I watched “The Blue Gardenia” (1953) as part of my own ongoing retrospective of Hollywood films made by refugees from Hitler. It was directed by Fritz Lang, whom I credit for inventing “cinema noir” in turning the threatening shadows of German Expressionist cinema to crime melodramas, starting with “M” before he left Germany and “Fury” (1936) and “You Only Live Once” (1937), his first American movies, on through “The Big Heat” to his last American movies (both released in 1956) “While the City Sleeps” and “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.”
“The Blue Gardenia” is marketed as a noir, and the middle third of it has the look of one (shot by Nicholas Musuraca also photographed “Cat People” and “Out of the Past ” for Jacques Tourneur, “The Spiral Staircase” for Robert Siodmak, and “Clash by Night” for Lang). The first half hour seems like a 1950s tv series about “working gals” (not that I remember anything about the Ann Sothern tv series that were syndicated and rerun during the 1960s except her voice and her terminal pertness).
There are three young and very blonde women who work in Los Angeles’ central long-distance switchboard who also share a one-bedroom apartment. The savviest “gal” is Crystal, played by Ann Sothern, who was 44. The other two are geriatric adolescents (both 31): Sally (“Miss Jeff Donnell,” who went on to play Tony Curtis’s secretary in “Sweet Smell of Success”) is addicted to slasher paperbacks and marks her place when interrupted with her chewing gum and Norah (the title character from “All About Eve”) whose childhood sweetheart (they grew up in Bakersfield) is in Korea.
The movie begins at work, where a large and slimy lothario, Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr before becoming Perry Mason), is sketching Crystal. I have no idea why either he or L.A. Chronicle newspaper columnist Casey Mayo have access to the “gals” at work. At first I thought that Prebble worked there. I also don’t understand who thought that Richard Conte (House of Stranger, Whirlpool, and, much later, the snakey Don Barzini in “The Godfather”) was a romantic leading man. I guess that it is part of Norah’s naivété that she trusts him…
But first, the “gals” go home and get ready for the night. Crystal has an automotive date (drive-in food, drive-in movie, driving around) with her ex-husband, Homer). Sally learns that there is a new slasher novel by her favorite author in and rushes out to get it. Norah has a special occasion birthday dinner planned for herself, the picture of her absent soldier boyfriend, and an unopened letter from him to read by candlelight, sipping champagne.
Plot Spoilers follow
Pathetic as Norah’s solo dinner is to begin with, the letter tells her that the man she is waiting for has found true love and is marrying another. All dressed up and no longer to enjoy even the fantasy company of the distant boyfriend, when Prebble calls to invite Crystal (I think) to dinner, Norah accepts. She’s already dressed for a chic night spot (I don’t know what taffeta is or which consonant is doubled in it, but the audience is told multiple times during the movie that her dress is black taffeta). Prebble decides a bird in hand is something, gets her drunk, and then back to his apartment (she believes that there is a party with other people there…) After taking off her hat and shoes, Norah wards off Prebble’s shocking (ha ha) advances and raising a poker shatters a mirror.
That’s all she remembers. She passes out and finds Prebble dead by bludgeoning when she wakes up. She flees in the rain barefoot. (How she gets home in sprawling LA, we don’t learn). She doesn’t remember killing him, but assumes she must have.
Casey Mayo is the first newsman on the scene and uses his column to invite the “Blue Gardenia murderess” to give him an exclusive on her story in exchange for top legal representation. His column addressing the murderess is the second letter she reads during the movie. Tentatively she responds and he believes her when she claims to be a friend of the woman whose 5B pumps were on the murder scene.
Not least from having seen other Lang movies with someone hunted for a crime he did not commit, that Norah didn’t do it was as obvious to me as was the identity of the woman who did kill Prebble. Surprisingly to me, some have complained of a trick ending. That the police detective is convinced by Mayo to continue investigating after arresting Norah is not very plausible, and the ending is perfunctory. The “key” is a recording of the Liebestod from “Tristan and Isolde.” Wagner had to be heavy weight for a refugee from Hitler, especially for the director of an alternate version (alternate to Wagner’s) of the Niebelunglied, but what it means to any of the characters is not made clear.
End of plot spoilings
I guess that the movie, like those of Douglas Sirk, yet another refugee from Germany, is in part a critique of vapid consumerist culture (Mayo’s column, Sally’s trashy paperbacks, the fashionability of black taffeta that season, the drive-ins (and freeways), watching too much tv, etc.)
Richard Conte is totally inadequate as the romantic hero and the frightened heroine is too native to have reached her 30s on her own in the Big, Bad City. The wise-cracking but protective Ann Sothern is amusing, but plausible in her job and lodgings? The playboy Raymond Burr is entertaining, perhaps more from his iconic later status as Perry Mason.
Women so pert as the three roommates are a novelty in cinema noir. Maybe the iconic status of Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington makes it harder to accept that she is so naive here. A noir with a victimized heroine instead of a femme fatale is a novelty. I guess that Raymond Burr takes the position as the fatal momentary attraction (an un-femme femme fatale). Richard Conte is cynical enough as the solver of the murder mystery.
The Blue Gardenia (a Chinese restaurant with more chambers than a chambered nautilus that also features a cocktail pianist played by Nat King Cole singing the title song) is strikingly photographed, and Prebble’s “bachelor pad” is amusing, too. As in all Lang movies, there are interesting visual compositions. Those in the first and last thirds are far too bright to be part of a noir. The middle third in which Prebble is a valued customer and then a preying mantis (OK, wolf! I do know how to spell the insect’s name, but the life cycle fits…), and the late-night cafe are noir territory, though even the middle third is rather brightly lit for cinema noir.
Lang was working on a low budget (the movie was shot in 20 days) with a cast he didn’t choose but he still managed to inject some of the Lang look and feel (but, certainly not the ending!). He had more control and a better cast the next year to make the masterpiece “The Big Heat,” and anyone looking for the best noirs (rather than filling out their life list of Lang movies, as I am) would do better watching that or “You Only Live Once, ” or—for newspapermen solving murders—”While the City Sleeps.” (I like the somewhat noirish but filmed-in-color western “Rancho Notorious” (1952) more, though it also strikes me as perfunctory in its ending.)
©2018, Stephen O. Murray