At the beginning of The Blue Dahlia, three veterans who fought together during the war return home. One of them, Buzz (William Bendix), had suffered an injury, leaving him with a plate in his head along with brain damage, causing him to become confused at times, to have trouble remembering, and to easily lose his temper. Another of the veterans, George (Hugh Beaumont), being realistic, advises Johnny (Alan Ladd) to call his wife first instead of just showing up without warning.
Johnny doesn’t take that advice, and when he shows up at the his wife’s apartment, he finds that she is throwing a party, and it becomes obvious that she has been having an affair with Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva), owner of the title nightclub. After the guests leave, they have an argument, and Johnny pulls out his gun, but then tosses it on the couch and leaves. Somewhat later, she is found murdered with that gun. Naturally, Johnny is suspected by the police, while we start suspecting Buzz.
The original story of The Blue Dahlia, as written by Raymond Chandler, had Buzz be the one who murdered Helen (Doris Dowling), but the Navy objected to a veteran’s being the killer, so the script was changed to make Dad (Will Wright) the villain. I like the movie ending better anyway. We would have felt sorry for Buzz, and that would have been depressing. Much better to have Buzz be suspected on account of his war injury, and then have the unlikable house detective be the murderer.
Unfortunately, the proof that Buzz didn’t do it is weak. At the end of the movie, with the police and all the people involved in the story in Harwood’s office, Johnny gets Buzz fire a pistol at a match that he holds in his hand about ten feet away, with the bullet grazing the match just enough to light it up. No consideration is given to the fact that the bullet would continue to go past the match and through the wall, possibly killing someone in the next room, not to mention the fact that the police would never allow a murder suspect to have a pistol in hand.
Even so, the point of the demonstration was to prove that Buzz was a crack shot. Helen was shot by a gun placed against her heart. So, Johnny argues, Buzz would not need to press the barrel of the gun against her body, owing to his marksmanship. But if a man is in a heated argument with a woman in a hotel room and decides to shoot her, he is going to shoot her at close range if she is standing right in front of him at the moment he decides to pull the trigger. He is not going to say to himself, “Wait a minute. I’m a marksman. I don’t have to be this close. I need to go to the other side of the room to shoot her.” Furthermore, jamming the gun against her heart before pulling the trigger is not a sign of poor marksmanship, but rather of anger and aggression. It makes the killing more personal. And in any event, even a poor shot would be able to hit a woman at several feet away, and Dad was an ex-cop, so he was probably a fair shot himself in any event.
Also, Dad’s confession when confronted with the fact that his wet umbrella was found in Helen’s apartment is ridiculous. In real life, Dad would have said, “Oh yeah, I was in her apartment briefly earlier that evening, and I accidentally left it behind,” after which he would get himself a lawyer. Fat chance of convicting him on evidence like that.
In addition to this weak ending, the movie has another plot point that does not make any sense. It is hard to understand why, at an earlier scene in the movie, Johnny would get mad when he finds out that Joyce (Veronica Lake), whom he met right after leaving Helen, is married to Harwood. She would have told Johnny, but he didn’t want to know her secrets. Moreover, he kept telling her that there was no future for the two of them. And in any event, she was just as much a victim of an unfaithful spouse as he was.
These flaws aside, however, it remains a great film noir, with some of the best hard-boiled dialogue in the genre.