A murder investigation lead by Detective Finlay (Robert Young) points to a group of post WWII soldiers stationed in Washington, DC. There is Keeley (Robert Mitchum) - the big-brother type; Montgomery (Robert Ryan) - the "regular army" guy; Floyd (Steve Brodie) - the guy trying to distance himself from the army; Mitchell (George Cooper) - the artist assigned to the signal corps; and Leroy (William Phipps) - the dumb Tennessee hick. Mitchell was invited up to the victim's room, but Montgomery and Floyd showed up later. Now Mitchell is missing and nobody seems to know what happened.
The film begins with the murder, obscured (of course) in shadow, and shot at a low angle so that only feet and legs are seen. We flash to later that night when the victim's girlfriend finds the body and the Detective is on the case. From this point we follow Finlay's investigation and I was hard-pressed, beyond the stylistic murder scene, to call this a noir. It seemed like a fairly straight-forward murder investigation, a la THE NAKED CITY. Young played the detective as somewhat cynical, but certainly not in the same league as Philip Marlowe.
Then a strange thing happened. The film lost its main character. Or, perhaps, it never had a main character in the strictest sense. I'll return to this.
What happened was that the narrative was carried by several different characters at different times in the film. We have flashbacks narrated by Montgomery and Mitchell, a separate investigation being conducted by Mitchell, Mitchell's wife even takes the lead at one point, and there is even a very important scene using Leroy as the focus. And in the middle of all of this is possibly the best explanation (in a film) of why the noir cycle happened after the second World War. In Mitchell's flashback he relates an analogy put to him by the victim. He compared the war to a peanut. (I'm paraphrasing as best I can. I imagine I'll see the film again soon and can do it more justice then). We put all our energy, our focus, our hate and violence into eating that peanut. And when the peanut is gone, then what? Where does all that energy, focus, hate and violence go? Naturally, we start to look among ourselves. And it is at this point that some of us turn our hate inward.
Does that not perfectly explain not only the vicious crimes that appear on-screen in films noirs, but also the self-destructive tendencies of so many of our noir protagonists? And in this film, it affects everyone. For Montgomery, the war turns the "regular Army" into a "civilian Army" full of incompetents. Mitchell is the prime example of self-hatred after the fact. Leroy is innocence and naivete lost. And Mitchell's wife has been robbed of the man that she married, and years of marriage, only to be expected to welcome this changed man home with open arms. Who is left for her to hate for what was done to her life?
From this perspective, and taking into consideration the shifting point-of-view, it is not a difficult philosophical leap to conclude that American society is the noir protagonist in this case, as shown in pieces to make up the whole. It is the society that is turning hatred in on itself, ashamed of what it has been forced to do in the past, and looking for ways to self-immolate in some sort of attempt at penance. The film posits that the only way to find peace is to somehow expunge blind hate from ourselves and our society, or it will cause an auto-catalytic reaction that will breed hate upon hate.
I am quickly coming to the realization that 1947 may have been the best year for film noir, as it saw not only the release of this film, but also those of the wonderful DARK PASSAGE, DEAD RECKONING, DESPERATE, KISS OF DEATH, NIGHTMARE ALLEY, and OUT OF THE PAST.