In 1961, Fritz Lang told an interviewer, “Through the detective film, I was looking for a form of social criticism.” Indeed, though less of a who-dun-it than a did-she-do-it, The Blue Gardenia rankles with injustice. Its commentary on Mad Men-era victim-blaming remains startlingly relevant today. (Seriously, consider how many people in positions of power right now equate drunkenness with consent or relativize a woman’s right to control her body. Then try to sleep at night.)
When Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter), still reeling from a devastating long-distance breakup, goes on a date with predatory Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr), she ends up passed out on his sofa… exactly as Harry had intended. The brute tries to force himself on her, but, fortunately, Norah recovers herself enough to grab a poker from his fireplace and give him a well-deserved whack on the head.
Lang filmed this sequence in the best tradition of noir (and expressionist) subjectivity. The mirror Norah breaks with the swing of her arm seems to stand in for her fragmented memory, giving the key plot point all the jagged, rapid-fire ambiguity of a real-life crisis. As she collapses, a superimposed whirlpool appears to pull her into its depths.
After she wakes up and flees the scene of the crime, however, Norah becomes the object of a merciless (wo)manhunt, led by a reckless journalist as much as by the cops.
But did Norah actually kill Harry? Because The Blue Gardenia was made under the reign of the Production Code, you can probably guess that our smoky-voiced, platinum-haired heroine did not in fact commit the crime. As it turns out, another of Harry’s discarded victims—whose eyes well up with the same glittering sadness as Baxter’s—cracked him over the head because he refused to take responsibility for the child she’s carrying.
Classic Hollywood won’t let anything this bad happen to our protagonist; yet, it’s not difficult to recognize the maddened, sympathetic murderess as a holograph of what might have happened to her—basically an alternate-universe Norah. Just as Norah splits herself into two to evade detection (claiming her friend is “The Blue Gardenia”), the story subdivides her yet again, delivering a happy ending while refusing to absolve society of its wretched misogyny. To my mind, it’s an absolution that has yet to come (or be earned).