Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia (1953): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 17

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.)

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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.

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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).

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Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 5

Usually when I say that a movie leaves a bad taste in my mouth I don’t exactly mean that as a compliment. With Scarlet Street, however, I’m paying tribute to the strychnine-bitter finish that Fritz Lang worked so hard to give his wrenching noir masterpiece.

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SPOILER ALERT! The movie ends with Criss Cross, the gentle, manipulated cashier (and genius painter), killing Kitty, the object of his obsession, after she laughs at his marriage proposal. When the cops put the finger on Kitty’s pimp boyfriend for the crime, Cross lets the not-quite-innocent man go to the death house for the murder.

Tortured by his sins and hallucinating the ghostly, gloating whispers of his victims, Cross becomes a bum, a pathetic presumed lunatic who confesses to a crime that nobody believes he committed.

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The first time I saw this movie, during my teenage noir binge, the abject defeat of the main character absolutely floored me. Noir protagonists tend to go down in a blaze of tragic glory or at least catch a ray of dubious, studio-mandated redemption.

The pitiable failure of Criss Cross—unrecognized as both a great artist and a remorseful murderer—and the anticlimax of Scarlet Street‘s conclusion depressed the hell out of me. Lang slashed a hole in the silky lining of Hollywood’s fantasy world.

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These days the ending of Scarlet Street actually inspires me. Its grim fatalism testifies to the courage of some filmmakers and producers working within the constraints of a commercial system.

Indeed, the Production Code didn’t allow for murderers to escape death or legal punishment in the last reel—often resulting in some mutilated or at least unlikely denouements.

Determined to avoid such a botched ending, Lang decided to bring his case to censorship honcho Joseph Breen and harp on a feeling close to every Catholic’s heart: guilt. As the director recalled:

“I said, ‘Look, we’re both Catholics. Being permitted to live, the Robinson character in Scarlet Street goes through hell. That’s a much greater punishment being imprisoned for homicide. After all, it was not a premeditated murder, it was a crime of passion. What if he does spend the rest of his life in jail—so what? The greater punishment is surely to have him go legally free, his soul burdened by the knowledge of his deed, his mind constantly echoing with the words of the woman he loved proclaiming her love for the man he’d wrongly sent to death in his place…’ And I won my point.”

What do you know? Catholic guilt is good for something after all.

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Fritz Lang’s M (1931): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 1

The child murderer in M (Peter Lorre) makes his entrance as a silhouette cast on his own wanted poster.

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In this early scene of Fritz Lang’s first sound film, the poster connects the victim to her killer. As little Elsie Beckmann bounces her ball against the column, the camera tilts upwards ominously so that the viewer can read the particulars of the crimes. And then the stranger’s shadow sidles into the frame.

Our inability to see the child and the man looming above her heightens our anxiety. Lang uses sound and offscreen space to frustrate his audience. He reminds us of our helplessness by removing us from the characters and forcing us to deduce the characters’ spatial locations from a silhouette and a ball bouncing in and out of the frame.

Confronted with imminent danger, made pitilessly obvious by the Gothic-font warning of the poster, we are paralyzed. What might otherwise be a perfectly innocuous exchange plays out with the darkest of irony. This child is about to die. The visuals drive that point home with ironclad inevitability. And we are powerless to intervene. Has any movie ever conjured that nightmare feeling, the inertia of dread, as well as M?

Noir owes a lot to M, but I don’t consider it a film noir. There’s something inherently romantic about noir. That’s the element missing from Lang’s thriller. That touch of fantasy, that seductive wickedness. Perhaps that’s what Lang meant when he suggested that he wasn’t an expressionist but a realist.

No, M‘s not noir. It’s a hell of a lot darker.

M succeeds in knocking its viewers off balance while not disorienting them. It has all the horrible clarity of the moment when you lose your footing, see the ground rising to meet you, and think, “Oh, no. I’m falling…”

Amusingly enough, you can hear Lang’s very personal contribution to the off-kilter quality of the film: “I am a musical moron who can’t carry a tune, but I decided to dub the whistling [of the murderer in M] myself. It was off key and turned out to be just right since the murderer himself is off balance mentally.”

Silent September! A Buffet of Free Silent Films

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A diva’s work is never done.

That’s what I thought the other day when I realized that I’ve been blogging (and tweeting and posting!) about classic films for a whole year.

I scoured the reaches of my imagination for some way to mark the occasion. And then, Turner Classic Movies solved the problem for me. Throughout this month, September 2013, the television epicenter of old movie love will be celebrating the milestones of film history. And I’m going with the flow.

Now, if I started blogging for one reason (other than preserving my sanity in the wake of my recent college graduation), it was because I wanted to share my passion for classic cinema with others. Over the past year, I have learned so much through my digital adventures and I very humbly hope that I’ve been able to give back a little, too. For the month of September, I’m trying something new—I’m going to concentrate primarily (perhaps entirely) on silent film.

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To get the ball rolling, I’ve created a YouTube playlist containing most of the silent films that will be airing on TCM this month. Below, you’ll find the same treasure trove of film history, hours of ground-breaking cinema that you can stream or download free of charge. I could name dozens of other great silent films that everyone should watch—and I will over the next 30 days—but these are the ones that you can check out instantly. So, pardon the glaring omissions! However, if you’ve never seen a silent film before, this is a good place to start, although you might not want to start with Intolerance… And if you’ve seen all of these films, well, now you have them all at your fingertips!

Watch, enjoy, and celebrate the Seventh Art in the first spectacular flush of her youth and beauty.

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Trip to the Moon (1902) – Georges Méliès

On YouTube.

Canned Harmony (1912) – Alice Guy

On YouTube.

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Falling Leaves (1912) – Alice Guy

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Birth of a Nation (1916) – D.W. Griffith

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Intolerance (1916) – D.W. Griffith

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) – Robert Wiene

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Way Down East (1920) – D.W. Griffith

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

One Week (1920) – Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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The Kid (1921) – Charlie Chaplin

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Orphans of the Storm (1921) – D.W. Griffith

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

The Phantom Carriage (1921) – Victor Sjöström

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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Häxan (1922) – Benjamin Christensen

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Nanook of the North (1922) – Robert J. Flaherty

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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Three Ages (1923) – Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

La Roue (1923) – Abel Gance

Part I and Part II on YouTube.

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The Thief of Bagdad (1924) – Raoul Walsh

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Battleship Potemkin (1925) – Sergei Eisenstein

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

The General (1927) – Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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Metropolis (1927) – Fritz Lang

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Sunrise (1927) – F.W. Murnau

On YouTube.

Un Chien Andalou (1929) – Salvador Dali and Louis Buñuel

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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The Goddess (1934) – Yonggang Wu

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.