It was 1965, and I was in my second year of college. Having just finished watching a monster movie on the late show on Saturday night, I changed channels and came in toward the end of another movie, starring Alan Ladd. I had seen Ladd in Shane (1953) when I was just a child, which was great, and I might have seen another of his movies with my parents a couple of years later, but that one had left no impression on me.
Anyway, in this movie, Ladd walked into a room where several people were gathered, and someone said, “We were just talking about you.”
“My favorite subject,” Ladd replied.
Now, I’m not going to say that this was the greatest bit of hardboiled dialogue ever delivered on the big screen, but it was the first one I’d ever heard. When he uttered this line, he wasn’t smiling. Actually, that was my parents’ chief complaint about Alan Ladd. “He never smiles,” they said. But what they regarded as a fault, I came to see as a virtue.
Anyway, the scene was apparently one involving a double-cross. Speaking to the beautiful woman in the room that had betrayed him, Ladd says, “Sorry you can’t join us in a glass of rat poison.”
Once again, this was hardly a brilliant witticism. But it had been delivered by Alan Ladd, with that voice of his and that look. In any event, I had never heard anyone talk that way in a movie before. Wishing that I had seen the movie from the beginning, I merely made a note to watch it in its entirety the next time it was featured on the late show. For some reason, I didn’t bother to check the newspaper to see the name of this movie, figuring I’d know it when I saw it. Little did I realize that it would never be shown on television again.
The years passed, and in the 1980s, cable television and video-cassette recorders expanded my viewing options. Moreover, I became acquainted with the term film noir, and soon it was that I had seen the best of Ladd’s movies in this genre: This Gun for Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942), and The Blue Dahlia (1946), each costarring Veronica Lake.
But eventually, I began to think again about that movie I had seen in college. I remembered the oriental setting, and so for a while, I wondered if the movie could be Calcutta (1946). It wasn’t readily available, but it did finally show up on the internet. It’s about three commercial pilots transporting goods between Chungking and Calcutta.
Two of the pilots are played by Alan Ladd and William Bendix. The third pilot, whose name is Bill, is murdered. He was engaged to be married to Gail Russell, but she was just using him to smuggle jewels on his plane without his knowing about it, something she had done with other pilots.
At the end of the movie, Ladd beats a confession out of Russell, kills a casino operator named Lasser, who is the head of the smuggling ring, and then calls the police and has Russell arrested. And that wasn’t easy for him to do, since they had fallen in love with each other. As Ladd says to Russell, “Does a guy have to trust a girl to fall for her?” But Ladd figures that since she had already killed one man in order to steal the jewels she thought he had, and had helped Lasser murder Bill, someday she might decide to kill him too, and he might not get much sleep thinking about it.
That’s how hardboiled characters have to weigh the pros and cons of marriage in a film noir. It reminds me of that incredible conversation between Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, which is in both the novel and the 1941 movie based on it. Spade tells Brigid that she’s taking the fall because she killed his partner. Her feelings are hurt. She accuses him of not loving her. He admits that he probably does love her, and he accepts that she loves him. But he won’t play the sap for her. Otherwise, as he points out in the novel, when the love wears off, she might kill him one day. Still, he figures that if they don’t hang her by her pretty neck, she might get out of prison in twenty years, in which case he will wait for her. Twice he says that he will wait for her!
So, like Sam Spade, Ladd chose to turn the woman he loved in to the police rather than marry her and take a chance of her murdering him someday. Of course, Ladd had a dim view of marriage all along, quite apart from the question of whether his wife might someday kill him. Earlier in the movie, when he and Bendix find out Bill is going to get married, they are appalled. Ladd sneers, saying that what women want is “stability, to settle down.”
Ladd becomes suspicious about Bill’s murder because he still had money on him when his body was found. Whoever strangled Bill must not have watched many movies, or else he would have known this fundamental rule: if you are going to commit a murder, be sure to remove all the money and jewelry from the person you kill so that the police will suspect that robbery was the motive and let it go at that. In any event, Ladd suspects Russell may have had something to do with it right from the beginning. She protests that she would never have done anything to cause Bill a moment of unhappiness.
“Wouldn’t want to harm him, huh?” Ladd asks. “Then why’d you want to marry him?”
In a later conversation, when Ladd says he doesn’t trust women, Russell asks, “What was she like?” referring to the woman she assumes must have walked off and left him bitter like that.
Ladd replies, “A woman always wants to blame a guy’s good judgment on a woman.”
And yet, while I enjoyed this movie, it was not the one I was looking for.
After seeing several more Ladd films set overseas, but to no avail, I finally had eliminated every possibility except Saigon (1947). Of course, if I had realized that the beautiful woman to whom Ladd had suggested a glass of rat poison was Veronika Lake, that would have helped me narrow it down. It was not available on Netflix, but it was available as a DVD, though of poor quality. Anyway, I could hold out no longer, so I ordered it.
Saigon turned out to be the movie I was looking for. I was pleased to see that I had not been misled by the brief impression I had formed of this movie by watching ten minutes of it over fifty years ago. It holds up throughout.
In this film, Alan Ladd plays a recently discharged major in the Army Air Forces. He piloted a bomber during the war until his plane was shot down. He finds out that another crew member, Mike, who was a captain in his crew, has two or three months to live. He suffered a severe head injury and now has a large piece of platinum as part of his skull. The doctor agrees to let Ladd tell him the grim prognosis, but Ladd tells another crew member, a sergeant named Pete, while they are sitting in a bar, that they aren’t going to tell Mike anything. His parents are dead, and he has no wife. So, they’ll just show him a good time for the next two or three months. It is a Dark Victory (1939) situation: Mike will have no symptoms (or not many, at least) until he dies; the prognosis is precise in the time left for him to live (just a few months); and someone has taken it upon himself to keep him from knowing.
Of course, this immediately reminded me of The Blue Dahlia, where Ladd was the leader of a flight crew during the war, including William Bendix and Hugh Beaumont. In this movie, it is Bendix that has the plate in his skull. His problem, however, is not that he has only a few months to live, but rather that he gets confused and forgetful. When the three men get off the bus at the beginning of the movie, after having been discharged at the end of the war, Ladd and Beaumont are wearing suits, but Bendix is wearing a leather jacket. Though there is no reference to their rank in the service, yet we gather that Ladd and Beaumont were officers, while Bendix was an enlisted man.
If so, then once again we have two officers and an enlisted man, once members of a flight crew, and now able to fraternize as civilians. Only in this case, it is the enlisted man who has the plate in his skull, whereas in Saigon, it is one of the officers. There was never any reference to the war in Calcutta, but three young American pilots were bound to have served in the service. And given Bendix’s screen persona, it is hard to imagine him as being an officer.
Anyway, in Saigon, after Ladd and Pete agree not to tell Mike about his prognosis, Mike shows up at the bar and joins them. Ladd leaves the table, and when Mike starts talking about going home, Pete gets Mike to agree to stay so that they can cheer Ladd up. It seems that Ladd was planning on getting married, but then he received a Dear John letter, breaking off the engagement.
And so, whereas Ladd was a misogamist in Calcutta, in Saigon he has been jilted by a woman he wanted to marry. He got even further in The Blue Dahlia. In that movie, he is married to woman named Helen. When he and his two friends say goodbye after getting off the bus, Beaumont advises Ladd not to just show up at his wife’s hotel room unexpectedly, but that he should phone first. Ladd says, “Maybe,” but there is no maybe about it. Only a wittol would do that, someone that might go on to become Ward Cleaver of Leave It to Beaver (1957-63), for instance. But a real man just walks right in, and if he catches his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto, he can settle matters right then.
Instead, when he gets to Helen’s hotel room, which is more like an apartment, there is a swinging party underway. He tells the inebriated woman that opens the door that he is looking for his wife. “We have lots of wives here,” she informs him. Later, when Howard Da Silva, Helen’s lover, realizes that her husband has returned, he decides to leave the party. Helen kisses him goodbye, not realizing that Ladd can see her doing so. “You’re wearing the wrong lipstick, Pal,” Ladd tells Da Silva seconds later as he punches him in the mouth. Da Silva shows some class. Wiping the spot with a handkerchief where he was kissed and then punched, he says, “You’re right.”
After the guests leave, Ladd and Helen have an argument, during which she tells him, in order to hurt him, that their son died because she had an automobile accident one night while she’d been drinking. He pulls out his gun, saying he should use it on her, but then tosses it on the couch and leaves. Somewhat later, she is found murdered with that gun. Naturally, Ladd is suspected by the police, while we start suspecting Bendix, who later meets Helen in the hotel’s bar, and then accepts her invitation to go back to her room, not realizing she is Ladd’s wife.
The original story of The Blue Dahlia, as written by Raymond Chandler, had Bendix be the one who murdered Helen, but the Navy objected to having a veteran be the killer, so the script was changed to make “Dad,” the house detective, be the villain. I like the movie ending better anyway. We would have felt sorry for Bendix, and that would have been depressing. Much better to have Bendix be suspected on account of his war injury, and then have the unlikable house detective be the murderer.
As a side note, in Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, Eddie Muller, in discussing The Blue Dahlia, says that in general, there was an unwritten law that a veteran in a movie must never be found guilty of a crime. He overlooked Crossfire (1947), however, in which Robert Ryan is a veteran who commits a murder. And this is a peculiar oversight, since Muller discusses this movie in the same book. I suspect that the difference had to do with the reason for the murder. In the case of The Blue Dahlia, the Navy did not want a man to commit a murder because of an injury sustained during his service in the war, whereas the Army could accept that Robert Ryan’s character had been evil before he enlisted, and his service during the war had nothing to do with it.
So, whether as a confirmed bachelor, jilted fiancé, or cuckolded husband, Ladd seems to have good reasons for being cynical about women and having a dim view of marriage. Not that these movies can end on that note, though. In Calcutta, after sending Russell away with the police, Ladd gets some consolation from another woman, Marina, from whom he regularly gets a little uncomplicated nookie. We get the sense that he might just marry that girl one of these days. In The Blue Dahlia, Ladd and Veronika Lake, who was Da Silva’s wife, have fallen in love, so the good spouses from the two marriages will now presumably make one good marriage and live happily ever after. We also figure that Ladd will marry Lake at the end of Saigon too, but only after first offering her that glass of rat poison.