Classic Film Review: Late Lang shimmers in “The Blue Gardenia” (1953)

One of the greatest and unlikeliest stories of a European expat finding Hollywood glory had to be the American career of the great Viennese auteur and innovator Fritz Lang, who fled the Nazis and left masterpieces such as “M” and “Metropolis” behind to carve out a stardust sprinkled career as a Hollywood journeyman.

Lang made Westerns (“The Return of Frank James,” “Rancho Notorious”) and dabbled in combat, espionage, swashbucklers (“Moonfleet”) and other genres before finding his voice and hitting his stride in the crime thriller genre that the French labeled “film noir,” an idiom he not only made his own, but helped invent.

“The Blue Gardenia” is representative of this late career resurgence, even if this 1953 film — coming after his triumph with Marlene Dietrich, “Rancho Notorious,” and just before the genre-defining “The Big Heat,” “While the City Sleeps” and “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” — doesn’t represent his very best work.’

It’s a brisk, grim tale of a long distance operator (Anne Baxter) who gets a Dear Jane from her man in Korea, accepts the come-ons of a lady-killer artist (Raymond Burr) and fears she murdered the cad after he gets her blackout drunk and comes on entirely too strong.

There are glimpses of Lang’s paranoid gloom and shadows, of a criminal’s struggle to learn to be cunning in the tension contained in a tiny phone booth where our operator tries to confess to a local hotshot newspaper columnist (Richard Conte).

We can even sense some kinky-for-its-day social commentary of the “This is a man’s world” variety as one ladykiller (Conte’s Casey Mayo) wishes another “little black book” collector (Burr’s Harry Prebble) “good hunting” among the skirts each chases into the foggy Santa Monica night.

As wiseacre roommate and fellow phone operator Crystal (Ann Sothern at her sassiest) cracks, “Honey, if a girl killed every man who got fresh with her, how much of the male population you think there’d be left?”

We see operator try to keep her secret from her roommates (Jeff Donnell is another), cover her tracks and evade the columnist and his cop pal (future Superman George Reeves), and “The Blue Gardenia” — taking its name from the club where the alcoholic seduction begins — folds in some suspense and a hint of paranoia, building towards a climax that feels seriously anti-climatic.

Still there’s a nasty cynicism that all the best noirs can boast of, the way one and all joke about the murdered man, the callousness of the columnist, the good-natured liberties taken by men with women and the cop and the columnist’s willingness to trip each other up and cross (later established) ethical lines to get their “Blue Gardenia,” as the newspaper comes to label the femme fatale.

What stands out to me is how Lang keeps things unfussy, uncluttered and quick, flashing a little style but not enough to irk Warner Brothers, which just wanted to get maximum entertainment value out of an Anne Baxter star vehicle.

There’s even a pause for a song, a little Nat King Cole title tune spotlight that doesn’t propel the narrative forward but which puts a rising singing star center stage for a nice nightclub moment, mid-movie. It introduces a song that ties into the plot, not one of Cole’s best but delivered with his usual silky/sexy charm, another way Lang lets himself play Hollywood’s (cross-promotional) game.

Baxter was never the most dynamic leading lady, which allows Sothern to steal scenes, oily, villainous Burr to steal others and Conte to toy with the idea of swiping his with her as well.

Reeves had one of his best big screen roles as this jaded but wily homicide detective who isn’t above lightly threatening his “pal,” the columnist. The “boy’s club” here has four members, with Burr’s Prebble the one who has a convertible, a swank apartment and a heel’s tendency to get out of line. It’s like the other guys — Mayo, Detective Captain Haynes (Reeves) and the columnist’s nerdy-trusty photographer-sidekick (veteran character player Richard Erdman, most famous for “Stalag 17”) — like-dislike the victim, but kind of figure he had it coming.

Burr, like Reeves, would find immortality on the small screen — “Perry Mason,” “Ironside,” etc. But this is that rare big screen turn that gives him a character with (shallow) depth. He isn’t the stolid, edited-in American reporter of “Godzilla” or the fair-haired, insensate Hitchcockian monster of “Rear Window.” Prebble has charm, culture, an easy way with the ladies that works up to the point where plying them with alcohol takes over.

If you’re a film buff and you stumble across “Directed by Fritz Lang” while channel surfing, you’re obligated to check the movie out. “Blue Gardenia” is nobody’s idea of a masterpiece, but it does show a great filmmaker right in the middle of his last great Hollywood run, and ably demonstrates the unaffected “company man” he could be that guaranteed his success over here even if he lacked the innovative spark and complete control he once attained “over there.”

Rating: unrated

Cast: Anne Baxter, Richard Conte, Anne Sothern, Raymond Burr, Jeff Donnell, Richard Erdman and George Reeves.

Credits: Directed by Fritz Lang, scripted by Charles Hoffman. A Warner Brothers release on Tubi, Amazon and other streamers.

Running time: 1:30

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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