Fritz Lang had a difficult time during the period of ‘studio Hollywood’. Possibly he was his own worst enemy, but it is the case that he struggled to make the kinds of films he thought were appropriate for a filmmaker of his standing. In 1953 he would be 63 years-old and about to embark on his 36th directorial project. That means he directed 36 features over 34 years, including his ‘epic’ productions during the 1920s at Ufa.
In Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (faber & faber 1997), Patrick McGilligan argues that in 1952 Lang was complaining that he was blacklisted for his leftist/communist leanings after finishing work on Clash By Night, but actually Lang was ‘out of work’ for only six months before he got the contract to make The Blue Gardenia. It was Columbia supremo Harry Cohn who intervened for Lang and helped him get the job. The Blue Gardenia was an independent production which was to be distributed by Warner Bros., not Columbia. After it was completed, Lang signed a contract to work at Columbia and his next picture would be one of his best known American films, The Big Heat which would appear later in 1953.
The Blue Gardenia was a low budget film adapted from a story by Vera Caspary, a writer with real pedigree and a long list of Hollywood credits including Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) and Joe Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949). Caspary’s story was adapted by Charles Hoffman whose credits were also numerous if slightly less distinguished apart from the Michael Curtiz film Night and Day (1946) starring Cary Grant as Cole Porter. Despite the low budget, the production did have some class, enhanced by the cinematography of Nick Musuraca who was still working at RKO but had just completed Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker. Presumably at this point he was available for loan-outs. He had also worked on Clash By Night (1952) which was an independent production released through RKO and using RKO contractees.
The story is fairly straightforward , especially for what some critics see as a film noir. It also shares with Lang’s later films, While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), a fascination with journalists and murder stories. Local fashion designer Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr) has a reputation as a womaniser, luring young women back to his flat where he also has a sideline in painting glamour/pin-ups of his attractive conquests. His latest idea is to hang around a telephone exchange hoping to collect the phone numbers of the ‘exchange girls’ as new conquests. One of the switchboard operators receives a ‘Dear Joan’ letter from her boyfriend in the American forces stationed in Korea and accepts a date with Prebble on the rebound. She is not the kind of young woman Prebble usually dates and in her fragile state she drinks too much and passes out. At this point, the film begins to feel not just Langian but also Hitchcockian. Bad things happen! Richard Conte plays a crime reporter with a following for his column in an LA paper. He sees the possibility of a major story and cooks up a plan to entice the murderer into the open. I’ve avoided any spoilers so don’t leap to conclusions about what happens (and ignore the IMDb summary which is wrong anyway). I do think that there are some flaws in the plotting but overall this makes an intriguing 90 minutes murder mystery. The ‘Blue Gardenia’ refers to the restaurant where the couple eat and drink and the flower bought from a blind flower-woman. It is also the song sung by Nat King Cole live in the restaurant – I told you this film has class!
The woman who goes on the date is played by Anne Baxter. She is very good and Lang said later that whatever his misgivings about the film (he routinely put down his own work), he was pleased with her casting. She was someone he had always wanted to work with. It’s not hard to see why. She was Oscar-nominated for her role as Eve in All About Eve (1950), she won as Best Supporting Actress for The Razor’s Edge (1946) and also appeared in leading roles for Welles in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and for Hitchcock in I Confess (1953). Baxter’s character Norah is one of three single women, all working at the same telephone exchange and sharing a rented cottage-style house in LA. The older woman is played by Ann Sothern (who also appeared in A Letter to Three Wives) and the younger by Jeff Donnell. I spent much of the film trying to think why I knew her and eventually realised that she is the wife of the police officer, whose superior officer during the war was Humphrey Bogart, in In a Lonely Place (1950).
The two male leads are also interesting. Raymond Burr was very active at this time. He was an equally suspicious character in Rear Window (1954) for Hitchcock. Here he seems an enormously powerful physical figure, dwarfing the women he encounters. Richard Conte seems the only one of the cast who might be mis-cast. McGilligan describes him as a ‘hero-without-warts’ which is a little unkind, but I don’t see him as a reporter or a columnist. He seems too smooth and I think if it had been Dana Andrews, the journalist from Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, the role might have worked better. Conte is ‘Casey Mayo’, a star reporter/columnist whose clout on the paper can enable him to mount his own campaign to find a wanted person before the police. He is so prestigious that he is invited to witness an H-bomb test and must therefore ‘solve’ the mystery and get into print before he boards a plane to see the test. This reference alongside the war in Korea and a reference to TV shows are all markers of a clever script that strives to be contemporary but Conte’s character with his ‘little black book’ seems full of contradictions. He’s man in his forties who acts like someone much younger and I felt that his actions in the final third of the narrative don’t serve the intriguing situation that had been set up earlier.
It seems that Lang had only 20 days in which to shoot The Blue Gardenia – roughly the time available for most B pictures. The script and casting are for an A picture and Lang did very well to produce what he did in such a short time. The speed of the shoot must also have put pressure on Musuraca. As it is there are some impressive night-time scenes, complete with heavy rain and fog, and a drunken haze scene which perhaps evokes films noirs from the 1940s. Otherwise the camerawork is efficient and functional on a first viewing. The Blue Gardenia now has a much higher reputation than it had at the time. I’m not sure about its status as a ‘forgotten’ or ‘unheralded’ noir, but aspects of the film are very good indeed, particularly Anne Baxter’s performance and I would like to have seen the ‘three women in the apartment’ angle developed more. I just wonder what Lang might have achieved with more time to work on the script and more time to shoot.