Another side of Fritz Lang: The Blue Gardenia (1953) | Bleader

Another side of Fritz Lang: The Blue Gardenia (1953)


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Mr. Burr and the women: with Anne Baxter (left) and Ann Sothern (right)
  • Mr. Burr and the women: with Anne Baxter (left) and Ann Sothern (right)
With the possible exception of Secret Beyond the Door (1947), The Blue Gardenia (1953) is the only Fritz Lang movie that could be categorized as a women's picture. The central characters are three single women navigating hazards of working life and the dating scene as they try to get by in Los Angeles. If Lang's tough perspective sounds like an unusual fit for these characters, recall that even the resolutely macho Raoul Walsh directed a few women's pictures around this time (The Man I Love and The Revolt of Mamie Stover) and acquitted himself just fine. In many ways, the women's pictures of the immediate postwar era—which regard women's issues as human issues and therefore significant to any storyteller or audience—seem more enlightened than the so-called chick flicks of today—which appeal to women as an exclusive demographic.

Lang enjoyed several productive working relationships with actresses, most notably Sylvia Sidney and Joan Bennett, with whom he made three films each. (By most accounts, he also got along quite well with Barbara Stanwyck during the making of Clash by Night.) And most of his German features of the 1920s and '30s were scripted by his then wife Thea von Harbou, whose influence on the films was so strong that she can be regarded as a coauteur. So, it might be fruitful to start thinking about Fritz Lang's feminine side (as unnatural as that phrase might sound) to find new meanings in his body of work.

Some of the longest scenes in The Blue Gardenia take place in the apartment shared by the movie's three heroines, Norah (Anne Baxter), Crystal (the great Ann Sothern, repeating her tough-mama archetype from Letter to Three Wives), and Rose (Ruth Storey). It's an idealized vision of female camaraderie: the women share household responsibilities down to the smallest detail—there's a nice scene in which Crystal goes through her daily routine of getting her roommates out of bed in time for work—and they can depend on each other for emotional support. Lang's positive view of communities, which I noted in my piece on You and Me, is fully evident here. In fact, this might be one of his strongest expressions of the theme, as his actresses convey such a familial rapport when they're onscreen together.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Fritz Lang movie without some hovering sense of dread. The early scenes in the apartment transpire in expertly choreographed tracking shots that seem to anticipate any steps the characters may make. Lang's camera mimics the actresses' seemingly relaxed movements, canceling out any sense of spontaneity they may have conveyed otherwise. We are in a world as rigorously ordered as that of the Dr. Mabuse films. It feels unfair: these women are not overly ambitious in their desires and they treat others with good will. The very smallness of their lives makes them vulnerable to victimization, and Lang doesn't let us forget it.

Indeed, Norah will be the victim of attempted sexual assault about half an hour into the film. After reading a letter from her fiance saying he's met someone new, Norah decides to accept the advances of a sleazy magazine artist (Raymond Burr, effectively disgusting). He promptly gets her drunk at the Blue Gardenia Cafe, then takes her back to his place. In a likely result of the Hayes Code, he doesn't succeed in his sexual advances—Norah hits him on the head with a blunt object and runs out—but the events leading up to his attempt are disturbing nonetheless. Lang foreshadows the assault for a good ten minutes, if not longer, creating an atmosphere of inevitable doom. One of his more peculiar strategies is to zoom in on stray objects, like Norah's handkerchief, giving the sense that some outside force is honing everything we see to a deadly point. In these shots, Lang conveys his belief that malign forces will always make victims of innocent people, but he offers no suggestion as to how they might be halted. It's a skeptical worldview, but not a cynical one; Lang shows such sympathy for his victims that he seems truly saddened by his own convictions.

The Blue Gardenia becomes a more cynical film after the death of the Burr character. An enterprising journalist named Casey Mayo (Richard Conte) turns the mysterious "Blue Gardenia murderess" into an overnight sensation and swears that he'll find her before the police do. His public search turns up a number of false leads: In one sequence, Mayo answers several phone calls from disturbed women pretending to be the murderess for media attention. Lang cuts to close-ups of each woman on the other end of the line, creating brief moments of intimacy with them to suggest they might be legit; each time, he reveals that they're lying. Mass communication, as always in his work, produces a culture of deceit.

The Conte scenes play like a rough draft for Lang's subsequent While the City Sleeps, an even more bitter film about newspaper reporters. They're not nearly as powerful as the scenes with the women, yet they deepen our understanding of the perilous environment with which the heroines must contend. And it makes one better appreciate the everyday virtues of camaraderie and maternal instinct that helps them see their way through.


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