Many movies of the 1940s dealt with the figure of the returning veteran, as it is expected because that was an important aspect of 1940s American life.
These soldiers had been away sometimes for years, into an environment that was utterly different from peacetime life. They had been separated from women, thrown in a context of extreme violence, where death was a very likely possibility and put in constant proximity with other men, with a degree of mutual dependence that was unmatched in civilian life.
Once home, they were still more comfortable in the company of other men and found it hard to cope with a lifestyle that didn’t allow violence as a problem-solving tool.
In The Blue Dahlia, Johnny comes home to find his wife had been unfaithful and is now particularly scornful of him. Johnny reacts to this with violence, which later points at him when his wife is found dead. Just in the premice, it is possible to see several of the returning veteran’s anxieties: betrayal from their wives, displacement from life as it has gone on at home, inability to handle difficult situations without recurring to violence. In one of Johnny’s friend, then, the film even touches on the problem of shock-shell, which many veterans suffered once at home and which in many ways amplified every veteran’s issue.
Veteran films betrayed a marked hostility toward (and by implication a fear of) postwar integration.
The returning veterans films (and many film noirs fall into this category) addressed this awkwardness, this uneasiness, even this disillusionment not by mirroring what happened in true life, but by engaging a series of complex transformations that pertain to the realm of storytelling. The damaged hero, the femme fatale, the criminal plan isn’t a faithful depiction of life as it was, but these symbols allow that reality to filter into the narrative structure. Film noir transformed social realities in mood and feelings, then codified them in terms of conventional narratives, subjecting them to logics and resolutions familiar to the viewers.
By transforming a chaotic reality into a regulated story structure, storytelling allows to sublimate and possibly decode that reality. To an extent, storytelling is a way to break the tension by giving tools to handle it.
What is significant about the returning veteran films of the mid-to-late 1940s isn’t the mere presence of such figure, but the fact that it received standardised addressing within the generic model of the thriller. These films deliberately drew upon the problem of postwar maladjustment because it was affecting the audience’s everyday life, and in a way, storytelling tried to offer relief.
The Blue Dahlia (1946) by George Marshall
Discharged naval officer Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd) returns to his wife, Helen (Doris Dowling), in Hollywood after fighting in the South Pacific, and with him are two military friends, George (Hugh Beaumont) and shell-shocked Buzz (William Bendix). Johnny is stunned to discover Helen’s unfaithfulness with a local nightclub owner named Eddie (Howard Da Silva), who then breaks it off with her. When Helen is found murdered, everyone seems to have a motive. (Google synopsis)
Dark Passage (1947) by Delmer Daves
Stark, claustrophobic thriller about an anti-Semitic soldier who kills a Jewish war veteran, evading detection because of his loyal friends’ protection. However, a detective is determined that the crime will not go unsolved and sets about laying a trap for the murderer. (Google synopsis)
Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC
Transatlantic Habit – The Returning Veteran in film Noir