Friday, April 29, 2016

Film Review: The Blue Gardenia

"The Blue Gardenia"  *** (out of ****)

Playing with a woman's affection proves to be deadly in Fritz Lang's noir mystery "The Blue Gardenia" (1953).

Fritz Lang's "The Blue Gardenia" may not be as well known as some of Mr. Lang's other films and unfortunately it may be for good reasons although a bit of an over reaction to an otherwise decent movie.

The German filmmaker, who directed several masterpieces in the silent era, including "Metropolis" (1927) and "M" (1931), was never quite able to duplicate his success in American cinema and make movies as influential as those early German films, though his American debut film, "Fury" (1936), is one of Mr. Lang's crowning achievements. The American films Mr. Lang directed were mostly psychological noir stories, sometimes dealing with gender roles, more specifically masculinity. This is seen in "The Woman in the Window" (1944), "Scarlet Street" (1945) and "Clash By Night" (1952).

That is what makes "The Blue Gardenia" a bit different. The lead character this time is a woman. The movie doesn't comment on femininity really and has nothing to say about masculinity. Instead it boils down to a rather routine, predictable story, which is not how you want to describe a Fritz Lang movie.

Fritz Lang was a brilliant filmmaker, who often doesn't get his due. Mr. Lang never received an Academy Award nomination for his directing and to this day has not even received an honorary lifetime achievement award from the Academy, as so often they do when they shamefully neglect to honor the great artist they passed up for the flavor of the month. Mr. Lang directed better movies than "The Blue Gardenia". You expect more from the movie because of Mr. Lang. You expect a great message, more suspense. If "The Blue Gardenia" had been directed by someone else we might be more impressed. Still, one can't call "The Blue Gardenia" a time waster. It is passable entertainment but not necessarily memorable. You can't say the same about Mr. Lang's other movies.

This time around we follow a telephone operator, Norah (Anne Baxter). Her boyfriend is fighting in Korea. Norah leads a quite, simple life with her two roommates; Crystal (Ann Sothern) and Sally (Jeff Donnell), both of whom also work as telephone operators. Today is Norah's birthday. Her plan is to make dinner for two, place her boyfriend's photo on the dinner table and read the letter she has received from him. Even though her boyfriend is not around, Norah wants to do whatever she can to "keep him around".

And so it is devastating for her when she learns her boyfriend has fallen in love with a nurse from Tokyo who nursed him back to good health. Her feelings of betrayment lead her to want to exact some sort of revenge by having a night out on the town. As luck would have it Norah receives a phone call from a notorious wolf (what we used to call a ladies man), Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr), who mistakes her for Crystal and asks her to meet him at the nightclub "The Blue Gardenia". Norah agrees to meet him and will explain the misunderstanding when she arrives.

Harry is not looking for an innocent good time and plans on getting his date just drunk enough that he will be able to take her back to his place and take advantage of her. Norah, initially, falls right into Harry's trap. When back at his place, Harry begins to make his move but Norah resist and fights Harry off with a fire poker. The next morning Norah wakes up with a hangover and a foggy memory and Harry is found dead. Is there a connection?

Some may think this idea is original. However there have been other movies about people blacking out prior to a murder, while all the clues lead to them. One example is the "B" movie "Fear in the Night" (1947) while others have suggested "The Blue Gardenia" is really a remake of the Otto Preminger film "Whirlpool" (1949).

What will separate "The Blue Gardenia" from other similar movies will be the acting. By the time "The Blue Gardenia" was released Anne Baxter had already won two Academy Awards. One for her performance in "The Razor's Edge" (1946) and the other for "All About Eve" (1950). Ann Sothern became known for appearing mostly in comedies and by this point had starred in the Eddie Cantor comedy "Kid Millions" (1934), the Cole Porter musical "Panama Hattie" (1942) and the dramatic "A Letter to Three Wives" (1949). Ms. Sothern was also currently starring in the television show "Private Secretary". As good as Ann Sothern is in the role, one can't help but wonder why wasn't Eve Arden given the role?

It has been said "The Blue Gardenia" is a critical look at American life in the 1950s and is an indictment against journalistic values. I'm not exactly sure which version of 'The Blue Gardenia" these people have seen but it sure isn't this version. If that was Mr. Lang's intention it goes about it much too subtle. The audience does not come to hate journalist in this movie.

Richard Conte plays Los Angeles Chronicle reporter Casey Mayo, who tries to sensationalize Harry Prebble's murder, after police cannot find the culprit, by giving the lady the nickname "The Blue Gardenia". He writes an open letter in his column asking her to give him the exclusive story before going to the police.

There was definitely a way to convey the themes others have suggested in "The Blue Gardenia" but you would have to make the Casey Mayo character despicable. He would have to be presented as a ruthless reporter only interested in headlines. A man of loose moral fiber. That is not played up in this movie. At times "The Blue Gardenia" tries to make him a sympathetic character, a move which the movie doesn't earn. It happens too sudden and is not believable.

If anything, "The Blue Gardenia" suggest it isn't only men capable of violence, women have a killer instinct too. The worst thing a man can do is upset a woman and jilt her. Women don't take too kindly to that and that makes them violent. It is the old cliche, still perpetuated in Hollywood, a woman is always the victim of a man's cruelty.

Others will find it interesting to note television's "Superman", George Reeves, has a role as a police officer and sports a mustache to help make him unrecognizable. You will also see and hear Nat "King" Cole as he sings the movie's theme song "The Blue Gardenia", which has an arrangement by Nelson Riddle, famed for working with Frank Sinatra.

"The Blue Gardenia" is a good movie but not a great one. Fritz Lang has dealt with similar material before and handled it much better, not to mention others movies, not directed by Mr. Lang, that have had familiar story-lines. Ms. Baxter and Ms. Sothern turn in good performances and make the movie watchable. This wouldn't however serve as a good introduction into the work of Mr. Lang. He may be best known for his German films but there are some good American films viewers should see before this one including "The Big Heat" (1953), "Human Desire" (1954) and "Hangmen Also Die!" (1943).