Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia feels like film noir poured into a Hays Code corset and laced, within an inch of its life, into the shape of a romance. Like Lang’s The Big Heat, its delineation of good and bad winds up feeling more unsettling and heartless than reassuring. In a sense, that unease works in its favor. You always get something interesting when a film struggles against itself like this.
Spoilers will follow.
The wholesome, glowingly innocent Norah (Anne Baxter) is a switchboard operator with a saintly devotion to her boyfriend fighting in Korea. You can’t even say she’s pining for him, because it’s like she’s too angelically understanding and selfless to do anything but cherish each letter and never feel sorry for herself. For her birthday, she just wants to make a candlelit dinner where she can pretend he’s on the other side of the table. She dresses up. She’s saved his letter for just this moment. It is, of course, a Dear Jane letter, and a callously written one at that.
The movie is lining up poor Norah to wind up on an ill-advised date with sleazy artist Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr); drawing calendar girls is his profession, but his true vocation is making women uncomfortable and distressed. He calls her apartment looking for her bawdier roommate, Crystal (Ann Sothern)–who made the mistake of telling someone her phone number while Harry was still in earshot–but Anne is in such desperate need of distraction and defiant pleasure that she meets him herself. He’s holding court in the Chinese restaurant The Blue Gardenia, where he makes sure the bartender knows to make the lady’s drinks nice and strong. (As a point of interest, the restaurant has Nat King Cole himself on hand to play piano and croon its theme song, which–considering he still really is Nat King Cole within the movie’s own universe–seems like an implausibly good get.) Harry sets Nora adrift on a sea of Polynesian Pearl Divers, heavy on the rum, and then takes her back to his place, where he condescends to pour some coffee down her throat before he starts manhandling her slacken body into compliance. Norah comes back to herself enough to fight him, but he’s played by Raymond Burr and therefore built like a brick shithouse. She resorts to hitting him with a fire poker–and that’s the last thing she remembers before she wakes up on his hearth rug sometime later and stumbles out into the night, missing both her shoes and the telltale blue gardenia he bought her.
When Harry is found bludgeoned to death, a resounding cry of “Who cares?” goes up across the land before columnist Casey Mayo (Richard Conte) decides to answer it with, “You, dear reader, if I make you.” With a nearly Ace in the Hole-like devotion to exploiting a good hook, Casey spins the story of the mysterious, murderous “Blue Gardenia,” drumming up public interest and driving Norah to the edge of a nervous breakdown. She is, however, convinced by the sweet words in Casey’s column: she believes he genuinely cares about her side of the story.
In fact, Casey, who is almost as much of a shit as Harry, doesn’t care at all. He just wants the scoop. Given that he comes face-to-face with the trembling, stricken Norah and believes her transparent “oh, The Blue Gardenia is my friend, yes, totally my friend” lie, he doesn’t deserve to get it. This man has no business being a journalist; he’s thicker than a paperboy’s stack of newspapers.
But it’s in Casey’s largely unexamined obnoxiousness that the film begins its identity crisis. Ostensibly, the movie wants you to believe that Casey is more or less a good man and a dogged investigator, that his soul responds to Norah’s inherent innocence and purity. What it shows you, though, is his self-satisfaction and almost stifling lack of curiosity. The film knows enough to condemn Harry’s deliberate liquoring-up of his dates and his refusal to take no for an answer. Casey has no such empathy. Even when a woman he’s falling in love with is sitting across the table from him, telling him that her “friend” was only trying to fight Harry off, Casey dismisses everything. He’s not as advanced as the film he’s in; he can’t conceive of a world where waiters get secret instructions about the drinks and women sometimes–gasp!–enter men’s apartments without viewing that as handing over a blank check for sex. He has no imagination and apparently strangely little experience. He doesn’t even consider trusting the character judgment of the woman he’s falling for. What does she know?
It is Peak Casey that when Norah finally does confide in a friend, the more worldly Crystal, and Crystal tries to protect her by turning up at Norah and Casey’s next rendezvous, Casey immediately recognizes her as The Tart From the Phone Company Who Casually Gave Him Her Phone Number and cries out that he should have known all along that she was the slutty murderer! That, in fact, he suspected this was the case!
For much of The Blue Gardenia‘s runtime, we are in a world where Casey is blinkered and stonily unwilling to extend any sympathetic imagination at all, where he falsely divides women into madonnas and whores. He assumes that a pretty, fresh-faced young woman who is all trembling vulnerability couldn’t possibly kill. He wants her, and he should have what he wants, and he can’t have her if she’s The Blue Gardenia, so therefore she can’t be. He assumes that it is wildly implausible that a woman would ever really need to fight off a man she’d been on a date with. He assumes that a woman who would casually, frankly flirt with him must be capable of anything. He looks at what we have every reason to believe is the truth–a heartbroken woman who killed in self-defense and her tougher friend who looks out for her–and sees every single part of it wrong.
But the movie, in the end, cannot allow this to be true, and the solution it forces into place (somewhat) vindicates Casey by betraying its own morality. It shoos Norah back into the land of Even More Uncomplicated Innocence and indicts another woman in her place, one who also suffers at Harry’s hands but gets a kind of narrative shrug. The other characters can’t be bothered to care about her, and the Hays Code structure assumes we won’t either, because it was a deliberate murder and hey, it’s heavily implied that she put out. She’s the whore to Norah’s restored madonna, and Casey is vindicated: his dick is the truest dowsing rod in existence, one that would never let him be attracted to a killer. No one has to think about anything. All doubts are wiped away–even ours, if we’re left wondering whether or not Norah can forgive the now-pining Casey. Don’t worry, she can! When she acted like she might still feel some trepidation about trusting a man who lied to her, she was just playing hard to get!
It’s weird. It’s a fundamental and regressive violation of all the texture and well-worked-out characterization Lang spends most of the movie developing. It preserves one woman’s purity by sacrificing another as a scapegoat, and it breezes past the men’s–and culture’s–sins completely. Don’t worry, this strange, forced ending says, you were fine all along. There are no circumstances when you might kill someone, because you just wouldn’t swing the poker hard enough. There are no circumstances when you might sympathize with a killer, because you would know better. Don’t pay any attention to the suicidal, pregnant, abandoned girlfriend; we barely know her. Just look at the happy ending.
It’s impossible to think of Lang making both this and M. without knowing how false this ending must ring. He understands both people and evil far too well for that. He understands this is a lie, and so do we–and that creates something that, perhaps out of censorial necessity, shows how faulty and limited these approved moral conventions really are.