2018 Film Essays

Hommes Fatales: Fritz Lang’s ‘The Blue Gardenia’

When aspiring actress Elizabeth Short was killed by an unknown perpetrator in the winter of 1947, her body dumped in a vacant lot in Los Angeles, the city newspapers were captivated. The subsequent press attention for the crime, particularly brutal in the violation of Short’s body (which was cut in half and marred by several lacerations, including a massive one across her face from cheeks to ears), led to her rechristening: she would hence be known as “The Black Dahlia.” Here was a perfect noir crime, torn out of the pages of Black Mask fiction or reflected off the frames of dark thrillers flowering in the aftermath of World War II. The victim’s name, some hold, came from a film noir released just the year before, The Blue Dahlia (1946, George Marshall), starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.

Fritz Lang’s 1953 film The Blue Gardenia makes no attempt to restage Short’s murder — surely the Hollywood Production Code, even though the 1950s saw the beginning of its decline in influence, would not have allowed anything approaching the gruesome facts of the Dahlia case. The Blue Gardenia does share obvious points of intersection, with its adoption of the floral moniker, paired with the color that supposedly inspired the Dahlia’s nickname. Its story concerns Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter), the suddenly jilted girlfriend of a soldier fighting overseas in the Korean War, who spends a night out with a notorious womanizer, Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr). After more than a few drinks and an ill-fated trip to Prebble’s apartment that nearly ends in rape, Norah blacks out and wakes up the next morning to learn that Prebble was killed the night before. She spends the remainder of the film uncertain of her guilt, while avoiding the detection of local news media, led by columnist Casey Mayo (Richard Conte), who sensationalizes the murder and leads the charge to find the woman who killed Prebble. In the pages of his newspaper, Mayo calls the unknown woman “The Blue Gardenia” to drive public interest in the story. Norah must weigh her desire to confess her presumed guilt against her own foggy memory of her night with Prebble, eventually making contact with the suspicious Mayo directly to clear her conscience. The movie concludes when Norah’s innocence is proven after the discovery of another clue, which reveals that another of Prebble’s resentful paramours crept in after Norah departed his apartment and murdered him.

The Blue Gardenia is often disregarded when taken in the context of the rest of Lang’s filmography, and certainly many of his other films noir, especially that same year’s The Big Heat, afforded the status of unadulterated classic. Its visual style is somewhat flat, especially for Lang, whose often adventurous use of the camera is muted here. Aside from one key sequence in Prebble’s apartment (more on this later), some purists may be reluctant even to include it in the noir canon on the basis of its almost total abandonment of high contrast lighting, expressionist cinematography and other quintessential noir visuals. It seems that in many critical conversations, The Blue Gardenia only gets mentioned at all because of its director, whose noir credibility is sterling enough to get it included.

Whenever The Blue Gardenia is discussed more thoroughly, it is usually in the context of two later Lang works from 1956, While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, both media exposes starring Dana Andrews, also characterized by their noir-adjacent subject matter and tone. The cynical approach of all three films, each of which take the news media and systems of governmental power to task for their failures to protect Americans from the meanness in the world, is of a piece with Lang’s socially-conscious work both in Germany and in Hollywood. Throughout his career, Lang demonstrated a keen ability to tell individual stories about protagonists caught in larger systems beyond their control, balancing a cast of recognizable faces with the faceless institutions that they serve, either knowingly or unknowingly. The gangsters and police both working to apprehend the child killer in M (1931), the angry lynch mob in Fury (1936) and the self-righteous, vengeance-bent cop Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) in The Big Heat are all pawns in a chess game they don’t always see, moved about by organizational priorities and a repressive status quo. In The Blue Gardenia, Mayo receives much of Lang’s ire, as the representative of a cynical media organization more interested in selling papers than solving a crime.

Though Lang’s contempt for the news media is on full display in The Blue Gardenia, the film also dares to represent another repressive system as equally responsible for Norah’s fate: the patriarchal power structure that uses and abuses women before discarding them. Based on a story by Vera Caspary, who wrote the novel Laura, which later became the basis Otto Preminger’s 1944 film, The Blue Gardenia retains a decidedly female point of view, making it exceptional within Lang’s mostly male-driven filmography. Lang’s emphasis on Norah’s plight, in which a potential “murderess,” as Mayo describes her, is rendered sympathetically for much of the film, not only disrupts the Hollywood Production Code’s stated attitude towards those who commit crimes, but also casts a woman of noir in stark distinction to the femmes fatales who dominate the cycle. Norah may be a killer, but if she is, she committed the act in self-defense. It was no manipulative, orchestrated plot to ensnare a man into doing the dirty work for her. The result is a film that places Norah at the center of an oppressive system, its crushing weight foreclosing her options, slamming doors in her face and narrowing the path straight to the gas chamber. This position, normally occupied by a male protagonist in other noir films, refreshingly spins the narrative towards its critique of patriarchy.

At its core, The Blue Gardenia is a film about two worlds: there is the masculine world of both the phone company and the newspaper office, dominated by men like Prebble and Mayo, respectively, and the feminine world of the apartment Norah shares with two friends, Crystal (Ann Sothern) and Sally (Jeff Donnell). These worlds intersect only on terms of sexual exchange; after the credits, Mayo is dropped off at the telephone company office and heads inside. In the switchboard room, staffed almost exclusively by women, a close-up shows Crystal wearing a headset, when Mayo’s disembodied voice asks her, “Age?” The camera pulls back, revealing Mayo standing next to her, and Prebble sitting on a stool on the left side of the frame. Crystal is trapped between Prebble and Mayo, each of them interested in women purely for what they can offer them sexually. When Crystal surrenders her phone number to Mayo, Prebble complains that he’s been trying to get it forever and had no luck. Mayo immediately repeats the number for Prebble, trading away its value for nothing in return. Lang’s framing immediately suggests a patriarchal system represented by these two men, unwilling to let Crystal escape. That Mayo would be so flippant about first acquiring her number, and then giving it over to a man he doesn’t even know, indicts his treatment of women very early in the story, before Mayo has done anything else. 

The film deepens its critique of Mayo and his attitude towards women throughout the story, including the returning preoccupation with his “little black book” of women’s phone numbers and addresses. His discussions about the book with Al (Richard Erdmann), his photographer friend, treat the women contained inside not as human beings, but as trophies won on a kind of sexual safari. Though Al functions as little more than a window character for Mayo, a foil against whom he can express his thoughts and hunches about the identity of Prebble’s murderer, what character arc he does receive relates to the book. He continually asks Mayo for a look inside the book, which Mayo resists. To the men in the world of The Blue Gardenia, women are worthy of exchange, but little more. Before Crystal’s number goes in Mayo’s book, he will happily pass it on to Prebble over Crystal’s clear and present objections. After the numbers are safely tucked away in its pages, he guards them from Al’s desires.

The other character in this exchange, Prebble, anchors the scene both literally and figuratively. After Mayo is led off to another part of the switchboard by an office manager, the focus of the action turns back to Prebble, who looms over Crystal in a reverse shot, drawing her on a sketch pad (where he has also surreptitiously scrawled her phone number). As Prebble speaks favorably about her image on the pad, she attempts to bat away his verbal advances. Prebble leans back on the stool, totally confident in his position, when Norah and Sally, also employees at the phone company, step into the frame in the background, on their way out for the day. Crystal stands and Lang cuts to a medium shot with Prebble framed centrally, the three women stepping around him. They have no desire for him — their behavior seems to indicate disgust– but it is as if his gravitational pull is so strong, they cannot help but be sucked into his orbit. He paws at Norah’s hand, but she slides it away. Crystal tells Prebble Norah has a boyfriend, and they leave, with the preoccupied Sally, her nose in a book, following behind. Lang lingers on Prebble, clearly watching the three women leave the office, checking them out as they go. In a crucial decision, Lang does not occupy Prebble’s point of view by offering a reverse shot of the women exiting, but stays with Prebble. There is no male gaze here, but instead, the critical eye of the camera, judging the male for gazing.

When Mayo returns a second later, he follows up with Prebble about the phone number. Prebble smirks and says, “I’ve got more numbers than the phone company.” These two men are versions of the same archetype, the men who use women for sexual gratification and then dispose of them. They diverge throughout the remainder of the film’s first act, where Mayo largely disappears and Prebble takes over. At the apartment she shares with Crystal and Sally, Norah prepares to have a romantic dinner with her soldier boyfriend’s picture, during which she will read his latest letter and think of him fondly. Things do not go as planned when his letter confesses his love for a nurse and his intention to marry her. Norah’s evening is ruined until the phone rings, and it is Prebble on the other line. Mistaking her for Crystal, whom he has been pursuing, he invites her to join him for a drink. Dejected, desperate and defiant, Norah decides to do it.

The film’s title repeats often — it is the moniker Norah will eventually earn through the press after Prebble’s death, but also appears as the name on the nightclub where she meets Prebble, and in the chorus of the song by Nat “King” Cole, which he performs in the club and is played on a record several times in the film. All of these disparate threads connect in the nightclub sequence, where Prebble’s predations take center stage. The first shot in the nightclub begins on Prebble, holding the menu open and ordering from a waiter. He asks for “Polynesian Pearl Divers,” with specific instructions: “don’t spare the rum.” Lang tracks with Prebble as he stalks through the restaurant, his head swiveling the crowd, occasionally taking long glances at women sitting at tables with their own dates. When he reaches the bar, Mayo is there too, and the barmen seem to know him. This is Prebble’s joint, a place he frequents, territory he knows, with regular drink orders. Mayo knows why he’s there, asking about the phone number he bestowed upon Prebble earlier in the phone company office. When Prebble plays coy, Mayo says, “Well, whoever she is, happy hunting.” Prebble’s response: “Thanks. Same to you.” These are men who see their reflections in the other, united by their common purpose. 

The rest of the night, after Norah arrives to meet Prebble, represents a study in a hunter’s methodical approach. He is initially surprised to see her, thinking he got through to Crystal instead, but once she is sitting across from him, one woman is as good as another. Norah is all eagerness, determined to stop moping around after being dumped hours earlier, wanting to have a good time. Prebble uses this enthusiasm against her, abusing Norah’s trust for his own purposes. She’s a lightweight who doesn’t usually drink, and he keeps the sweet and tasty “Pearl Divers” coming quickly. As she starts to slur her speech and fawn all over Prebble, he remains frighteningly in control, quietly asking a waiter to bring still more drinks. The palm fronds above Harry’s head evoke the jungle, Lang’s subtle depiction of a hunter at work. His sobriety carries them into his car, where he says he’s taking them back to his apartment, and he’s invited a few friends over. He lies effortlessly.

The act concludes with Lang’s most expressive visual set piece in the otherwise subtle film. Back at Prebble’s apartment, he continues to keep the liquor flowing. He plies Norah with charm and catches her when she stumbles. When Norah says she thinks she had “better lie down,” he eagerly takes her over to the couch. More palm fronds flank the fireplace, their black arms shooting into the frame and up the walls. He moves in close, wrapping her in an embrace with his enormous frame. He eases her onto the couch and fluffs the pillow behind her, then slips around the couch to douse the lights. Only the firelight casts a glow onto Norah’s face as she kisses him. The camera moves up from the couch, looking down on Norah as she confuses Harry for her boyfriend, and then suddenly stops, realizing where she is. He won’t stop. He tries to hold her down, and she fights him off, and then up. He shoves her around the room, and she punches back, grabbing for a fire poker, which shatters the mirror behind her on her backswing. She brings it down, and Harry, shown in splintered reflection, screams in pain, then disappears as the piece of glass falls loose and breaks on the floor. Norah collapses in a swirling, shimmering pool of noir blackout dissolve, then comes to and staggers out of the apartment into the late night thunderstorm.

It’s unmistakably an attempted rape, one that goes farther than nearly any other in classic Hollywood with the possible exception of Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), as Stanley (Marlon Brando) forces himself on Blanche (Vivien Leigh), another scene that concludes with an image of shattered glass. The difference here is that Norah escapes before Prebble can finish what he started, having fought back with the poker. Lang infuses the scene with an air of menace, with Prebble’s looming size contrasting with Norah’s weakness. Every step Prebble takes feels calculated, as if he’s done this countless times before. She’s totally unaware of the danger she’s in until it’s almost too late.

Prebble is an easy villain to hate, and when he ends up dead, it feels like Norah is justified, despite the fact that the audience, and Norah herself, is led to believe that she did kill Prebble up until the film’s final moments. Take the seemingly tacked-on plot twist and throw it out for a moment. Lang spends nearly an hour of the film’s running time letting Norah and everyone in the audience think she did do it. For 1953, that’s as confrontational as some of his earlier, more overtly social works in the tradition of the theatre of German playwright Bertolt Brecht that Lang counted as an influence. 

Norah is a victim of circumstance, blameless in what Prebble tried to do to her, and the film never tries to assign it to her. She fights against her own guilty conscience as she reaches out to Mayo, whose own complicity in the patriarchal system that binds him to Prebble is never far from the narrative’s drive. Al the photographer continually references Mayo’s black book, a crucial piece of property that makes an appearance either literally or verbally in most of Mayo’s scenes. Though Lang lets Mayo renounce his participation in the game of sexual depravity by having him surrender his black book at the end of the film, he slyly indicates that the game itself is certain to continue. On his way out of the frame, presumably to chase after and marry Norah, he flips the book to Al, who opens it up and gleefully stares at its contents. Individuals may escape their trauma or their perpetuation of an oppressive power structure, but the structure itself remains intact.

Thus, The Blue Gardenia occupies a curious space inside noir. In many ways, it acts as an indirect response to many of the films that preceded it, with their icy femmes fatales, using their control of sexuality to entrap weak-willed men whose lust makes them vulnerable to predation. Instead, Lang’s film depicts the men as the unequivocal beneficiaries of the sexual hierarchy, and the women suffer the consequences. Even Prebble’s actual murderess is a former lover whose calls and letters he has been ignoring. Though she receives little on-screen time and her sudden return in the film’s final moments seems like an afterthought, she is treated with care and sympathy as she lays dying in a hospital bed from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. She is just another casualty of this massive system, chewed up and spit out by a man who never gave her a second thought, right up until the moment she killed him.

The femme fatale characterization is a divisive one. On the one hand, the sexuality these women express almost always casts them as manipulative, deceitful and violent, with their capacity for murder exceeded only by their greed. On the other hand, many of these roles feature some of the most interesting women who appeared on screen during the classic Hollywood era, with real depth, motivations and an ability to drive narrative action that so often eluded female characters. The Blue Gardenia serves as a fascinating, forgotten counterpoint to those femmes fatales, a film noir of a piece on Fritz Lang’s career-long indictment of systemic oppression, this time on behalf of women navigating a patriarchal system that still stands today.   

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.

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