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Veterans (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)

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.

The Blue Dahlia

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.

"The returning veteran and his maladjustment was a recurring theme in #FilmNoir Share on X
Dark Passage

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

1940s Film Noir - YEARS 1940s (AtoZ Challenge 2017) - The returning veteran and his maladjustment to peacetime society is the perfect incarnation of post WWII men's axniety in front of a changing world


  • Cheryl
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 00:26

    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. What an astute observation. I would never have seen that.

    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. Not much has changed, has it. I wonder how much the difference in warfare itself (less face-to-face combat) has affected that. Great, thought provoking post.

    Impromptu Promptlings
    A to Z Challenge Letter U

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 10:06

      I think that war, however is fought, will always affect people, being them soldiers or civialian victims of the war.
      I do think that storytelling has an healing power that can help overcome this kind of traumatic experiences.

  • Sharon M Himsl
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 02:42

    The problem of postwar maladjustment has never really stopped, but there appears to be more help for returning veterans today. Hollywood certainly has played a role in bringing this problem to light.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 10:07

      It is probably true. Even if it was done, like in film noir, in a subliminal way.

  • Margot Kinberg
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 03:02

    So glad you mentioned The Blue Dahlia. It is, I think, an excellent example of the issue of the returning veteran. We still have a long way to go to support veterans who are struggling, but we’re a lot closer than we were. And it’s interesting to see the different explanations people had at the time for what we now call PTSD.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 10:13

      I suppose – but I don’t really know, I’ve not looked into it yet – that PTSD as we understand it today started to be seen after WWII. I know that WWI produced the same kind of illness, but back then it wasn’t really considered an illness, just one of the ‘side effects’ of war.
      As Sharon suggested above, film (as well as literature) might have had a role in making the public aware of this condition.

  • Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 08:41

    Hi Sarah – the films in that ilk certainly ‘looked similar’ yet portrayed different story lines as you’ve noted … and suggesting things that might make a difference to the returned soldier’s life … Fascinating to read about … cheers Hilary

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 10:14

      Happy you found it interesting, Hilary. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  • Eva
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 11:23

    I found this post very interesting. I had never thought of the postwar problems reflected on noir films.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 10:16

      It is indeed an interesting subject. Film noir addressed the maladjustment of returnign veterans in many different ways, sometimes more direct, some Others more subtle.

  • Nilanjana Bose
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 11:43

    ‘hard to cope with a lifestyle that didn’t allow violence as a problem-solving tool.’

    Seems to apply to some who have never been anywhere close to a battle front.


  • Ishieta@Isheeria's
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 12:12

    yes, all movies and tv seriels seem to focus on how tough and hard it was for the veterans to integrate. i wonder in those times of such hardships, having such films – did it have any entertainment relief?

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 10:23

      I think so. I do think storytelling has an inherent power of healing by allowing people to share a common emotion. It allows the person who’s suffering to let go of some of that sorrow and the people who never experienced that suffering to get a hint at it and develope sympathy and understanding.

  • Sue Bursztynski
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 14:48

    Things haven’t changed much. Our own veterans often suffer from PTSD and get very little help. Those who returned from Vietnam found themselves snubbed by both the anti-Vienam people, who didn’t believe they should have gone and those vets who didn’t see why they should get any benefits because they had been drafted instead of volunteering for war! The war had been traumatic enough without that sort of nonsense after it, and I recall they weren’t even invited to march in Anzac Day parades here for quite some time.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 10:37

      I think veterans always pause a great problem to peacetime society, if the war happened anyplace which is not home.
      War will always give anyone involved (so soldiers as well) a different understanding of… well, everything… which is different from what a peacefull society consideres acceptable.
      When these two world collid, there will Always be problems, I’m afraid. Peacetime societies will always be wearing of people who’ve lived in contact with (or worse, used) violence.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 15:02

    These are age-old story tropes too, the man returning from war to find that things have changed… it is eternal because, sadly, it keeps happening to men (and also women) we send to war.

    The Multicolored Diary: WTF – Weird Things in Folktales

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 10:42

      It is an eternal theme. I think this is actually one of the reasons why film noir, in spite of its many bonds to 1940s history and entertainment, is still meaningful for us today.

  • CD Gallant-King
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 15:16

    It’s amazing how film and art of so many time periods are so closely linked to the societal ups and downs of the day. Did people realize it was happening at the time? Will our period be reminded by a particular style/genre of art? And what could it possibly be?

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 10:53

      I’m not able to answer this.
      But I do think art expresses the time it is produced. Often in a subliminal way (I think this is what happened to film noir too). So, yeah, the people living that time might not realise the trend.

  • Jacqui
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 16:26

    Amazing how ‘returning vets’ has changed, depending upon the war.

  • Arlee Bird
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 18:25

    The plight of the returning vet received a lot of focus after Viet Nam until present, but I didn’t realize that it was also an integral aspect to many film noirs until the past decade or so when I started watching more of these films. The adjustment to regular life for a returning vet has always been a big deal for the individuals affected, but not always recognized by society as much as it should have been.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 21:23

      That’s true, Arlee. i think that in some very deep part of them, peacetime socitey are afraid of vetrans, of their familiarity with death and violence. That’s why sociaty as a whole is often weary of them.
      Just my thought about it.

  • joy
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 20:23

    good choice for V! I mentioned the wonderful Ronald Colman in my T post. Are you a fan?
    Joy @ The Joyous Living

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 21:24

      I’m not very familiar with him. But I’ll try to learn more about him 🙂

  • Sara C. Snider
    Posted April 27, 2017 at 08:34

    Returning home for soldiers always is and was going to be hard, I think. The impression I have of the ’40s, though, is that there seems to have been a belief of vets needing to “get over” whatever difficulties they might have had. That it wasn’t really talked about. That had to have been really hard. I like to think maybe film noir helped some through the time, even if only a little.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 21:27

      I think a kind of storytelling like film noir might have well arose just becuase of the problems veterans were encountering. Because it wasn’t something you were supposed to talk abotu openly, this kind of film provided a subliminal way to do so.
      Just my idea.

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 28, 2017 at 01:17

    The problems of returning vets were definitely most fertile ground for fictional treatments. So many people, vets included, felt the past should be left in the past, no matter how traumatic the memories were, nor how psychologically impacted they were. After fighting in a war, they couldn’t just come home and pick up where they left off like nothing major happened.

    • Post Author
      Posted May 3, 2017 at 09:18

      I couldn’t say it better, Carry.
      Still, that’s what traumatised people always try to do. Leave the past in the past, hoping that it will leave them alone.
      Which of course, will never happen.
      But I think storytelling may help in these cases, even if the traumatised person doesen’t realise it.

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