© 2013 William Ahearn
“The only thing I can tell you about [“The Blue Gardenia”],” Fritz Lang told Peter Bogdanovich in Fritz Lang in America, “is that it was the first picture after the McCarthy business, and I had to shoot it in 20 days.”
The above is just about everything Lang had to say about the film that made it to print in Bogdanovich’s book. What went unsaid opens the door to Lang’s politics and his politics between Germany and the US may be as different as his German films are from his Hollywood films. Lang told Bogdanovich, “For a year I didn’t know what was going on. Finally I found out there were lists made by somebody . . . and, because of my affiliation with certain people, I had been put on one.” Lotte Eisner in Fritz Lang puts the length of Lang’s “enforced idleness” at “eighteen months.” Production files from the end of “Clash by Night” to the beginning of “The Blue Gardenia” – according to Patrick McGilligan in Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast – put Lang’s “enforced idleness” at six months and Lang had spent longer times in idleness after pissing off producers and studios.
The shadow of Thea von Harbou obscures Lang’s politics in Germany as she was a Nazi and – according to several witnesses – a Nazi banner flew from Lang and von Harbou’s apartment. Numerous émigrés have suggested that Lang was chummy with Goebbels and other Nazi leaders and Lang’s falling out with von Harbou had nothing to do with her politics. That Lang overstates his being a victim of McCarthyism falls into the same self-serving niche that his fantasized fateful meeting with Goebbels seems to serve as well as why “The Testament of Dr Mabuse” was supposedly banned and how the Nazis supposedly harassed the production of “M.” Even so, it’s more likely that Lang was merely an opportunist caught in a changing political wind – in both cases. Lang was never blacklisted and his overplaying the persecution is part of his paranoia and the mythologizing of his career.
“[‘The Blue Gardenia’],” wasn’t much,” Lang said in an interview, “but I was very happy with Anne Baxter’s performance.” What is interesting is how Lang’s cheerleading critics paint the film as far darker than it is. Bogdanovich describes it as “vicious” and Casey Mayo (Richard Conte), the newspaper reporter who plays up the hunt for the suspected murderer is a bit rough around the edges although he’s a far cry from Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) in Billy Wilder’s “Ace In The Hole” or even Phineas Mitchell (Gene Evans) in Sam Fuller’s “Park Row” and has a far different and redeeming role in the happy ending that is distinctly different than the end of the Wilder film. McGilligan describes Casey Mayo as Lang’s “alter ego.” Erich Rohmer writing in Cahiers du Cinema, has the rather bizarre observation that “Fritz Lang fights neo-realism on its own ground.” Frederick Ott in The Films of Fritz Lang describes it as “routine murder mystery.” Lotte Eisner in Fritz Lang writes, “[“The Blue Gardenia”] is remarkably vivid and substantial, with the world of the telephone exchange – a busy harem of girls with their individual preoccupations and troubles, all ready to pounce on the first man that enters.” She also notes that at the end Casey Mayo “demonstrates his intentions of fidelity” by giving away his little black book full of “call-girls.” McGilligan’s take is that “Norah [Anne Baxter] cannot commit to Casey (Richard Conte), and their future together is uncertain.” The film more than implies the requisite Hollywood ending and few critics – if any – agree with McGilligan’s view.
Eisner – unlike more recent critics – states flatly that the film didn’t have “the kind of social message which [Lang] preferred” and to say that this film “criticizes the newspaper business” – as suggested on its Wikipedia page – is absurd. In fact, Lang thrived on lurid newspaper accounts of murder and newspaper going back to reports of Peter Kürten that became the germ for “M.” He was fascinated by the story of the Black Dahlia and convinced the LA Police Department to allow him access to the original crime scene photographs. Lang’s film doesn’t criticize the newspaper reporter; it glorifies him. The reporter cracks the case, finds the real killer and saves – and will marry – the damsel in distress. That the reporter has an edge, the suspect has amnesia and there’s a crime to be solved leads Bogdanovich to conclude it’s “vicious” and numerous others to conclude it’s a “film noir.”
This film is as “conformist” as Lang’s earlier Westerns and is typical of the times with the twist that it’s a woman with alcohol-induced amnesia believing that she may have killed someone and her knight in shining armor is a hard-nosed, seemingly hard-hearted tabloid reporter. Usually, this story plays out with a male protagonist – usually an ex-GI – and the savior is a nurse or lounge singer or a widow with a heart of gold and the ending is as predictable as the set-up. This plot shows up – in varying degrees – in “High Wall” (1947), “Somewhere in the Night” (1946), “The Chase” (1946), “The Crooked Way” (1949) and “The Clay Pigeon” (with the requisite happy ending and marriage). It’s too late to use WWII vets as innocents-on-the-run, so a woman fits the bill just as well as can be seen in “Woman on the Run” (1950), another variant of the formula. What saved this typical recycling of “film noir” clichés are Lang’s pacing and the camera work of Nicholas Musuraca. Around this time, Lang was working on another amnesia story “inspired” by a New Yorker article titled “Lost” that was never produced.
Time magazine seems to have summed it up with “The somewhat wilted plot manages to take on unaccustomed bloom in Fritz Lang’s direction and the acting of an adept cast.” The Los Angeles Times noted “Because Lang directed – and this isn’t exactly one of the highest example of his work – there is rare atmosphere in the production, plenty of neat touches to augment interest.”