The Blue Gardenia (1953)

Casey Mayo (Richard Conte) is a columnist working on a story about Los Angeles telephone operators. Smarmy artist Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr) is also in the office, sketching pictures of the operators.

Both men talk to Crystal Carpenter (Ann Sothern), a divorcée who lives with two co-workers, Norah (Anne Baxter) and Sally (Jeff Donnell).

Prebble takes an immediate liking to Crystal and calls the apartment that night to invite her out. Norah, spending her birthday alone since her boyfriend is serving as a soldier in Korea, answers the call. She accepts Prebble’s invitation, not realizing he was calling for Crystal.

When Norah arrives at the Blue Gardenia Restaurant, Prebble is far from disappointed, buying her a corsage and a few too many drinks. The night takes a turn for the worse, and the next morning, Norah remembers little of it… until she discovers that Prebble is dead.

Fritz Lang directs 1953’s The Blue Gardenia. The film was written by Charles Hoffman from a story by Vera Caspary.

(Image via More Noir Posters)

(Image via More Noir Posters)

The Blue Gardenia is elevated by the talent of its performers and crew. All of the stars give good performances, Ann Sothern and (of course) Anne Baxter, especially. Baxter has the most prominent role and carries the story very well.

I would love to see a film about the lives of Baxter, Sothern, and Donnell’s characters prior to the events of this film. In the opening scenes, they’re a delight to watch together. Three charming, fun ladies working as operators and sharing an apartment in the city. It would make for a great buddy comedy, or a rom-com about their dating (mis)adventures.

Fluffier, non-existent dream films aside, The Blue Gardenia is a great watch. I had high expectations for it, knowing who the star players were and who directed it. I’m happy to say that it met those expectations.

The plot is well-crafted with a few genuine twists, not the least of which is the ending. It’s plot that misguides the viewer, which I appreciate, as films of this type are often quite simple to predict. Everything points to Norah’s guilt — we don’t explicitly see her kill Prebble, but she is in his apartment the night he dies. At the same time, she’s a nice girl, a good person. Even if the crime was justified, she doesn’t seem like the type who’d want to get away with murder. She wrestles with this dilemma of self-preservation vs. honesty until the truth (which I, of course, won’t spoil) is revealed.

(Image via MaL'Ore)

(Image via MaL’Ore)

There are some nice visual touches, added by Lang in collaboration with Nicholas Musuraca, who also photographed Clash by Night.

To add one final perk to this moody thriller, Nat King Cole makes a memorable appearance singing the fantastic title song. He performs it at the restaurant where Norah and Prebble meet, and the song is played again and again throughout the film.

According to TCM’s article on The Blue Gardenia, this film was shot in only twenty days. I’m always impressed and slightly baffled by quickly-made films that turn out to be so great. Lang was not striving for a masterpiece; it was a simple contract job, taken for the paycheck. But he and his collaborators created a wonderfully-crafted film, atmospheric and tense, with a fascinating story to tell. The score: 5/5!

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