Johnny Morrison and his friends have just got back from the war. From the sounds of it, they've just gotten back from the Pacific, and for any students of history, you can imagine that escaping that hellish tour of duty would be a relief.
There's little rest for Johnny and his friends, though. His pal, Buzz, is more than a little shell shocked, and flips out at loud music. His other pal is a lawyer.
Somehow, even worse than that, he finds that his wife he left at home is not only cheating on him, but killed their son in a drunk driving accident. She pleads with him to kill her, but he resists. "You're a hero," she cries. "Heroes can get away with anything." He declines the opportunity to test that out and hits the road.
Almost needless to say in a movie like this, she turns up dead anyway and Johnny gets fingered right off. Before he knows this, however, he runs into a curvaceous blonde played by Veronica Lake, and they begin a road trip of mutual leering glances. I suppose I should explain that she's the wife of the man who's been having an affair with Johnny's wife, making Johnny's wife lucky she died in the first act, as the way she was going she would have been literally crucified in the third.
The film trucks along with the murder mystery, and the guy Johnny's wife was having an affair with, Mr. Harwood, also a known crook and the owner of a club called The Blue Dahlia. The whole thing is complicated, and Harwood is involved in six shades of shady business. Since Johnny supposedly messed with someone Harwood loved, the owner wants to mess back, only he still rather likes the Lake character and blah blah blah.
There's a whole lot of mischief going on, but the movie begins to hint fairly early on that Johnny's pal Buzz isn't quite all there, and by "hint" I do mean "hinting that subtlety in screenwriting wasn't around in 1946." Buzz is played by noted actor William Bendix, who was the best part of last week's The Dark Corner and sadly stuck here as the guy who ends up banging on his own head and yelling to the sky for the loud noises to stop.
The Blue Dahlia sees this sort of thing a lot-- a plus quickly turned into a minus. For every tantalizing step forward, the movie takes a timid step back, becoming a confusing morass of criss crosses and chases, eventually resulting in a film where the carpet isn't just pulled out from under the audience, but it's also thrown back at them while the filmmakers run away screaming in impassioned terror.
The actors aren't of much help, and the screenplay-- apparently ordered rewritten when the military balked at having an ex-service member as the killer-- barely makes sense. It's a movie where you will be able to put the pieces together only if you ignore everything the movie tells you and understand the meaning behind when someone says "the butler did it" and why it's such a dumb cliche.
In one final note, I'd like to admit I was a bit flummoxed as the movie went along because, for one reason or another, I expected it to be a rejiggered story of The Black Dahlia, a rather infamous murder case in the 1940's that involved a troubled young girl turning up cut in half and ritualistically posed. Everyone in Southern California was a suspect at one point or another, but the case remains unsolved seven decades later. You can read all about it here, and you'll have a leg up on me, as it turns out that this film was where the murdered Elizabeth Short actually drew her nickname from and not vice versa.
Still, one tragedy begets another.