Based on Raymond Chandler's novel, a detective is hired to find a woman, is present at a murder, and investigates a blackmail plot.
Blindfolded Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) is interrogated by police and tells the story. Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) hires Marlowe to find Velma and takes him to where she worked. Marlowe goes to Jessie Florian and gives her a bottle; she says Velma is dead, but Marlowe doubts her. At Marlowe's office Lindsay Marriott gives him $100 to go with him to buy back stolen jade. Marlowe is knocked out, and he finds Marriott beaten to death. He reports it to the police, and Lt. Randall (Don Douglas) tells him to stay out of his way.
Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley) comes to Marlowe as a reporter and says the jade is her father's. She takes him to his mansion. Grayle (Miles Mander) and his wife Helen (Claire Trevor) tell Marlowe about the jade necklace, and Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger) comes in. Helen goes to Marlowe's apartment, hires him, and takes him to a nightclub. Helen slips out, and Ann offers Marlowe more money. Malloy forces Marlowe to go to Amthor, who wants to buy the jade. Malloy strong-arms Marlowe to find out where Velma is. Marlowe hits Amthor, who knocks him out.
Marlowe wakes up on a bed and sees two men. He is drugged but gets dressed and walks. He knocks out one man and takes a gun from the doctor. Malloy helps Marlowe get a cab. Marlowe goes to Ann's house and remembers her voice from the Marriott murder. Lt. Randall arrives to arrest Marlowe but listens and leaves. Marlowe and Ann go to Grayle, who says police were there and that he fears losing Helen. He offers to pay Marlowe to stop working. Marlowe tells Ann he is sticking, and they go to the beach-house rented by Marriott. Marlowe kisses Ann. Helen laughs and comes forward. Ann leaves, and Marlowe questions Helen, who says Amthor is blackmailing her because she likes men. She says Amthor killed Marriott for the jade, and she asks Marlowe to kill Amthor. Helen kisses Marlowe, who declines to stay the night. He finds Amthor dead, killed by Malloy. Marlowe tells Malloy he will take him to Velma.
The next night Marlowe has Malloy wait outside and goes in to Helen, who shows him the necklace; she says she always had it. He accuses her of trying to kill him so that he wouldn't find her for Malloy. Helen cries, but Marlowe says it won't work twice. Helen pulls his gun. Grayle and Ann come in and tell her to kill Marlowe, but Grayle shoots Helen. Marlowe calls the police, but Ann stops him. Malloy comes in and sees Velma (Helen). He goes for Grayle, who shoots.
Blindfolded Marlowe tells police he went unconscious, and his eyes were scorched. Police say Grayle was killed. Marlowe gives back the jade and longs for Ann, who follows him. In the cab they kiss.
This classic film noir explores the dark side of Los
Angeles from a realistic perspective even though analysis of the
plot strains credibility. Dick Powell's shift from musicals to
detective stories reflects a change in the cinema's imagination.