Elizabeth Short got the nickname "The Black Dahlia" from a bartender at a Long Beach bar she frequented. This film was playing at a theater down the street, and the bartender got the name wrong. Elizabeth picked up on that and kept the nickname, adding a flower to her hair to complete the transformation. She was murdered the next year (1947).
Just after the fight scene between Alan Ladd and the two thugs who kidnapped him, one of the thugs is seen soaking his broken leg in a round tub. That wasn't in the script; the actor had actually broken his leg filming the fight and, without consulting screenwriter Raymond Chandler, director George Marshall rewrote the script to have the character break his leg as well.
When Alan Ladd was called up for military service, production on the movie (then still in the screenplay stage) had to be rapidly stepped up. According to a near-legendary story, screenwriter Raymond Chandler offered to finish the screenplay by working drunk: in exchange for sacrificing his health to produce the requisite pages on time, Chandler was permitted to work at home (a privilege rarely granted to screenwriters) and was provided two chauffeured cars, one to convey the completed pages to the studio and the other for his wife. Chandler turned the script in on time. Many now believe the "drunkenness" was simply a ruse by Chandler to wrangle extraordinary privileges from the desperate studio.
Shortly after this film was released, a young woman named Elizabeth Short was murdered in Los Angeles. The local newspapers dubbed the case the "Black Dahlia" as a morbid twist on this film's title. Unlike the movie, the Short murder case is still unsolved.
Many of the cars in the film have a "B" sticker on the windshields. This is a reflection of the wartime rationing of gasoline. Gas was rationed primarily to save rubber, because Japan had occupied Indochina, Malaysia and Indonesia (there was a shortage of gas on the East Coast until a pipeline from Texas was constructed to replace the transport of crude oil by sea). The B sticker was the second lowest category, entitling the holder to only eight gallons of gas a week.
Raymond Chandler, who wrote the screenplay, claimed that producer John Houseman was in "the doghouse" and director George Marshall "was a stale old hack who had been directing for thirty years without once having achieved any real distinction", so Chandler went on to the Paramount set to direct some of the scenes himself.
Shooting began without a completed screenplay. As the production was rushed through to ensure that Alan Ladd was finished before he had to be back in uniform, Raymond Chandler worked feverishly to get the script done.
This film was conceived primarily as a vehicle for Alan Ladd. Ladd was one of Paramount's brightest stars of the era but had been called back into service by the army. The situation sent the studio into a panic; it had no Ladd film ready for release and it was unclear when one of its most profitable stars would be able to work again. The studio assigned Ladd to this film and swiftly sped up production so it would have a movie featuring Ladd to release during his service time.
One of the reasons that Veronica Lake was selected to star opposite Alan Ladd was because of her height. Ladd was a notably short leading man, and Lake's similarly diminutive stature meant that the filmmakers did not have to make Ladd appear taller by comparison.
Raymond Chandler was unhappy with Veronica Lake's performance as Joyce Harwood. He referred to the actress as "Miss Moronica Lake" and complained in a letter: "The only times she's good is when she keeps her mouth shut and looks mysterious. The moment she tries to behave as if she had a brain she falls flat on her face. The scenes we had to cut out because she loused them up! And there are three godawful close shots of her looking perturbed that make me want to throw my lunch over the fence."
The pressure of having to finish the screenplay combined with the curve ball of having to write an entirely new ending was too much for Raymond Chandler. He quickly came down with a severe case of writer's block.
The Paramount brass told Raymond Chandler that if he didn't deliver the rest of the script ASAP the entire future of the studio would be in jeopardy. As an incentive, the studio offered him a $5,000 bonus to hurry up and finish the script.
Some sources erroneously include Harold J. Stone in an undetermined, uncredited minor role; Stone does not appear in this film in any capacity. At the time it was filmed (in Hollywood), he was in New York City appearing on the stage in a prominent role in "A Bell for Adano" (1944-45).
Raymond Chandler insisted on writing the script from home. He relied on alcohol, as it helped him write. He also presented a list of requirements that he would need in order to fulfil his obligation. They included "two Cadillac limousines, to stand day and night outside the house with drivers available," "six secretaries," and "a direct line open at all times to my office by day, to the studio switchboard at night and to my home at all times."
Raymond Chandler almost walked off the film when George Marshall improvised dialogue. " . . . it is ludicrous to suggest that any writer in Hollywood, however obstreperous, has a 'free hand' with a script;" said Chandler, "He may have a free hand with the first draft, but after that they start moving in on him. Also what happens on the set is beyond the writer's control. In this case I threatened to walk off the picture, not yet finished, unless they stopped the director putting in fresh dialogue out of his own head."
Alan Ladd, at 5'6", was apprehensive when he learned that statuesque Doris Dowling would be co-starring as his wayward wife, Producer John Houseman had to reassure him that in most of their scenes she would be seated or lying on a couch.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The original denouement as written by Raymond Chandler had Buzz as the murderer. However, since the movie was released so close to the end of WWII, the Navy preferred that a returning veteran not be shown as the killer. Therefore the ending was re-written for a different killer.
Raymond Chandler was quite disappointed that the Naval War Office forced him to change the ending of the script in order to avoid disparaging an American serviceman. Chandler's original ending pegged Buzz as the killer, but largely absolved him of his actions due to his war injuries and the psychological impact that WWII had on him. A few weeks after the film's release, Chandler wrote "What the Navy Department did to the story was a little thing like making me change the murderer and hence make a routine whodunit out of a fairly original idea. What I wrote was a story of a man who killed (executed would be a better word) his pal's wife under the stress of a great and legitimate anger, then blanked out and forgot all about it; then with perfect honesty did his best to help the pal get out of a jam, then found himself in a set of circumstances which brought about partial recall. The poor guy remembered enough to make it clear who the murderer was to others, but never realized it himself. He just did and said things he couldn't have done or said unless he was the killer; but he never knew he did them or said them and never interpreted them."