A lesser Lang, a better Baxter: The Blue Gardenia (Fritz Lang, 1953)

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The Blue Gardenia lacks the extra creative push that could have made it an impactful film, and it falls short of its own clear potential. It stars Anne Baxter as Norah, a telephone operator who makes the mistake of going out with Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr) on an impulse. Hurt after being dumped by her boyfriend, having eagerly awaited his return from Korea, Norah doesn’t recognise the signs that Prebble has predatory intentions. Following a drunken struggle with him back in his apartment, she wakes with no recollection of what happened. Prebble is dead, and while the police are hunting for Norah, newspaper columnist Casey Mayo (Richard Conte) offers to help the mysterious murderess he’s dubbed the Blue Gardenia.

Anne Baxter may be remembered for her knack for playing “bad girls,” Eve of All About Eve among them, but she gets to show another side of her talents here. Norah starts out as an upbeat, easy-going character, and Baxter plays her as downright cute when she’s drunk. When her life turns upside-down, Norah is just as sympathetic as Edward G. Robinson’s fellow hapless, unlikely criminal in Fritz Lang’s more famous The Woman in the Window. Her dilemmas are more complex, too. Norah has to listen to her roommates Crystal (Ann Sothern) and Sally (Jeff Donnell) paint the Blue Gardenia as someone who deserved what she got. No one seems to care about her plight besides Mayo – and in his own way, he’s as duplicitous as Prebble.

The Blue Gardenia is laced with social commentary. Lang, one of the many German directors who immigrated to the US to escape the rise of Nazism, seems to take glee in portraying 1950s America as being full of untrustworthy people who find pleasure in others’ suffering. He cites the McCarthy hearings as having influenced his feelings at the time. In some ways, the film pulls no punches. In other ways, however, it doesn’t seem interested in giving its treatment of the newspaper business more than a few token jabs.

The film works best in its examination of Norah as a woman who’s misused by every man she comes into contact with. Prebble’s attempt to rape her is surprisingly frank for a film of this era. Her drunkenness and ignorance of his intentions are shown as being part of his gameplan, even as they are later used by others to lay the responsibility for Prebble’s actions entirely on Norah’s shoulders. The scene in which Prebble attacks her is set to Nat “King” Cole’s “The Blue Gardenia,” and the contrast between the smooth music and the unfolding violence is so effective that it’s no wonder that Zach Snyder would think to use one of Cole’s songs for a brutal fight scene in Watchmen about 60 years later. (Cole himself makes a charming appearance earlier in the film.) Unwanted pregnancy must have been too sharp an issue for the film to deal with at length, but it also plays a part in the story.

Some people do not see The Blue Gardenia as a film noir. I’d say there are three reasons for this: firstly, that the film focuses a good deal on Norah and her roommates (none of them a noir stereotype), sometimes taking a lighter tone; secondly, the well-debated matter of whether or not directors of the 40s and 50s were consciously making “film noirs” rather than crime films or melodramas; and thirdly, that only rarely does this film truly look like a noir. The blame for this must lie with Lang. Some of his other American films prove that he was capable of bringing atmosphere, texture, and a marked visual style to simple stories. However, the lighting in The Blue Gardenia is flat for the most part, with only one scene standing out as having Lang’s touch. When Norah goes to meet Mayo for the first time, his office is lit by a flashing neon sign, and she moves uncertainly through the temporary shadows it casts. However, the scene pales in comparison to, say, the similarly-lit final hotel room scene in Lang’s Scarlet Street.

The mystery’s missing pieces are not difficult to guess. The predictability need not be a problem, however. The real problem is that the story does not have a sense of urgency. It often seems to be moving at a crawl, and there’s no atmosphere to cloud the fact. It’s hard not to wish that the social commentary was given more detail, and that Baxter’s strong central performance could have been harnessed by a better paced plot.

The Blue Gardenia clearly has talent behind it. Lang did direct some viciously wonderful films in Hollywood. In addition to Baxter, Conte (adept at being likeable in an unlikely way) sells his character, and Sothern and Donnell are full of personality and verve. As if that wasn’t enough, the story was written by Vera Caspary, whose novel Laura was adapted into one of the most beloved film noirs of all time. However, the end product is lacking the time and attention that could have improved it. It’s the film’s potential that makes it so disappointing.

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