Three plainclothes navy officers sit propped up at a bar, their cigarettes lit, and bourbon poured before them, aggressively chased by more bourbon. Light pours in from the oversized window, illuminating our central figures, fresh from combat. The bar top divides our characters by the waist, represented as merely half men, emasculated and alienated from the war. In the corner, a uniformed soldier dances to the horns of a jazz record playing on a jukebox. We see him erect, standing not as a man, but a soldier, stitched into his stripes like a battle wound. Represented here aren’t the heroes America has read about, but the fractured fatalities of the post-war masculinity. It’s a scene married to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, our protagonist Johnny Moore (Alan Ladd) symbolizing the frayed effeminacy represented with the woman in red.
When we finally witness our war torn servicemen fully exposed, it’s when Buzz Wanchek (William Bendix) begins a fight between our jukebox soldier, the steel plate in his head toe-tapping to the beat of the music. It’s a gesture of masculinity that would be scolded by Johnny’s disloyal wife Helen (Doris Dowling), who, unlike the soldiers under his command, begins ordering him around. A bouquet of blue dahlia’s sit fixed in the center of a glass table, their dark petals almost black; a gift from Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva), the proprietor of the nightclub, The Blue Dahlia. When Johnny sees them, he states that he “…didn’t know these things were ever blue”, a doleful claim that resonates with the post-war ennui. “Maybe you’ve learned to like hurting people”, she utters with a malicious undertone, her aggressive drinking beginning to cloud our own perception of patriarchal femininity.
Even the death of their son Dickie, the product of Johnny’s pre-war masculinity, is used as a scapegoat for Helen, who despairs that she use to never go anywhere because she had a kid to look after. The listlessness and fragmented masculinity of post-World War II quickly roars to the American frontlines. Faster than a bullet from a gun, the ideals of virility that was meticulously constructed from post-Great Depression society shatters, its pieces lining the path home for America’s soldiers.
What many of World War II’s fighters had to come home to, wasn’t just parades and humble embraces, but feelings of isolation and misunderstanding, their tales of heroism and sacrifice falling on deaf ears. A mere 8 days after the release of George Marshall’s THE BLUE DAHLIA, the April issue of The Saturday Evening Post hit newsstands, its cover depicting three men in the office of the Weather Bureau, a lightning storm raging outside – a warning of the impending change surging through society’s very foundation.
When Johnny’s command goes unyielding, his wife’s cackling subverting the constructs of their marriage, he embraces the phallic representation of his own insecurities; his sidearm, threatening her in an uncompromising reclaim of power. Before he can pull the trigger, Johnny tosses the pistol down and leaves in search of his own idolized machismo. Dad Newell (Will Wright), the Blue Dahlia’s house detective, is called in after the housekeeper discovers Helen’s lifeless body, slumped over her floral printed couch with Johnny’s gun resting on the floor.
It’s here, in the genial house detective, that we see the complete and uncompromising idea of man without dominancy, the war ravaged weariness represented in delicacy, stalking about with an elevated sense of purpose and strength. Dad Newell, dressed in a darkened coat, fancies himself a professional, a hero like the soldiers back home. Rather than call the police, he’d rather hunt for clues, his self-induced grandeur getting the better of him. There’s a subversion of the femme fatale in Dad, who carries himself with a sense of authority, only to be dismissed as frail by those around him, a characteristic of the female antagonist who knows more than we’re lead to believe. Dad represents the ethical dilemma, the shaded core at the heart of our film, taking bribes whenever the opportunity arises, all the while hiding beneath his withered façade.
However, beneath the long shadows, the glistening rain that penetrates the soul of our protagonist, and the men who liter the night time with their suffused rage lays a pulsating tale of revenge, not against somebody, but for something. With the dawn of an encompassing enervation sinking into the foundations of a new world bravado, one that had previously discovered a forced motive overseas, the societal structure began to teeter on the edge of subversion. Showcasing the isolation that affected soldiers returning home, THE BLUE DAHLIA managed to encompass all of the alienation, effeminacy and trauma years of war had created. With the crumbling patriarchal infrastructure paving the way for sexual repression and violence, a stunning casualty of ennui, the silent rage of machoism was on the brink of exploding. Only one year later, a woman by the name of Elizabeth Short would be discovered in Los Angeles, her body tortured and mutilated; an extreme casualty to the new era of 20th century masculinity.