The Blue Gardenia (1953): Anne Baxter a Victim of Noir

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The Blue Gardenia chooses to establish its characters and allow ample time for the audience to get acquainted with all the players. It’s genuinely a pleasure as we have a number of affable people to grow accustomed to over the course of the story.

There’s local journalist Casey Mayo (Richard Conte) and then pin-up artist Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr), giving a momentary glimpse of a Burr character who is not looking to murder someone or force himself on a woman. The fact that he’s a mere womanizer feels almost tame, showing the desensitization he is capable of instilling.

He, as well as Mayo, can be found wandering around the Los Angeles’ switchboard ward, constantly bustling with activity, call transfers and busy signals galore. The real reason for them to be hanging around are all the pretty working girls. I’m not sure it’s a great reason, but they hang around nonetheless.  The male cast is also rounded out by one of my genre favorites — Richard Erdman, as the ubiquitous cameraman, always lounging on the couch.

It’s with the female talent where Blue Gardenia samples the close-knit camaraderie of such movies as Gold Diggers of 1933 where you have a gaggle of girls living together balancing a career, a love life, and a few laughs. Crystal Carpenter (Ann Sothern) is the wise one who has lived life, maintained her looks, and currently spends evenings with her former husband the homely Homer. Sally (Ms. Jeff Donnell) is her exact antithesis as the young and unattached gal whose idea of a quality evening are dime-store crime romances.

Somewhere in the middle falls Norah (Anne Baxter), the amiable, even-tempered lady who is waiting devotedly for her man to come back from Korea (the war that is). By all accounts, they are madly in love, she has remained eternally faithful to him, and waits upon his return with exuberant expectations. Instead of spending her time out on the town, she imagines romantic meals together by candlelight with roast and champagne.

The Blue Gardenia punches up the melodrama with the disclosure of a fateful letter. It turns out her man has found true love in Tokyo, and Norah has been left adrift with her whole romantic outlook compromised. What is she to do now?

On a whim, she takes up an invitation from Mr. Prebble that was meant to be extended to one of her other roommates. She gets to the Blue Gardenia on Vine, right off of Hollywood, and soaks in the laid-back Polynesian vibe. She’s a bit unsteady, unsure of how to proceed, but she’s there. The main attraction on the floor is none other than the velvety vocals of Nat “King” Cole. His song subsequently haunts the rest of the picture as the story begins to unravel.

Because as hinted at before, Raymond Burr had a certain pedigree, before his days as whip-smart attorney Perry Mason. For lack of a better term, he was always a lascivious cad. We know what his mind is thinking because it’s always blatantly obvious from the expression on his face. Sure enough, a trip to his apartment follows, Norah gets herself more and more intoxicated — a confused and helpless victim in his lair.

He forces himself on her, and she fights him off with a fire poker. Like Philip Marlowe, she enters into a swirling pool of disorientation. It’s this bit of ambiguity laced with terror that the whole plot relies on. Equally crucial is how a victim turns herself into a culprit.

It becomes an uneasy metaphor for the way society is built around men and women are the ones blamed and villainized in certain contexts. This goes back deep into human tradition to the days when a woman’s testimony was not even considered valid in court. Implicitly, it’s as if the burden of proof is on them to prove they are innocent from the very beginning. Norah has every reason to be frightened.

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Because news of Prebble’s death comes out and the paper and the police are looking for the lady who left her shoes behind — this murderess who fled the scene of the crime. Here Mayo comes back into view as he promises to tell the woman’s story if only she would come forward to his paper. However, his intentions seem more driven by circulation goals than an actual charitable heart. Everyone is a wolf out for himself.

This makes it even more tragic that this woman feels so isolated and debilitated she is incapable of going to her best friends and the women around her, as they would be the ones most ready to help her. The other wrinkle is how the newshound unwittingly starts to fall for the girl he’s been looking for. It’s the height of irony even as Norah finally gets implicated in the murder.

Throughout Fritz Lang suffuses the drama with style captured not only in the most traumatic moments but also in the extensive use of tracking shots within the narrative. Still, the dramatic situation is lacking because it is hard to share the same convictions as our lead. It’s not that we don’t sympathize with her.

It’s the fact she should have nothing to be ashamed of or to be fearful about. If there was more time to isolate its themes and hone in, Blue Gardenia would be very much about the recovery process of an individual going through so much trauma. The heart and soul of the picture could be found there, but as is, there simply is not enough time to tease out these ideas.

The penultimate twist is a fine addition although it’s not as if the story can really be salvaged in one instant — happy ending notwithstanding. Despite the talent all around, the mechanisms of the storytelling alone make it apparent this was a genre quickie made with only mild regard for the material. Lang and Nicholas Musuraca are still integral to what we know as film noir — and this film is no exception — but it certainly is a less engaging effort. Probably because we know the illustrious heights they are both capable of.

3/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: 1940s Film Noir

In our ongoing series to help budding classic movie fans know where to start, I thought it would be fitting time to offer up 4 movies to try and summarize the film noir movement.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s literally the French word for “black” and it has come to describe mostly American crime films of the 1940s and 50s. Most people are probably familiar with archetypes like detectives in trenchcoats, deadly femme fatales, and brooding voiceover narration setting up flashbacks on dark and stormy nights.

It’s a foolhardy task to give just 4 examples, but we’ve done our very best here by following our gut:

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

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Often considered the origin of film noir, John Huston’s debut picture is the prototype for detective fiction, based on Dashiell Hammett’s pulp gumshoe Sam Spade. It made an icon out of Humphrey Bogart while the rogue gallery filled out by the likes of Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet is truly the stuff dreams are made of.

Double Indemnity (1944)

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Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is among the preeminent femme fatales. Absolutely bad to the bone and deadly gorgeous. But she needs an accomplice, in this case, Fred MacMurray as the opportunistic insurance peddler Walter Neff. It’s film noir partially domesticated, channeling the sleaze of James M. Cain with a deliciously cynical adaptation by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Sometimes murder smells like honeysuckle.

Laura (1944)

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Laura is film noir at it’s most dream-like and illusory with our title heroine (Gene Tierney) mesmerizing everyone including the hard-nosed detective (Dana Andrews) bent on solving her murder. David Raksin’s score helps weave the magic placed against Otto Preminger’s impeccable mise en scene and a particularly petty ensemble led by Clifton Webb.

Out of The Past (1947)

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This one checks all the boxes. Laconic hero with cigarette and trenchcoat: Robert Mitchum. A beguiling woman of destruction and deceit: Jane Greer. Gloriously stylized cinematography from the master of shadows: Nicholas Musuraca, and all the digressions and double-crosses you might expect with a labyrinthian investigation. What’s more, the past always comes back to haunt you. Film noir is nothing if not fatalistic. 

Worth Watching:

Murder My Sweet, Woman in The Window, Scarlet Street, Mildred Pierce, Detour, The Big Sleep, Leave Her to Heaven, The Killers, Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Nightmare Alley, The Third Man, White Heat, Criss Cross and so, so many more.

The Ghost Ship (1943): Creaky Yet Atmospheric

Ghostship.jpg“What a hobby to pick: authority.” 

The Ghost Ship is yet another serving of shadows and sound courtesy of legendary cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and former editor-turned-director Mark Robson. However, the film is punctuated by few dramatic notes and instead settles in to develop a world of continual foreboding. It begins with the near-ESP of a blind street peddler who warns a youthful 3rd officer (Russell Wade) about the new ship he is about to board.

Though our lead actors are fairly bland types — the kind of people who could easily be slotted into any number of similar projects — I still found myself interested in them. Because with both Richard Dix and Wade I hardly have any history with them; it’s a tabula rasa. They remain as a reminder of how many actors and actresses are all but lost to time just waiting to be discovered anew. Some give a more lasting impression than others.

But Ghost Ship‘s most intriguing characters are certainly the shipmates because each man has an element to his performance. Sparks (Edmund Glover) is probably the most affable and the closest thing to a friend the new 3rd officer has onboard. Beyond this, the radioman sprinkles in some Latin with his normal vernacular.

Our next person of interest is an all-seeing mute who is nevertheless given the courtesy of a voiceover. He is the first among seafaring hands aboard, including Boats (Dewey Robinson, a Preston Sturges regular), the calypso-singer (Sir Lancelot), and the Greek who needs his appendix taken out mid-voyage. This is a whole ordeal in its own right.

But none of this gets at the reason the Altair just might be one of the most perturbing seas vessels in the annals of maritime movies. It should be noted the previous third officer died under unusual circumstances and rather dubiously, Mr. Merriam is occupying the same room the deceased man passed away in. Another old mate is found dead on the deck without much fanfare.

There were flying coffins during WWII, but this is a floating coffin if there ever was one. Its all very curious because The Skipper seems a good, honest seaman. His new mate likes him and the men — though at times disgruntled — listen to him, for the good of the outfit.

One particularly perilous event involves a loose hook on the bridge all but ready to decapitate a mate. Still, as time progresses, the captain’s words get more and more troubling. Without blinking an eye, he says, “I have rights over their lives – I have the right to do anything for the crew – because their lives depend on me.”

He is drunk on authority. It remains his only concern, and he will do anything to maintain his image, even fabricating events involving the aforementioned appendix operation. He can raise people from the brink of death while a cascading stack of clinking chains quickly means the demise of another man. No one can prove it outright, but the captain literally holds everyone’s life in his hands.

The third officer wants no part of this scenario. However, it seems fate brings him back into the clutches of this dictatorial madman, and the net is slowly contracting around him. Only time will tell if he is stopped in his tracks before knocking off another defenseless victim.

Obviously, given the time period, we can have a guess at the allegorical references toward the crazed power hunger of Hitler. It’s not difficult to see the parallels, but I don’t think we need much of a reminder such slavish devotion is detrimental. In this regard, such a pronouncement seems altogether superfluous.

The plot is also a bit stagnant and our leads admittedly bland. We are reminded of not only wartime shortages but that these are far from A-list talents on hand. In spite of these admissions, it’s all the more astounding to consider the impression this Lewton production still manages to provide.

The bottom line is that the ideas and the visuals are still worth remembering. Because Ghost Ship is not completely derailed by its shortcomings, still casting a fine vision lingering ominously over every frame.

3/5 Stars