1950s, 2.5/4, Film Noir, Fritz Lang, Review

The Blue Gardenia

#27 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.

There’s something about this film that doesn’t quite connect. This tale of murder, fear, and guilt seems to have all the right pieces, but by the end they don’t really come together the way that they should. The focus on the female protagonist feels incomplete, like it can’t quite empathize with her completely, and the ending makes it feel like there’s a missing half to the film to really mine the emotional potential of what takes place. I enjoyed the film a good bit pretty consistently, a testament to Fritz Lang’s ability to craft a film, but there are deficiencies at the script level that hold it back.

Norah (Anne Baxter) works as a telephone switchboard operator and looks forward to celebrating her birthday alone in her apartment with the picture of her boyfriend who’s off fighting in Korea. Her two roommates Crystal (Ann Southern) and Sally (Jeff Donnell) leave the apartment to give her space, but the evening goes south quickly when Norah opens the letter from her man she had been saving to read that he’s leaving her for a nurse he met while injured in Japan. Emotionally wrecked, she takes a call from Harry (Raymond Burr), the artist who had been drawing Crystal on the telephone company, and agrees to go out with him to the Blue Gardenia club. They have something of a wild night, drinking well into drunkenness, and they end up at his apartment. He gets handsy, too handsy, and she hits him on the head with a fireplace poker before passing out. She wakes up several hours later to find Harry dead, and she runs.

There are shades of Crime and Punishment as Norah pieces together the events of the night before (including the use of Lang’s well-established motif of mirrors), and she realizes that she killed Harry as the story of a beautiful blonde killing an unfamous artist becomes the sensationalist newspaper story of the year, led by the work of the reporter Casey Mayo (Richard Conte). She destroys evidence, is obviously upset at any mention of the developing story, raising suspicions in her roommates, and listens to the radio for updates in the middle of the night under her sheet in bed.

Where I started moving from appreciation to a curious feeling of detachment was when Norah finally lets out to Crystal what has gone on. First, I have to note that all three women are similar looking blondes, which makes the early stages of the film somewhat difficult to keep track of them. Spending so much time with Norah helps differentiate them over the course of the film. However, that’s a minor concern, and when Crystal figures out what Norah has done, it feels like there’s going to be some kind of scene where the two work through the emotional reality of what Norah is going through on some level. It doesn’t happen, though. The scene ends (almost like it’s cut short, so maybe more was filmed and just left out) without any real discussion after the reveal. Norah had spent most of the movie suffering silently or speaking in something like a code with Casey, and this was her one moment to let it out, but she’s denied that. The film was a pretty solid noir-ish drama, but that lost moment made me realize that it was more shallow than it should have been.

The second moment comes with a reveal late in the film. Now, I love the reveal itself. It’s actually properly set up from a mechanical narrative point of view and functions as more than something out of left field, but it involves a new character who’s barely gotten any screentime and has her own backstory. As the reveal was playing out, the feeling of elation I had at the ingenuity of what was playing out faded, replaced by the knowledge that it had been built this way to hide the reveal through most of the film. That sacrificed a fair amount of character based storytelling that would have benefited the ending of the film greatly. So, this reveal ends up feeling tacked on more than it should.

Where this film varies greatly from the bulk of Lang’s filmography is that the protagonist is a woman. Anne Baxter carries the film entirely on her shoulders, being in almost every scene, and she does it well. Norah’s frantic descent into terror is well drawn by Baxter, and she’s really good at playing drunk. Raymond Burr is great at using his bulk and charm to create a believable ladies man. Richard Conte is fine as a somewhat sleezy reporter out to get his story, though his Casey Mayo feels underdeveloped as a character so that when he admits that he’s lied about what he wants to do to help the Blue Gardenia (as the killer gets to be known), it feels less impactful than I think it should.

Essentially, this is a film that has the pieces and structure necessary to make the kind of great noir Lang would make next with The Big Heat, but it feels both underwritten and cut short, keeping it from reaching that kind of artistic height. It’s a doll to look at, like almost anything Lang did, especially in black and white, but the desire to accomplish cheaper thrills, especially around its ending, works against the potential, leaving a less than good picture that still has some quality to it nonetheless.

Rating: 2.5/4

5 thoughts on “The Blue Gardenia”

  1. Fritz Lang has worked with more female leads and females behind the camera than I expected. We should add up all of the films written by women or with female main characters. It might be quite a few, actually.

    But back to this movie: it’s a mess, frankly. It has signs of being a female-centered drama, which matches the writer and source material, but like you said, I suspect some drama was cut. The movie is lean and, if it doesn’t move as quickly as some of his films, it doesn’t waste time. I was expecting more linkages to the Black Dahlia murder, since that’s what the movie title obviously wants me to think about. But, no. It’s just a lecher getting killed and the wrong woman thinking she did it.

    I feel Rose should have been in the movie earlier. I also wouldn’t have hated it if Norah actually had killed him. He did deserve some beating and the death would have been mostly accidental and mostly deserved…it would have added REAL guilt to the character and more weight. But then I suppose we couldn’t have our happy Hollywood ending. Bleh.

    This comes off as a B movie in all the worst ways and not in all the best, if that makes any sense. This is disposable entertainment, with the standouts for me being creepy Raymond Burr and honestly, the three roommates, who had different enough personalities that knew each of them well enough, I thought.

    Still…it’s better than Lang’s worst and it feels like there’s some effort in the production if not the screenplay.

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    1. Norah’s side of the story is built around hiding things from the audience, but Rose’s is where the meat of the story actually is. Rose is also barely in it. Her last minute flashback is meatier than the entirety of Norah’s story.

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      1. See…that’s a storytelling mistake there. One that’s cheap to fix at the script level. Dunno. Maybe this was another rush job. Lots of B movies were made quick and cheap with whoever and whatever was around, with more improvisation that is wise.

        In the end, this just wasn’t the movie that the movie promised.

        Oh and head nod to Nat King Cole, whom I love. He doesn’t have any plot role but I do love hearing him sing.

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      2. The sense I get from Lang’s Hollywood period was that he was going to accept his assignments and make them as best he could. If the script wasn’t there, he wasn’t going to meddle with it. He was just going to manage the physical production as well as possible.

        Which is odd since he co-wrote most of his early German films and he actually started as a screenwriter.

        But it’s also obvious that Hollywood by this point was just throwing him secondary material. It also ends up so amazing how well The Big Heat turned out to be.

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