Often hailed as the “master of darkness,” Fritz Lang made such immeasurable contributions to the film noir genre he almost goes without introduction. Born in 1890, Lang was of the German expressionist school and during the Weimar era made such stunning cinematic masterpieces as Metropolis. In interviews, he has confessed the film was inspired by his first sight of a New York skyscraper in 1924: “The buildings seemed to be a vertical sail, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize.” This cynical attitude toward modern notions of progress, both social and technological, would inform much of his later work as an American director. Though not as openly political or visually extravagant, his American films noir would interrogate many of the same issues: repression, technology, and the unfortunate plight of the individual in a corrupt and severely mechanized world.
His 1953 The Blue Gardenia is no different, fitting nicely into his impressive repertoire of remorselessly satirical films. Anne Baxter plays the pretty and charming Norah, whose impulsive decision to go out with Prebble, an infamous womanizer, lands her at the heart of a murder plot. Convinced she killed Prebble in a drunken stupor and unable to recall the events of the night, Norah spends the course of the film isolated and alone, unsure if she should turn herself in or even if she is guilty of the murder. She eventually turns herself in to Mayo, a journalist who has made a sensation out of her, hoping he and his powerful newspaper can help to reduce her sentence. Upon meeting her, however, Mayo is convinced of her innocence and sets out to find the true murderess, who he finds rather easily: she is yet another woman betrayed and misled by the wolfish Prebble. After confessing that she murdered him in a fit of jealous rage, Rose is apprehended by the police, Norah is freed and the conventional happy ending can commence as Mayo and Norah fall in love and (we assume) walk off into the sunset.
Lang and his production team shot The Blue Gardenia in an unheard of twenty days, and many of its critics would dismiss the film as a rushed studio blockbuster. Initial reception of the film was lukewarm at best, and most other reviews were unduly harsh. Variety Movie Reviews claimed that “a stock story and handling keep it from being anything more than a regulation mystery melodrama” while film critic Dennis Schwartz famously called it “a film that never has the chance to bloom because of its dull script.” Lang detested the film himself, admitting the project was simply a job-for-hire. Certainly when compared to other films in the Lang canon, The Blue Gardenia can appear uncharacteristically pedestrian: the plot is predictable and there are none of the ornate, expressionistic touches that made Lang a legend early in his career. Upon release, the film inspired modest scholarly discussion and today there is but little criticism on the subject so why, when critics and scholars alike disregard the film as a critical failure, should we examine it any further?
Lang’s genius attention to forms of mass media keeps The Blue Gardenia from falling victim to the melodrama of its rather formulaic plot and, in my opinion, deserves serious consideration. The mass media-from the newspaper column to the dime store novel-informs (if not entirely controls) the lives of his misfortunate characters: Norah buys a dress because it is advertised as “fashionable,” Crystal and Sally believe the Blue Gardenia is a wanton streetwalker because Mayo’s column imagines her as one, and so on and so forth. The director’s intimate friendship with fellow German émigré and groundbreaking social theorist Theodor Adorno undoubtedly influenced this scathing portrayal of the press. Sociologist, musicologist and philosopher, Adorno is perhaps best known for his theory of the culture industry outlined in The Dialectic of Enlightenment. As he was writing, Lang acted as his primary informant in Hollywood. Though there’s no historical evidence on the matter, it is likely Lang had access to “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” as Adorno was writing it. Both men shared an interest in each other’s work and regularly corresponded from 1949 to 1967. Adorno’s theory of the culture industry, thus, is a lens through which we can better understand this subtly provocative but tragically underrated masterpiece. For both men, mass culture would make real a dystopic vision of the future, a future where media conditions the consumer until he can no longer think for himself, the human becomes inessential, and men become numbers. Lang explores the many impersonal faces of mass media to warn us against these present and potentially dangerous processes of reification at work in modern pop culture, which I feel redeems The Blue Gardenia from its critical obscurity and initial dismissal.
From the film’s very opening scene, people appear virtually interchangeable. When Mayo visits the West Coast Telephone company, the telephone operators look eerily similar: they all sport the latest coiffed hairdo and they all appear sitting, seemingly dominated by the mass circuit boards they spend their days operating. The resemblance between Norah and her two roommates, Crystal and Sally, seems particularly striking; all pretty and blonde, it is difficult at first to even tell them apart. Ultimately, their LA world is a reified one where men are quantified and the individual is of little consequence to the whole: Crystal is known chiefly as G1466, Norah claims her boyfriend abroad is not just any guy but “1 out of 100,000” while the rest of the film obsessively preoccupies itself with various types of numbers. Lang’s preference for counting operates to fully undermine the individuality of his characters. This substitutability of persons becomes significant later when Norah pretends to be Crystal after Prebble calls with a dinner invitation. Rather than appear disappointed at seeing the wrong girl, Prebble warmly welcomes her to his table for dinner and drinks as if the particular girl never mattered so long as there was one.
For Lang, mass media is responsible for this total obliteration of the individual. Mayo knows the masses lust for a classic who-done-it murder mystery and, with just the right dose of sex and intrigue, he is certain such a story will make headlines and yield him significant profit. “Everyone wants to read about murder,” he assuredly tells his assistant, “even when an unknown doll kills a guy no one’s ever heard of before.” As star journalist for the Chronicle and our central male protagonist, Mayo becomes a figure for mass media itself. Under the reign of mass culture, art- which was once dictated by its own set of internal laws- enters the sphere of consumption and must become like any other commodity: vulnerable to the laws of supply and demand. Necessarily, art becomes an industry and information outlets like newspapers find themselves more concerned with their monthly revenues than the quality of their news. For the Chronicle to be financially successful, Mayo must tailor his discourse to projected ideas of supply and demand. It is because he concludes the public has a morbid taste for murder that he investigates the Blue Gardenia case in the first place. Like all journalists, he must ask himself: Is this how journalists write? Is this how journalism sounds and, more importantly, will it sell papers? Mayo transforms a gruesome instance of violence into a consumable product for the masses, thus he renders the individual- both perpetrator, Norah and victim, Prebble- disturbingly insignificant. His bold headline, “PAINTER OF CALENDAR GIRLS MURDERED IN STUDIO MYSTERY,” identifies Prebble, not as a concrete, particular person, but as a generalized universal, which only serves to further abstract him and his awful murder. The terse, punchy headline may metamorphose an “unknown doll” and anonymous “artist” into a story, but there was no story to begin with: he simply invents one.
Mayo understands his subjective (and perhaps faulty) perception of the Blue Gardenia as objective truth; as Adorno cleverly observed: “There is the agreement- or at least the determination- of all executive authorities [of mass media] not to produce or sanction anything that in any way differs from their own rules, their own ideas about consumers, or above all themselves.”1 Mayo invents Norah by relying on his own misinformed notions of feminine archetypes, especially that of the beautiful but duplicitous ‘‘bad girl.” His portrayal of her as a “flashy blonde” merely posing as a lady undoubtedly reflects his own ideas about femininity and women; so as he presumes to know all there is to know about the consumer, so does he imagine his depiction of Norah’s ‘‘kind’’ of girl as fair and accurate. This boastful confidence in his own assessment of the murderess has chilling implications when he is asked how, exactly, he knows the Blue Gardenia is beautiful: “They’re always beautiful,” he replies with a smirk. By reducing people to hollow statistics and sweeping generalities, mass media neglects what makes an individual human and, therefore, essential: his particularity. Mayo’s continual preference for the plural pronoun “they” as opposed to the singular “she” reveals the reification process complete. Norah is no longer an individual with a specific set of circumstances or justifiable reasons for murder, but a repetitious, hopelessly banal convention: the femme fatale.
Though his labeling of individuals as “sorts” of people seems a rather harmless quality of trash journalism, it has frighteningly serious consequences for the consumer. As they read the morning paper, Sally and Crystal replicate mass media’s unsettling brand of either/or thinking perfectly: “Black?” Crystal asks skeptically, “it was probably bright red…that kind of girl never wears black.” Here, color takes on social significance as it distinguishes one class of consumers from another. The black taffeta dress sets off a chain of associations for the women, both of whom have been conditioned to identify people by the clothes they wear. Just as we might judge a woman with a tramp stamp as-well-trampy, Sally and Crystal believe a woman wearing black must be like the dress she purchases: chic, elegant…certainly not a cold-blooded killer. By systematically grouping consumers into types, mass media mechanizes people (who are infinitely complex and manifold) into a series of algorithms. If propaganda is a deliberate and methodical attempt to sway audience opinion, Mayo’s form of sensational propaganda has worked: Crystal assumes the murderess was wearing bright red- the racy, tempestuous uniform of a “femme fatale”- because the stories she reads disseminate women’s rigid classification: her ideas are no longer her own.
Adorno called this phenomenon regression, or the “debilitating relapse and reflective re-appropriation of regressive modes of knowledge and conduct.” In simpler terms, regression is a developmental moving back: an irreversible infantilization of the consumer. Naive and not yet grown to maturity, children often understand the world in terms of overly simplistic black/white categories; by militantly insisting on universal typologies, mass media promises our return to an infantile mode of spectator engagement where we can no longer appreciate the nuances, the complexities, the inconsistencies, or the particulars. Crystal’s failure to conceive of a woman other than the “femme fatale,” then, signifies a total loss of her imaginative powers. Because newspapers (especially of Mayo’s variety) unendingly recapitulate the same, tired characters and formulaic story lines, the consumer becomes versed in the traditions of a genre and thus wants the same thing perpetually until he regards anything novel with mistrust. Indeed, to even suggest a woman other than the classless whore Crystal visualizes would be to critically upset her view of the world as clear-cut and intelligible.
Spellbound by the Blue Gardenia mystery and a self-proclaimed crime novel fanatic, Sally also seems arrested in a desperately infantile way of thinking. As the women continue pouring over Mayo’s coverage of the Blue Gardenia murder, Sally pleads: “Listen to this, he’s almost as good as Mickey Mallet. And I know a few other facts that will be of special interest to the girl who done the who-done-it. Her voice was quiet and friendly as she drank half a dozen Polynesian pearl divers…” What is harrowing, here, is the intrusion of fictional drama into non-fiction discourse. Mickey Mallet, a writer Sally adores and whose books she loyally buys, writes murder mysteries: a dime-store genre mass produced and almost exclusively turned out for profit. For most, the true crime novel offers gratification by the sheer fact of its predictability. After Norah asks how she knows what his new release is about before having read it, Sally replies, in a comic but revealing moment, “That’s what they’re all about.” So just as a good mystery writer needs an exceptional sense of pacing, so must he strictly adhere to the conventions of his genre: usually blood and betrayal. Sally compares Mallet, a writer of fiction, to Mayo, a journalist of supposedly impartial fact, which indicates she is confusing art for real life- a devastatingly tragic mistake. Why is this so troubling? Well, if the spectator Sally views homicide, an awful and senseless act of violence, as the romanticized stuff of novels, murder becomes romantic and we begin to believe the world is like a detective story: a foreboding landscape where murderers potentially lurk around every corner but can be easily detected (and apprehended) by type. Sally continuously permits mass media to infiltrate her thinking and dictate her behavior in real life: at various moments, she manipulates her voice to sound like a sultry femme fatale when she believes a male courter is calling and later, after this scene, she curiously holds a knife to her chest as if she were in a slasher movie. These disconcerting instances signify a playacting that is no longer innocent make-believe; rather, Sally’s simulating the stuff of dime store novels suggests the consumer, much like herself, will enact art upon life until he no longer has free will.
Unlike Sally and Crystal, Norah hysterically resists being written into mass media’s discourse, proposing alternate explanations as to why a respectable woman might go out with a notorious playboy like Prebble: “Maybe she was defending her honor; maybe she was lonely and bewildered; maybe she wanted some excitement.” Here, Norah inhabits the rhetorical realm of “maybe” while her two roommates obstinately cling to mass culture’s artless and unrefined vocabulary of universals. A more sophisticated space of thinking, “maybe” refuses to be limited to definite, inflexible categories and considers the possibility of multiple answers. Though Norah did agree to a date with Prebble, she is not the trashy, promiscuous woman her roommates imagine- their belief in “types” of people neglects that humans are naturally spontaneous and particular.
In the beginning of the film, Norah will revolt against being treated as a universal when she is in fact a particular. While reading a dear john letter from her boyfriend abroad, the camera transitions to narrative first person as if Norah were finally writing her own discourse. “Best wishes for your future,” she cries infuriated, “and yours very sincerely.” His nauseatingly clichéd sign off- “yours sincerely”- regards Norah as if she were a casual acquaintance rather than an intimate lover and sets off a tailspin of emotion and anger. Visually, first person narration restores her free will and human agency. So though she is powerless to control her boyfriend’s abandonment and deception, she can still command her own narrative, or what these events mean to her. By giving Norah rare access to visual subjectivity, Lang implies she remains empowered in this moment because she has not yet faded into the anonymity of universals.
Norah, however, will eventually consent to the media image of her as she becomes less and less certain of her own innocence. Throughout the course of the film, Lang parallels Norah’s unfaithful boyfriend to Mayo, the journalist responsible for naming her a murderess: both write letters, both use insincere forms of address (“best wishes for your future”/ “yours very sincerely”/ “yours very earnestly”), both betray her trust, and both will inform her of a story she was unaware of. Though the letter is an intensely private, intimate form of communication, Mayo imitates its closeness and friendly informality in his public address to the Blue Gardenia, hoping to bait her and get his story. Mayo’s desire to recreate Norah, the living, breathing woman, into a flat, two-dimensional discourse is a particularly male fantasy as it quite literally objectifies her. By casting Norah into the role of alluring and lethal femme fatale, Mayo robs her of agency, or the power to identify herself. And because his narrative holds infinitely more influence than hers, Norah’s view of herself goes totally ignored while his inflated, dramatized scandal goes on to captivate millions: he is a master of public discourse, and she, only of private. Norah will ultimately submit to the male fantasy of her as a “bad” girl because mass media unrelentingly imposes its version of her narrative until she has no other choice. This pivotal shift is made evident when Norah begins dressing like a femme fatale, appearing in suits throughout the course of the film when we think she is indeed the killer. Considering the importance narrative holds for Lang and this film, the role of alcohol and intoxication becomes thematically significant. Norah cannot vouch for her own innocence because she was in a drunken stupor at the time of the murder; rather, she can only recollect her story after Mayo calls for a further investigation. Like a drunkard who can’t recall last night’s shenanigans because he was blacked out hammered, we, the film suggests, can’t author our own stories-mass media must fill them in for us.
Though The Blue Gardenia spends the majority of its time portraying Norah as a bad girl who committed murder, its ending will reveal she was actually a good girl all along. As was convention in many films noir, Lang momentarily affords his femme fatale power but is “not content to leave the viewer with the notion that such a girl was a possibility in real life…in the film’s closing reel it would be revealed that she was not responsible for the criminal machinations. There has been a case of mistaken identity throughout. At the end of the film, the viewer is assured that the girl is “good” after all.”2 When Norah reveals herself as the Blue Gardenia in the diner, Mayo cannot believe it: the woman before him- pretty, blonde, well-mannered- is a perfect portrait of a “good” girl and fails to resemble his preconceived image of her. “I hadn’t expected you’d be the girl,” he says, frustrated and disappointed. Moments later, the police rush in and Norah is convicted for Prebble’s murder, but Mayo remains unconvinced. Norah, the simple, charming girl he’d just met, could never brutally kill a man: she wasn’t the “type.” This dissatisfaction leads him to further investigate and eventually apprehend the real killer. Though we watch films to momentarily experience our repressed, forbidden desires, there is a sense of relief and affirmation when everything returns back to normal. In this sense, Norah’s release is cathartic in that it restores our faith in the dominant modes of mass media’s type-based thinking. The Blue Gardenia flirts with defying our expectations, only to confirm what we knew all along: Norah’s “kind” of girl- the sweet, girl next door type- could never be capable of such a heinous thing as murder. Mayo’s initial instinct- that Norah was innocent- turns out to be correct and from there the film is tidily resolved. Norah is “no longer the spider woman, but her opposite, the nurturing woman, the redeemed who saves the male hero from the corrupted world in which he lives.”3 Both Norah, the virtuous woman, and Mayo, the notorious bad boy figure, recede into the safe conventions of their genre; because she proves romantic love is possible, he can reform his womanizing ways and rejoin the proper hetero-normative institutions of marriage and family.
Though the ending represents a sort of reinstatement of universal thinking, Norah’s final identification with Rose, the true murderess, suggests the rigid distinction of “femme fatale” from “good girl” is more precarious than the film once thought. According to the guidelines of character types, Rose, the murderous bad girl, and Norah, the pretty, naïve good girl, should be nothing alike; however, they have many things in common: more than just their physical similarities, both wore a black taffeta dress on the night of the murder, both have been betrayed by cheating and deceitful men, and both feel devastated at having lost the one they loved. So while the film proves only a certain kind of woman commits murder, it equally suggests Norah could have very well been in Rose’s place. In the end, The Blue Gardenia leaves us with an unsettling question: if Norah, a supposed good girl, can relate to a brutal crime of passion, could the repressed urge for transgression no longer be reserved to a criminal class, but be potentially existent in us all?
1. Adorno, Theodor. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, 2002.
2. Smedley, Nick. A Divided World: Hollywood Cinema and Emigre Directors in the Era of Roosevelt and Hitler, 1933-1948. Intellect, 2011.
3. Murlanch, Isabel. “What’s in a Name? Construction of Female Images in Film Noir: The Case of Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia.” Atlantis Journal, vol. 18, no. 1-2, 1996, 111.