Three discharged United States Navy officers (Johnny Morrison, Buzz Wanchek and George Copeland) arrive in Hollywood, California. All three flew together in the same flight crew in the South Pacific Ocean. Buzz has shell shock and a metal plate in his head, above his ear.
While George and Buzz get an apartment together, Johnny surprises his wife, Helen, at her old apartment, which is patrolled by a house detective, "Dad" Newell. He discovers that she is having an affair with Eddie Harwood, the owner of the Blue Dahlia nightclub on the Sunset Strip. Helen, drunk, confesses to Johnny that their son Dickie, who Johnny believed died of diphtheria, actually died in a car crash that occurred because she was driving while drunk. Newell sees Johnny and Helen fight. Later, Johnny pulls a gun on Helen, but drops it and leaves.
Buzz goes out to find Johnny. He meets Helen and, unaware of her identity, goes to her bungalow for a drink.
Eddie breaks up with Helen, who then blackmails him into seeing her again.
Johnny is picked up in the rain by Joyce Harwood, who is separated from Eddie. Both do not reveal their name, and they spend the night in separate rooms in a Malibu inn. The next morning, they have breakfast, and he decides to give his marriage another chance. Then, the radio announces that Helen has been murdered and that Johnny is suspected.
The police interview Newell, Harwood, Buzz, and George.
After Johnny checks into a cheap hotel under an assumed name, Corelli, the hotel manager, finds Johnny's photo of himself with Dickie and tries to blackmail him. Johnny beats Corelli up and then discovers that on the back of the photo, Helen revealed that Eddie is really Bauer, a murderer who is wanted in New Jersey.
Corelli revives and sells information on Johnny's identity to a gangster named Leo, who kidnaps him.
Buzz and George visit Eddie at the Blue Dahlia. Joyce introduces herself. As Joyce picks at a blue dahlia flower, the nightclub's music sets off a painful ring in Buzz's head. Lapsing into a fit, he remembers the agonizing music that he heard at Helen's bungalow, as she played with a blue dahlia.
Johnny escapes Leo's henchmen as Eddie arrives and forces him to admit that 15 years earlier, he was involved in the shooting of a bank messenger.
Leo tries to shoot Johnny but hits Eddie instead. Johnny flees to the Blue Dahlia, where the police are trying to force a confused Buzz to admit that he killed Helen.
Johnny enters and suggests for Joyce to turn up the music. As his head pounds, Buzz remembers leaving Helen alive in her bungalow. Police Captain Henrickson then confronts Newell with the accusation that he tried to blackmail Helen about her affair and that when she refused to comply, he killed her. Newell then tries to escape from the office but is shot by Henrickson.
Later, outside the Blue Dahlia, Buzz and George decide to go for a drink, leaving Johnny and Joyce together.Alan Ladd as Johnny Morrison
Veronica Lake as Joyce Harwood
William Bendix as Buzz Wanchek
Howard Da Silva as Eddie Harwood
Doris Dowling as Helen Morrison
Hugh Beaumont as George Copeland
Tom Powers as Captain Hendrickson
Howard Freeman as Corelli
Don Costello as Leo
Will Wright as "Dad" Newell
Paramount was looking for a new vehicle for Alan Ladd, and producer John Houseman approached Raymond Chandler. Chandler knew Houseman from having performed rewrites on The Unseen, which Houseman produced. Houseman says Chandler had started a novel but was "stuck" and was considering turning it into a screenplay for the movies instead. Houseman read the 120 pages and within 48 hours, it was sold to Paramount. It was the first original script for the screen that Chandler had ever written.
The film was announced in early 1945. Ladd, Lake, Bendix, and Marshall were also all attached from the beginning.
Ladd had some say in the choice of the persons with whom he worked. Since he himself was extremely short, he had only one standard by which he judged his fellow actors: their height. Meeting another actor for the first time, if his glance hit him or her anywhere below the collarbone, he was sure to explain as soon as we were alone that he didn't think he or she was exactly right for the part, and would we please find someone else.... Veronica Lake was the perfect size for him, but we had trouble over the part of his dissolute wife in which, not altogether perversely, we had cast a beautiful, dark-haired girl named Doris Dowling. Since she was a full half-foot taller than Ladd, he made a determined attempt to get rid of her; we placated him in their scenes together by keeping her sitting or lying down.
Ladd had served for ten months in the army in 1943 before being honorably discharged due to illness; however, he was recently reclassified 1-A for the World War II military draft, and he may have had to go back into the Army. Paramount kept applying for deferments so he could make films but he was due for induction in May 1945; as a result, The Blue Dahlia was written and produced relatively quickly. (In the end, all men aged 30 or over would be released from the obligation.)
Shooting began in March 1945 without a completed screenplay. John Houseman later recalled:
It was not until the middle of our fourth week that a faint chill of alarm invaded the studio when the script girl pointed out that the camera was rapidly gaining on the script. We had shot sixty-two pages in four weeks; Chandler, during that time, had turned in only twenty-two-with another thirty to go.
The problem was the ending. Originally, Chander intended the killer to be Buzz having a blackout. However, the Navy did not want a serviceman to be portrayed as a murderer, and Paramount told Chandler that he had to come up with a new ending. Chandler responded at first with writer's block. Houseman said:
Still, I was not worried. Ray had written such stories for years and I was quite confident that sooner or later (probably later since he seemed to enjoy the suspense) he would wind up the proceedings with an 'artistic' revelation (it was his word) and a caustic last line. But as the days went by and the camera went on chewing its way through the script and still no ending arrived, signs of tension began to appear.
Paramount offered Chandler a $5000 incentive to finish the script, which did not work, according to Houseman:
It was the front-office calculation, I suppose, that by dangling this fresh carrot before Chandler's nose they were executing a brilliant and cunning maneuver. They did not know their man. They succeeded, instead, in disturbing him in three distinct and separate ways: One, his faith in himself was destroyed. By never letting Ray share my apprehensions, I had convinced him of my confidence in his ability to finish the script on time. This sense of security was now hopelessly shattered. Two, he had been insulted. To Ray, the bonus was nothing but a bribe. To be offered a large additional sum of money for the completion of an assignment for which he had already contracted and which he had every intention of fulfilling was by his standards a degradation and a dishonor. Three, by going to him behind my back they had invited him to betray a friend and fellow Public School man. The way the interview had been conducted ('sneakily') filled Ray with humiliation and rage.
Chandler wanted to quit, but Houseman convinced him to sleep on it. The next day, Chandler said he would be able to finish the film if he resumed drinking. Houseman said that the writer's requirements were "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." Houseman agreed and says Chandler then started drinking:
[Chandler] did not minimize the hazards [of drinking]," said Houseman in 1964, "he pointed out that his plan... would call for deep faith on my part and supreme courage on his, since he would in effect be completing the script at the risk of his life. (It wasn't the drinking that was dangerous, he explained, since he had a doctor who gave him such massive injections of glucose that he could last for weeks with no solid food at all. It was the sobering up that was parlous; the terrible strain of his return to normal living).
At the end of that time, Chandler presented the finished script.
Chandler was unhappy with the forced ending and with Lake's performance as Joyce. "The only times she's good is when she keeps her mouth shut and looks mysterious," he told a friend. "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."
Chandler received a lot of deference on the set, but Lake was not familiar with him so upon asking about him and being told, "he's the greatest mystery writer around," she made a point of listening intently to an analysis of his work by the film's publicity director to impress newspaper reporters with her knowledge of a writer she had never read. Chandler developed an intense dislike for Lake and referred to her as "Moronica Lake".
Lake later said about her role, "I'm not much of a motivating force, but the part is good."
The staff at Variety magazine gave the film a positive review and wrote:
Playing a discharged naval flier returning home from the Pacific first to find his wife unfaithful, then to find her murdered and himself in hiding as the suspect, Alan Ladd does a bangup job. Performance has a warm appeal, while in his relentless track down of the real criminal, Ladd has a cold, steel-like quality that is potent. Fight scenes are stark and brutal, and tremendously effective.
Critic Dennis Schwartz wrote:
A fresh smelling film noir directed with great skill by George Marshall from the screenplay of Raymond Chandler (the only one he ever wrote for the screen, his other films were adapted from novels of others and, ironically, film adaptations of his novels were all written by other screenwriters). It eschews moral judgment in favor of a hard-boiled tale that flaunts its flowery style as its way of swimming madly along in LA's postwar boom and decadence.
Chandler was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay).
The Blue Dahlia was dramatized as a half-hour radio play on the April 21, 1949 broadcast of The Screen Guild Theater, starring Lake and Ladd in their original film roles.
The movie was also adapted into a stage play in 1989.