Three ex-servicemen who have just returned from the South Pacific depart the bus and head straight for the nearest bar. One of them, Buzz (William Bendix), doesn't like what he calls "monkey music", the strains of the big band emanating from the jukebox, and complains to the soldier who was listening to it. Buzz has a metal plate in his head from an injury he suffered during combat, and nearly strikes the soldier when he refuses to turn off the music, but when the soldier sees his wound he relents. Buzz's friend Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd) makes his excuses and leaves his buddies to seek out an apartment to live in while he heads for home and his wife Helen (Doris Dowling) - but things aren't quite as he left them...
One of the film noir-ish efforts to point out that returning American servicemen perhaps weren't receiving the warm reception they deserved, The Blue Dahlia was also the third teaming of nineteen-forties stars Ladd and Veronica Lake, after This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key (unless you count their appearances as themselves in variety movies). However, they are barely romantically involved in this one and despite Lake's second-billing she pretty much plays a supporting role, not appearing until around half an hour into the story.
And that first half hour is all about setting up the murder plot. When Johnny arrives home he is dismayed to find a party going on at his house, staged by his wife - and it's not a welcome home party, either. After having a blonde throw herself at him, he brushes her off and greets Helen who is not exactly over the moon to see him again. Relations have soured between them, especially after their young son died while Johnny was away, and when Helen reveals he didn't expire from diptheria but actually died in a car crash caused by her drunken driving, it's no surprise when Johnny starts pushing her around in a rage.
Not only that, but Helen has a boyfriend in the shape of Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva), a smooth operator who runs his own nightclub and is married too. All this looks bad for Johnny, but not half as bad when Helen is found shot dead after her husband has walked out to roam the streets in despair. Now, we know he didn't do it, so who did? More of a whodunnit than a film noir, The Blue Dahlia was written in hard boiled style by Raymond Chandler who wasn't happy about either the stars (he called the leading lady "Moron-ica Lake"!) or the way he had to change the ending to make sure the killer had no military connection, which does show when the whole murder points towards one character.
The Blue Dahlia isn't a woman in this case, but Harcourt's nightclub. Today the film is best known for giving the nickname to the Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, the victim of a gruesome and still unsolved murder around the time of the film's release. Here, however, the mystery is wrapped up in a neat ninety minutes or so, but not before a lot of meandering as Johnny goes on the run from the law and the unofficial suspects. The paranoia of these scenes is nicely handled, with an oppressive feeling of events catching up with its put upon protagonist, but really the tale needed to be told in a tighter fashion. The theme of war veterans finding little comfort back on their native soil is sadly not exploited, although Lake's character represents the kind of woman who they should have been welcomed by - even if they are married to someone else.