Fritz Lang, 1953
Starring: Anne Baxter, Richard Conte, Raymond Burr, Ann Sothern
On her birthday, Norah Larkin receives a letter from her fiancé, is a soldier in the Korean War. He coldly explains that he has met and become engaged to a Japanese nurse. In despair, Norah agrees to go out on a blind date when a man calls the apartment, though he believes he is speaking to Norah’s roommate, Crystal. The man is an unwholesome advertising artist and, even though Nora is the wrong woman, he buys her dinner, gets her very drunk, and takes her back to his apartment. He attempts to sexually assault her while she’s sleeping, but she knocks him out with a fire poker and flees. The next morning, he’s found dead and Norah has no memory of what has happened. Her two roommates notice a change in her personality – she becomes angry, emotional, and paranoid – due to her belief that she must have committed the murder. A newspaper journalist writes an open letter to the murderer, begging her to come forward, and eventually Crystal begins to suspect the truth.
The Blue Gardenia is the beginning of director Fritz Lang’s loose trilogy with While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). All three films are noir efforts concerned with the evils of the media, the newspaper industry in particular. Though there are some pretty flimsy mystery devices here (Norah disguises her voice over the telephone with a lace handkerchief… really?), this is Lang’s first direct criticism of the American media, communication devices, and mass media in general. This pervades the film: Norah and her two roommates are telephone operators, Raymond Burr plays an ad/calendar artist, a newspaper columnist tries to solve the crime, one of the roommates loves mass printed mystery paperbacks, and there are a number of important telephone calls, while letter writing sets both of the film’s major events in motion. The cruel letter from Norah’s fiancé encourages her to go out on a blind date and get drunk, while the reporter’s “Letter to an Unknown Killer” brings him and Norah together. There’s also a wonderful scene where women call in to the newspaper to falsely admit they are the killer and Lang cuts to each of the desperate, lonely women in turn. The critical clue to the identity of the real murderer is related to the purchase of a record at a local music store.
This is a particularly nasty look at life in ‘50s California, though there are a few delightfully comedic moments – one where Raymond Burr’s (the murdered artist) housekeeper admits that she cleaned up the crime scene and another where one of the roommates gets an exciting call from a man that first seems romantic but turns out to be the guy at the drugstore telling her that the latest crime novel is in. Raymond Burr is wonderful and charismatic as the slime ball Harry and it’s a shame he wasn’t given more screen time. There lengthy scene between he and Norah (Anne Baxter) in “The Blue Gardenia” nightclub is one of the best moments of the film. Keep your eyes and ears out for Nat King Cole, who sings a love song, also named “The Blue Gardenia.”
There’s some nice chemistry and camaraderie between the three female leads, Anne Baxter, comedian Ann Sothern, and Jeff Donnell (yes, this is a woman; she also appeared in In a Lonely Place). Unfortunately, the three similarly aged blondes look nearly identical to each other and it was a bit difficult to tell them apart for the first 30 or so minutes of the film. Ann Sothern clearly gives the strongest performance here and she often steals the film from Baxter. Speaking of the latter, I have to wonder why she was cast. Baxter has been in some excellent films (I Confess, The Magnificent Ambersons), but the role really should have gone to one of Hitchcock’s more nervous, sex-starved blondes. Unlike Hitchcock’s beloved “wrong man” (an innocent person blamed for a crime and targeted by the real criminals), Norah’s character fits in with Lang’s stock protagonist. This figure is usually male, is never innocent, and is the subject of crippling guilt and intense paranoia. Lang’s protagonists in M, Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, Ministry of Fear, Hangmen Also Die, You Only Live Once, House by the River, Rancho Notorious, Human Desire, Cloak and Dagger, and others are all guilty of a crime, usually murder, while the protagonists of Man Hunt and Secret Beyond the Door contemplate and almost carry out this crime. Baxter is far too weak to give this role the weight it deserves, which is a real shame.
Though this is inferior to Lang’s Human Desire, The Big Heat, or While the City Sleeps, it’s still a worthwhile noir. It’s a likely play on Alan Ladd noir vehicle The Blue Dahlia, about soldiers returned home from the war. Ladd’s character finds that his wife is guilty of infidelity and overnight she winds up murdered. In addition to Ladd, the chief suspect is a soldier who suffers from blackouts and – after the wife invites him up to her bedroom – he has a few drinks and can’t recall his guilt or innocence the next day. Keep your eye out for George Reeves (Superman) as he is sort of lost as the police captain, but puts in a nice appearance regardless. Richard Conte (The Big Combo) is a believable mix of suave, earnest, and sleazy as the unscrupulous reporter turned love interest.
Nicholas Musuraca handles the cinematography here, so of course the film is worth watching. The mediocre script (from a story by Vera Caspary) and presumably enforced casting of Anne Baxter take The Blue Gardenia down a few notches, but it’s still a worthy noir and is essential viewing for any fans of that genre or of Lang himself. The film is available on DVD, but where is my Fritz Lang-noir Blu-ray box set?