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Beyond the profound influence that his expressionistic efforts in Germany and America had upon the development of the film noir cycle of the '40s and '50s, German director Fritz Lang would spend his latter years in Hollywood actively contributing to the form. With such brooding, stylized explorations of the underworld as Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Heat (1953) and While the City Sleeps (1956) to his credit, the Viennese craftsman rendered some of the most memorable suspense films of the period.
Neither Lang nor many of his champions would go on to accord such status to The Blue Gardenia (1953), a thriller that the director took on contract for Warner Brothers and crafted within a tidy twenty days. Regardless, the atmospheric touches, jarring visuals and sense of paranoia with which Lang imbued this studio quickie prevent it from warranting such simple dismissal.
Adapted from a short story by Laura author Vera Caspary, the narrative introduces all the principals involved in a scattershot fashion before reaching the dramatic thrust. Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter), a Los Angeles switchboard operator sharing an apartment with two co-workers, is devastated when an anticipated letter from her fiance in Korea turns out to be of the "Dear Jane" variety. Intercepting a phone call meant for her roommate (Ann Sothern), she eventually gives a why-not response to the caller's entreaties for a date.
Arriving at the trendy nightspot of the film's title, she makes her rendezvous with Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr), a slick-talking commercial draftsman with a predilection for calendar girls that isn't merely vocational. After multiple rounds of cocktails, the now-impaired Norah agrees to make a stop back at Prebble's studio. Once Harry attempts to force himself on her, however, she struggles, shattering a mirror as she passes out. Norah recovers enough consciousness to stagger her way home and collapse.
The dawn, however, brings far worse consequences than a mere hangover, as the tabloids and airwaves bear reports of Prebble's death at the hands of an unknown assailant. Casey Mayo (Richard Conte), a high-powered newspaper columnist and acquaintance of Prebble's, dubs the mystery woman with whom Prebble was last seen alive "the Blue Gardenia," and begins a public drumbeat for her to turn herself in. Wracked with guilt, and causing concern to her friends with her increasingly paranoid behavior, Norah has a torturous struggle over whether to put herself in Mayo's hands.
Lang may have regarded The Blue Gardenia as no more than a rushed job for hire, but the circumstances didn't quell his hunger for innovation. Working in conjunction with Nicholas Musuraca, the cinematographer who shot Lang's Clash by Night (1952) and many other memorable noir efforts for RKO, the filmmakers devised a revolutionary dolly that allowed for sustained tracking shots, and which provides the film's narrative with an intimacy comparable to handheld photography. "The practice of cutting in close-ups not only seems unnatural, but oftentimes interrupts and disturbs the filmic train of thought," the director once told interviewer Friedrich Porges. "The photographic apparatus becomes the constant companion of the actors; it becomes a sharp observer of the events, capturing the drama more intensively as it draws quickly nearer when something decisive is done or said."
Musuraca's lighting choices for The Blue Gardenia may have, on balance, owed more to then-prevalent television standards than his prior work, but the film still boasts many expressionistic visuals. From the vortex that envelopes Norah at the point of her collapse to the rain-streaked window looking in at the peak of her vulnerability, The Blue Gardenia creates a sustained sensation of impending doom and offers much of what lent Lang his enduring distinction in the field.
The Blue Gardenia also benefits from the game efforts of its players. Baxter hits the right notes as the conscience-plagued heroine; Burr is wonderfully smarmy as her would-be seducer; and Sothern engagingly delivers in a familiar assignment as the wisecracking confidante. Worked into the plotline with surprising frequency is Nat "King" Cole's smoky rendition of the title tune.
Producer: Alex Gottlieb
Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Charles Hoffman, based on the story by Vera Caspary
Art Direction: Daniel Hall
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Editing: Edward Mann
Music: Raoul Kraushaar
Cast: Anne Baxter (Norah Larkin), Richard Conte (Casey Mayo), Ann Sothern (Crystal Carpenter), Raymond Burr (Harry Prebble), Jeff Donnell (Sally Ellis), Nat "King" Cole (Himself), Richard Erdman (Al).
by Jay Steinberg