part of the Centenary Celebrations of the Hebden Bridge Picture House. The film has become memorable for a number of reasons. One is the star, Louise Brooks, who worked in the burgeoning Hollywood studio system but also in Europe; and here film-makers bought out a luminous quality to her screen presence. Brooks was an attractive and vivacious and smart actress; her ‘Lulu in Hollywood’ (1974), recording her experiences in the film capital, is a great and informative read. Here she plays a ‘free spirit’ whose charisma has a fatal effect on the men that she meets.

In this film she was working with one of the fine directors of Weimar Cinema. G. W Pabst. Pabst was born in Austria but his major career was in Germany. He was good with actors, especially women; his Joyless Street (Die freudlose Gasse, 1925) features three divas, Asta Neilsen, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Pabst worked particularly in the ‘street’ film genre and in complex psychological dramas. He was noted for the fluid flow of the editing in his films. Following Pandora’s Box Pabst also directed Brooks in the very fine Diary of a Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, 1929).

One reason for the quality of Pabst’s silent films is the skill and expertise of the craft people working in Weimar Cinema. They led Europe in the quality of their production design and construction; and the development of ‘an unchained camera’ was extremely influential, leading to German directors and craft people being recruited to the major Hollywood studios.

The film is an adaptation of an important German play Earth Spirit (Erdgeist, 1895) and Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora, 1904) by Franz Wedekind. There had already been an earlier film adaptation with Asta Neilsen in the role of Lulu (1923); and there is a famous operatic adaptation, Lulu, by Alban Berg. In the play the character of Lulu is described as “the true animal, the wild, beautiful animal” and the “primal form of woman”.

In the play she is an ambiguous character; Pabst and Brooks bring a sense of natural innocence to the character who is much less of a femme fatale than in other versions. Wedekind’s play was controversial in its time as was this film adaptation. The film was censored in many countries including Britain where there was an altered and ludicrous ending.

The film opens in Berlin with Lulu’s many male admirers: we have major German film actors, Fritz Kortner as Dr. Ludwig Schön: Francis Lederer as Alwa Schön: Carl Goetz as Schigolch: Krafft-Raschig as Rodrigo Quast: and also Countess Augusta Geschwitz (Alice Roberts). Here one gets a sense of the social whirl of the capital; often seen as decadent from outside. As the narrative develops Lulu has to leave Berlin and we see  her and her entourage on a ship based gambling venue and finally in the noirish East End of London.

Originally running for 133 minutes; this print has most of the cuts restored and runs for 131 minutes at 20 fps and in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. It has German title cards with English sub-titles. It also has a live musical accompaniment sponsored by Cinema for All – Yorkshire. An earlier and successful screening that they supported had a fine accompaniment of the classic Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin, 1925) by Darius Battiwalla. Darius is a fine and experienced accompanist and here he will have a very different classic to work with. It should be a rewarding two hours of screen time: Saturday December 4th at 4.30 p.m.

The Bacchus Lady (South Korea 2016)

So-young meets a client while the boy waits for her

I am a little surprised that this Korean film didn’t get a UK release in 2017 after several major festival appearances. It has re-emerged now with a screening at the London Korean Film Festival and its subsequent appearance on MUBI UK. It seems likely that the reason for renewed interest is the starring role it offers to the acclaimed Korean actor Yoon Yeo-jeong whose big success with the Korean-American film Minari (2020) won her the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. She also plays a supporting role in Lucky Chan-sil (South Korea 2019) also in the current MUBI season. But in The Bacchus Lady she has the lead role and she is in virtually every scene. She is excellent in the film but she isn’t the only attraction. It is well directed with interesting and at times quite beautiful cinematography, a plaintive and effective music score as well as strong performances from supporting players.

So-young chats up a fit-looking older man

It is quite difficult to comment on the film without spoiling the narrative development of the last third of the film in particular. I’ll try to avoid too much plot description. The ‘Bacchus’ of the title refers to an energy drink available in South Korea and So-young (Yoon Yeo-jeong) plays a sex worker in her late 60s whose opening gambit when she accosts older men in one of the large parks in Seoul is to offer to sell them a bottle of Bacchus. Her other seemingly innocuous chat-up line is “Would you like a date?” I understand that the Bacchus ladies and the whole phenomenon of older sex workers (i.e. of pensionable age) is a social issue in South Korea. It appears that South Korea has not developed proper social welfare policies for older people, if women like So-young don’t have family or an occupational pension, they must keep working. She suggests it is better than cleaning the streets and collecting refuse.

So-young recruits the young amputee Do-hoon (Yoon Kye-Sang) to look after the boy

The ‘inciting incident’ of the narrative occurs right at the beginning of the film. So-young has contracted gonorrhoea and when at the doctor’s surgery she witnesses an attack by an English-speaking young woman on a Korean doctor. She had noticed a small boy waiting outside the surgery and when the screaming woman cries out to the boy to ‘run!’, So-young to her own amazement runs after him. She knows the city well and eventually she finds him hiding in an alley and takes him to her home. Why does she do this? A possible answer will emerge later. For now all we need to know is that So-young’s room is in a building with two other residents, a glamorous transgender landlady/landlord and a young amputee who seems to make a living painting small model figures of celebrities/film characters. In some ways this going to become a familiar ‘family’ of misfits. The boy doesn’t speak much Korean, only a few words of English and his own language, but somehow they will get by. It’s a feature of the film that looking after the boy is only one part of So-young’s busy life. She appears to owe money that she is paying off in instalments depending on the trade she can drum up in the parks.

If the surrogate ‘family’ seems a quite conventional device, there is also another familiar character in the form of a documentary filmmaker who wants to record an interview with So-young – prostitution is illegal in South Korea, though seemingly not very strictly enforced despite occasional ‘sweeps’ by the local police. Director Lee Je-yong has been criticised by some commentators for cramming too many stories and too many themes into his film. I don’t really agree with this. Lee seems very much in control of the narrative, though in the last third it does change a little, becoming focused on a set of key decisions that So-young takes that will ultimately determine her fate. One of the interesting aspects of the narrative for me is the impact of the American occupation of the country, which lasted much longer than the occupation of Japan, and how it eventually led in turn to both Korean migration to the US but also the creation of a Korean-American (including a Korean-African-American) minority following the local relationships involving American servicemen. This matches similar Vietnamese experiences, but more recently Koreans themselves have created their own mixed families during time spent on overseas visits for education or business in other parts of Asia. We learn eventually that the boy So-young has been looking after speaks Tagalog. Later she meets an American soldier in a fast food restaurant who is the son of an African-American father and Korean mother. Towards the end of the film So-young and her surrogate family visit a theme park in the north of the country, from where they can view the border, and we learn that she originally came from the North as a baby during the war in 1950.

So-young meets an American soldier

The Bacchus Lady could be seen as a form of social melodrama, driven by its concern about social issues with the most emphasis on the fate of the elderly in a society which has not yet worked out how to implement welfare policies (whereas the UK had them but is in danger of losing them). Or it could be simply So-young’s story. Either way it is certainly helped by Yoon Yeo-jeong’s irresistible performance. I’m intrigued by Lee Je-yong who seems to have changed his name to ‘E J-yong’. I realise now that he was the director of Untold Scandal (South Korea 2003), which was one of the ‘wave’ of Korean films that arrived in UK cinemas in the early 2000s and announced a new power in global cinema. I remember being impressed by a period drama with a contemporary feel, but the director has only made a total of eight features since his first in 1998. I hope he makes more. The Bacchus Lady is not a Friday night crowd pleaser and some audiences might find it disturbing, but I would very much recommend it. Although we do see So-young with her clients, there is no exploitation feel to these scenes which are sensitively handled. Here is a short trailer that doesn’t give away too much:

Heart (South Korea 2019)

Part of the long conversation between Lee Seok-Hyeong and Jeong Ga-young

This short feature (70 minutes) is part of MUBI’s current season of New Korean Cinema. It is presented as a ‘comedy’ but I suggest that is misleading for some audiences. I might have smiled at some point and I was prompted to think about a few things as I watched the film but mostly it left me cold. I admit that I’m probably not the target audience – perhaps I’m far too old to understand it. It was part of the London Film Festival programme and I’m grateful for the short introduction offered there and for the one other review I could find, on Eastern Kicks.

Choi Tae-Hwan, the young man the filmmaker meets when she is thinking about making the film

Heart is the third film by writer-director Jeong Ga-young. Following on from Lucky Chan-sil on MUBI, this seems to be another film that gets linked to the work of Hong Sang-soo, though in this case not directly but arguably as a film influenced by the more experienced director. Jeong plays a version of herself in the film, as what Kate Taylor on the BFI website describes as an ‘asshole film director’. She’s a 30 year-old young woman and the narrative is in two main parts. The first two thirds of the film presents an awkward encounter between Jeong and an art teacher played by Lee Seok-Hyeong. Some years earlier she slept with him around the time his wife was giving birth. Now she is considering an affair with another married man and seems to want to discuss her love life and ask his advice – or is this simply a ruse to play with the art teacher? In the midst of this rambling interconnection we are offered flashbacks to the earlier encounter between the two characters, including a couple of fantasy moments. In the final third of the film Jeong offers a kind of meta commentary in which she is now presented as the filmmaker before she was responsible for the earlier sequence as she interviews a young man (Choi Tae-Hwan) who could play the male role in a possible film.

One of the flashbacks in which the art teacher tries to explain what having your own exhibition requires.

Jeong presents herself as a young woman who seems to want everything her way and is aware of the contradictions in her behaviour. The film director in the second part of the film wants to make a film that will be screened at Cannes, but she doesn’t like Cannes because she’ll be uncomfortable getting drunk there. Her character in the first part of the film suggests that she pretends to be a young student to get concessions at the cinema box office, except when its an ‘R’ certificate when she wants to be seen as an older woman. The two reviewers I mentioned see Jeong as “clear-eyed and unsentimental” and that “young women [in the audience] will see a lot of truth in Ga-young” (both quotes from Tania Hall writing for Eastern Kicks). Kate Taylor suggests that Fleabag is a touchstone for the film alongside Hong Sang-soo. I’m all in favour of young women exploring their sexuality and discussing their moral codes if that’s what they wish to do and I can see that gleefully playing with male insecurity is something that could be an attractive proposition. The best sequence in the film for me was when the art teacher explains what you need to do and why, if you want to mount an exhibition of your work. The young woman wants to have an exhibition, even though she doesn’t seem to want to do the work or to have the talent.

Clearly, I struggled with Heart, but it’s good to have the MUBI season available and I will try some of the other titles.

The Rebirth of Neighbourhood Cinemas

Car tail-lights stream past Newlyn Filmhouse in the Coombe at Newlyn. Pic Phil Monckton.

The Cinema Theatre Association (CTA) here in the UK organised a fascinating Zoom presentation by one of the UK’s leading cinema architects Stefanie Fischer on Saturday 6th November. It was a privilege to listen to Stefanie and to learn about her recent work and her ideas about a mini-revolution which could eventually transform the cinema experience for some previously neglected audiences as well as helping to re-generate high streets.

What is a ‘neighbourhood cinema’? It’s actually quite difficult to be definitive but these are generally small cinemas located in small towns or districts of larger cities. They are cinemas attempting to offer film screenings to the widest possible demographic, i.e. across age groups, gender, ethnicity etc. They are also attempting to be cultural hubs and social centres so they try to offer meeting spaces, food and drink and sometimes film education and other forms of social activity. As Fischer pointed out there has been a long history of cinemas serving as a form of ‘civic presence’ on the high street. The term isn’t meant to cover commercial multiplexes or the latest round of new ‘bijou’ or ’boutique’ cinemas such as those of the Everyman and Curzon chains and their smaller competitors. Such cinemas may fulfil some of the criteria but they are likely to target wealthier middle-class patrons and to charge more for admission and for up-market food and drink. There are also various forms of specialised cinemas, often accessing public funding, which might meet all the criteria but which are mostly located in the centre of large cities. ‘Community cinemas’ are similar in some respects but also different in significant ways.

Fischer began her talk with a case study which exemplified several of the features she wanted to emphasise. Newlyn Filmhouse is a new cinema in Cornwall opened in 2016. Newlyn is a small seaside town and important fishing port with a population of 4-5,000. It is only 2 miles from the larger town of Penzance (21,000 pop) which still has a traditional cinema with 4 screens as part of the Merlin chain. The Newlyn Filmhouse has been designed to ‘re-purpose’ an existing building, a fish warehouse which had several features as a light industrial building that could be utilised as part of a cinema design. Stefanie pointed out that Newlyn had an original cinema, the Gaiety which opened in 1905 and closed in the 1964 but has been re-purposed as a restaurant and is visible from the Filmhouse, further down the road. The Filmhouse has only two screens with a total of 135 seats. It shows a variety of commercial films, specialised films, live theatre transmissions and special events and has a food and drink offer in a café-bar, but food is not allowed in the auditorium. The small number of seats means that the cinema must aim for greater occupancy targets and returning audiences. The flexible programme and lower running costs have only been possible because of digital distribution and projection.

The Regal in Wadebridge

The history of the Gaiety led Stefanie to argue that in the early 1900s many re-purposed buildings were being used for cinema screenings before the main period of purpose-built cinemas began around 1911-12. Many such cinemas later closed for a range of reasons, including competition from bigger, more modern screens in the 1920s/30s and the general decline of cinema audiences in the 1950s/60s. But the re-purposed buildings are often in good positions and some early cinemas have survived. Fischer offered us a comparison with an inner city area, utilising Jeremy Buck’s work on Haringey cinemas in North London. She also referred to a second neighbourhood cinema, also in Cornwall, The Regal in Wadebridge. This cinema first opened in 1931 but by 1967 was in danger of closure when it was acquired by a local construction business, W. T. Williams which already had two other Cornwall cinemas in St Austell and Padstow. The ‘WTW’ chain invested in renovating the Regal and in 1986 converting to a two screen cinema. Since then WTW have continued to upgrade the screens in terms of seating and also switched to digital projection and new audio systems as ‘early adopters’. Fischer argued convincingly that this cinema demonstrates two key factors in the survival of neighbourhood cinemas over the past 100 years or more – local ownership and constant attention to the need to upgrade facilities. The current Regal has 204 seats in Screen 1 and 98 in Screen 2. Photos of the auditoria can be found on the cinema’s website. Wadebridge has a population of around 8,000 and offers a range of films comparable to those at the Newlyn Filmhouse.

The restored Campbeltown Picture House

Most of the examples of neighbourhood cinemas and detailed case studies that Stefanie Fischer worked through with us were projects on which she had worked either with her original partnership of Burrell Foley Fischer or more recently as a Cinema Consultant. Apart from the very wonderful Campbeltown Picture Palace in Argyll and Bute, these cinemas are all in Southern/South West England, East Anglia or the East Midlands. I don’t think that the points she makes are inapplicable in the North of England, the region I know best, or in the other Home Nations, but I suspect that there might be some economic differences and possibly other factors. Nevertheless I found the whole presentation very useful. The other discourse was about regeneration of high streets and town centres and, looking into the very near future, the need for ‘eco cinemas’ with a net zero carbon footprint. No longer is the small neighbourhood cinema at a disadvantage with the large cinema chain which initially invested in out of town multiplexes in the peak building period of the late 1980s and into the 1990s. In stark contrast, Fischer referred to new research that suggests that in many small towns, cinema patrons would prefer not to use a car and instead walk or cycle (strangely no mention of buses or trains) to get to their local screen. This is related to the concept of the ’15 minute city’ in which all the necessary facilities for a healthy lifestyle are within the same accessible locality. Re-purposing buildings in the town centre is more ecologically friendly than an out of town facility requiring a car for most audiences. Re-purposing saves on building costs and often has the support of older townspeople, reviving memories. Fischer gave an example of the benefits of digital technologies when she made the point that a new generation of smaller digital projectors can be ceiling-mounted without the need for separate projection rooms. But also important is the transformation of some existing cinemas with their lack of enough space in foyer areas. She showed how this had been solved at the Rio Cinema in Dalston.

The Everyman, Crystal Palace in South London is a ’boutique cinema’ with 4 screens opening in 2018. It is housed in the former Rialto/Granada Cinema that closed as a cinema in 1968 but continued with bingo until 2009 when it was acquired by a church which subsequently sold the property to Everyman.

There was much more in the presentation that I haven’t been able to cover but Stefanie Fischer ended with a rallying cry, saying “There is a hunger – people have to be able to see films” – and neighbourhood cinemas can satisfy that hunger at minimal cost to the environment and maximum benefits to communities. There was plenty of time for questions and comments. The one I recognised immediately was about the upmarket ’boutique’ cinemas. Some of these from the Everyman and Curzon chains do meet some of Fischer’s criteria, including the repurposing of ex-traditional circuit cinemas like the Muswell Hill Odeon, the Curzon Sheffield in a bank building or the Curzon Ripon in shops. There is nothing new in this. The major specialised cinema in Sheffield, The Showroom, was housed in an ex-car showroom and Cornerhouse in Manchester was partly in a furniture store. More worrying is the high seat price and the focus on food. One audience member referred to “restaurants with cinemas attached”. That is certainly the reputation of the Leeds Everyman. I have no intention of visiting a cinema in which somebody is eating pizza while I am watching a film. The other downside to these cinemas is the very high seat prices and the equally highly-priced food and drink. Boutique cinemas in London are charging £15 or more and I have come across prices of £20 for weekend screenings (see the new Tivoli Cinema in Cheltenham). The neighbourhood cinemas discussed by Stephanie Fischer are generally sticking to £8 to £8.50, which I think is fairly standard for most of England.

Fischer did use the Broadway in Nottingham as one of her examples and I would class that as an important specialised cinema, one of a few around the country likely to play most foreign language film releases as well as re-releases and archive films, travelling festival seasons etc. ‘Community cinemas’ are usually run by volunteers, often in ‘non-traditional venues’ and screenings on a part-time basis. They have always been an important part of film distribution in the UK, in the form of film societies and public cinemas, especially in rural areas. It would be good if the CTA paid more attention to the sector, even if they do not often use recognisable cinema buildings. After all, “What is Cinema?” as André Bazin asked? It doesn’t mean only the building.

This was a well attended Zoom Event. At one point I counted 78 ‘participants’, including at least one person from North America and I think one from elsewhere in Europe. I’m pleased to see these CTA Events as a member and I look forward to similar events. There have been others that I have not attended because they seemed too specialised for me, but this one was too important to miss. Thank you Stefanie Fischer and the CTA organisers for a valuable insight into the wave of new and ‘returning’ cinemas in our high streets.

The Blue Dahlia (US 1946)

The Blue Dahlia is the only film scripted solely by Raymond Chandler. IMDb lists 40 films and TV titles to which Chandler’s name has been attached but most of these are adaptations by other writers of Chandler’s novels or short stories. At other times Chandler was part of a screenwriting team. Given Chandler’s antagonistic relationship with Hollywood, his partial involvement as screenplay writer on several films is not surprising. The circumstances which led to The Blue Dahlia were unusual and perhaps depend a great deal on how the studio system in the mid 1940s worked. Chandler’s time at Paramount was coming to an end but suddenly the studio was faced with a potential disaster. Alan Ladd, the studio’s leading male action star, was due to return to military service and they needed a property for him at short notice to go directly into production. John Houseman, a producer at Paramount at that time knew Chandler and he was the only one at the studio who shared an English public school background. He used this leverage to get Chandler to agree to write an original screenplay very quickly. George Marshall a veteran director who was very efficient if not particularly creative was assigned alongside Veronica Lake and William Bendix as the other two leading players, both of whom had worked with Ladd successfully at the studio.

Chandler wrote the first part of the screenplay quickly and just as quickly Marshall shot scenes. Soon Marshall ran out of scenes and according to Al Clark’s account in Raymond Chandler in Hollywood (Proteus Books 1982), Chandler experienced a writer’s block. The only solution to the problem, bizarrely, seems to have been that Paramount agreed to Chandler’s request that he be allowed to finish the script while constantly drunk. He’d been on the wagon for a few months and believed that the alcohol boost would enable him to write again. The studio agreed. At this point they would probably have agreed to anything. They had tried to offer Chandler a big bonus to finish the film but he’d been insulted by this affront to his professionalism. He was more concerned about letting down Houseman. The script was duly finished at some risk to Chandler’s health. But what kind of script could these circumstances produce?

The three navy flyers hit their first bar: (l-r) Buzz (William Bendix), George (Hugh Beaumont) and Johnny (Alan Ladd)

The Blue Dahlia would eventually be seen as a typical film noir narrative. It begins with three navy aircrew returning from the South Pacific. The suggestion is that all three have suffered some form of exhaustion and Buzz, the William Bendix character, has a large metal plate in his cranium which causes him some physical distress and in an early scene reveals that it leads him towards some erratic behaviour. Jonny Morrison (Alan Ladd) is the officer pilot in the crew and the third member is George (Hugh Beaumont), a level-headed older man who was a lawyer before his call-up. I’m not so sure about the film noir status of The Blue Dahlia. Apart from the returning service personnel angle there isn’t very much that is distinctively noir.

Johnny has arrived ‘home’ to find himself in a party. In this composition, he looks past a drunken guest to see his wife with Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva) at the door

The plot is, of course, quite complex but is focused on Johnny’s home visit where he finds his wife Helen (Doris Dowling) now resident in a ‘managed’ bungalow park in LA. She’s throwing a party and in an intimate conversation with the owner of ‘The Blue Dahlia Club’, Eddie Harwood (Howard da Silva). All is not well in the Morrison household and Helen has some explaining to do. After a row, Johnny leaves, throwing down his automatic pistol on top of the blue dahlia flower brought by Eddie. Johnny is walking in the rain when a car pulls up and a young woman (Veronica Lake) offers him a ride. So far everything is quite conventional. The characters of the bomber crew are perhaps different as a trio but there is nothing distinctive until this meeting of the film’s two stars. Neither character knows the other’s identity yet but there is a playfulness about the dialogue in the car and in the next scene when she stops at a hotel on the coast, the dialogue becomes enigmatic but still playful and it is delivered with pauses as he tries to say goodbye:

Lake: “What’s the idea?” (he tries to sneak off when she goes into hotel lobby)

Ladd: “It’s the end of the line.”

Lake: “Is it?”

Ladd: “It has to be. It’s a long way back to Malibu.” (that’s where she had been heading when she picked him up)

Lake: “What about you?”

Ladd: “I’ll make out and if I knew how, this is where I’d say thanks – for everything.”

Lake: “I didn’t do it for thanks.”

Ladd: “I know that.” (he turns and leaves)

Lake: “Well don’t you even say good night?”

Ladd: (stopping to reply) “Goodbye – and it’s tough to say goodbye.”

Lake: (she runs up to him) “Why is it? You’ve never seen me before tonight.”

Ladd: “Every guy’s seen you before, somewhere, the trick is to find you.”

I’m something of a novice at attempting to assess the quality of dialogue, but this exchange seems to offer something different. I think it demonstrates what Chandler could bring to screenplays. For my money it shows the attraction between the two characters with Johnny wanting to continue the verbal game they have been playing, but feeling vulnerable after the row with his wife and Joyce (Veronica Lake) still up for more. As in a romance narrative, we expect that their will be obstacles but we know their relationship will develop and they should be together at the end.

The problem with the story is that while the relationship is developing, the narrative is interesting but once we are into the the last third it begins to struggle. It seems that Chandler’s ending caused problems for the US Navy who then put pressure on the studio. The ending we have now doesn’t work in terms of the ‘reveal’ of the killer of Helen Morrison. When Johnny learns he is a suspect, that will be one barrier to his immediate future with Joyce as he will be on the run or trying to clear his name. It seems that director Marshall also changed the script in the last scene. The final scene is also ironic in the way it rounds up all of the characters for the reveal, much like the ending of an Agatha Christie story. Chandler at other times seemed to want to avoid such set-ups, feeling that he was writing very different kinds of crime fiction.

In this attempt at deep focus the composition shows Johnny in a cheap hotel making a phone call as the desk clerk listens in

One pleasing aspect of the film for me is the camerawork by Lionel Lindon. He had spent all of his career at Paramount in 1946 having finally moved up to cinematographer in the early 1940s after many years as camera crew. If the film does not display the more expressionist work seen in Double Indemnity, also at Paramount, it does at least suggest an attempt to use compositions in interesting ways. In the two stills above Lindon appears to be aiming for deep focus compositions which link characters at crucial moments. I’m not sure that the focus is as sharp as it should be but it is clear enough to work. The Blue Dahlia is clearly an ‘A’ feature, showcasing Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. I’m not completely sure about these two but Ladd certainly has a gravitas and a calm authority that works well (but he seems very jowly for a relatively young man). But his short stature is sometimes a problem. It’s OK when he is paired with Lake but confusing when he is seen with Doris Dowling who clearly has to stoop at times. The supporting players are good and Howard Da Silva especially stands out. Veronica Lake had a relatively short career blighted by alcohol but in the mid-1940s she had a significant following, largely it seems because of her hair. In this film her character resembles some of Chandler’s young women in other stories. The Big Sleep, the Chandler adaptation by Howard Hawks also came out in 1946. It would be interesting to compare Alan Ladd’s relationship with the Veronica Lake character in this film with Bogart as Marlowe dealing with General Sternwood’s daughters.

Raymond Chandler received a second Oscar nomination for his script, this time for him alone after the joint nomination with Billy Wilder for Double Indemnity. But the recognition didn’t dissuade him from leaving Hollywood and Paramount. He would return for an abortive attempt to work with Hitchcock on Strangers on a Train (1950), but that’s another story. The Blue Dahlia is available as a Blu-ray in the UK from Arrow. The disc includes a video presentation by Frank Krutnik, author of In a Lonely Street: film noir, genre, masculinity (Routledge 1991). The Paramount trailer below emphasises the three studio contract stars who had played together successfully in several features.