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BLUE GARDENIA, THE (director: Fritz Lang; screenwriters: Charles Hoffman/from the short story “Gardenia” by Vera Caspary; cinematographer: Nicholas Musuraca; editor: Edward Mann; music: Raoul Kraushaar; cast: Ann Baxter (Norah Larkin), Richard Conte (Casey Mayo), Ann Sothern (Crystal Carpenter), Raymond Burr (Harry Prebble), Jeff Donnell (Sally Ellis), Richard Erdman (Al), Nat ‘King’ Cole (Himself), George Reeves (Police Capt. Sam Haynes), Ray Walker (Homer), Norman Leavitt (Bill), Ruth Storey (Rose Miller, Melrose Music Shop); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Alex Gottlieb; Warner Brothers; 1953)
“Never has a chance to bloom.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A minor film noir from Fritz Lang (“Clash By Night”/”The Big Heat”) that never has a chance to bloom because of its dull script. It’s based on the short story “Gardenia” by Vera Caspary. It plays as an unimaginative newspaper melodrama that takes jabs at the middle-class and how neurotic and fearful they are about romance. Nat “King” Cole makes a welcome cameo as the house pianist at the nightclub called The Blue Gardenia, crooning in his velvet voice the titular theme song. Noted cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca injects the film with some intriguing noir touches, such as those ominous rain drops on Raymond Burr’s window the night of the murder.

Three single telephone operators, Norah Larkin (Ann Baxter), Crystal Carpenter (Ann Sothern), and Sally Ellis (Jeff Donnell), are L.A. roommates. While Crystal is posing in the lobby of the telephone company for smarmy playboy artist Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr), hotshot newspaper reporter Casey Mayo (Richard Conte) comes by and blurts out her phone number–something Harry couldn’t get on his own.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

Wishing to celebrate her birthday alone, Norah stays home and has dinner with her boyfriend’s photograph. She then opens a letter from her soldier boyfriend in Korea, who writes a “Dear Jane” letter jilting her for a nurse. Feeling dejected, Norah accepts a blind date with Harry, who was actually calling Crystal and is surprised when someone else meets him at The Blue Gardenia. Norah gets sloshed on the potent tropical drinks and foolishly goes afterwards in a drunken stupor to Harry’s apartment, where she tries to ward off his wolfish advances by fighting back. Harry is struck over the head with a poker, and we learn the next morning he’s dead. Norah’s lace hanky, her blue gardenia flower, and her pump shoes are left in the dead man’s apartment. The murder story makes the newspaper headlines leaving Norah jittery, as she only wanted to defend her honor and can’t recall if she actually murdered Harry but believes she must have. The Chronicle reporter, Casey, writes the unknown murderess a letter in the newspaper with the captions “Letter to an Unknown Murderess,” asking her to give herself up to him and he will get the paper to foot the bills for a top mouthpiece in trade for an exclusive story and also offers her the newspaper’s protection. The frightened Norah takes the reporter’s bait. Norah falls for Casey and trusts him to keep his word, but his friend Captain Haynes (Steve Reeves) surprisingly meets him in their beanery meeting place on a tip from the restaurant owner (Leavitt). Norah feels betrayed, while the guilt-stricken and love-stricken Casey thinks that a sweet gal like Norah somehow couldn’t have committed the murder. By digging up some more clues, Casey leads the police to the one who murdered Harry. Saved before she commits suicide, the real murderer fills us in on what happened and why she was angry with Harry.

Lang himself in interviews dismissed the film as a “job-for-hire.” I don’t think he was mistaken and don’t wish to read more into this unimpressive film than it merits, though Lang’s use of newspapers and telephones as the public’s best sources of communication is questioned in a prodding and provocative way. But the story itself wasn’t original and the acting wasn’t engaging enough to elevate it past being a mild thriller.

REVIEWED ON 10/16/2004 GRADE: B-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”