The Blue Gardenia / While the City Sleeps
“Sorry, miss, but if you want to be in the paper, you’ve gotta kill someone first,” newspaperman Casey Mayo (Richard Conte) scoffs at an attention-seeking woman trying to achieve criminal notoriety over the telephone.
The response is barbed and the lady’s hopes for infamy are pathetic. But this memorable, albeit brief, exchange in Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia (1953) succinctly defines what both the latter film and 1956’s While the City Sleeps are going for: media satire that bridges the gap between the venomous business and the public’s tastes for sensational stories and desires for fame, whether that fame makes them beloved or despised for 15 minutes.
Features that comprise two parts of Lang’s “newspaper noir” trio (the finale being 1956’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, unseen by me),The Blue Gardenia and While the City Sleeps view media figureheads as merciless bloodhounds looking for a scoop but respectively position them in wholeheartedly different lights. The Blue Gardenia is a murder melodrama primarily focused on that said murder and secondarily centered around a newspaper’s efforts to find the culprit. While the City Sleeps is a survival of the fittest political opus that uses a serial killer’s rampage as a supplemental component to the dog eat dog antics of its protagonists.
While the City Sleeps is the better film – it goes for the throat and pulls no punches. It's sardonic, duplicitous, and all-business, even its pleasures reading like power plays. But The Blue Gardenia is the more emotionally moving of the two. Breathy, melodramatic, and sordid, it keeps us invested in its heroine’s plight economically but efficiently.
The Blue Gardenia stars Anne Baxter as Norah Larkin, a switchboard operator who lives in a no-frills apartment with a pair of colleagues (Ann Sothern, Jeff Donnell). Ordinary in every sense of the word – her day to day routine is predictable, her love life conventional (her boy toy’s serving in Korea) – Norah would never expect her life to move past the boundaries of normalcy. But after the man she plans to marry breaks up with her via letter, she goes on a date with womanizing artist Harry (Raymond Burr) and drowns her sorrows.
Her inhibitions out of whack, she goes to the man’s apartment and drinks even more. Things escalate, though, when Harry takes it upon himself to make sexual advances toward her. Norah, fortunately, fends him off. But after she wakes up the following morning without a hint of her memory intact and with news outlets reporting that Harry has been murdered, she’s led on to wonder if she is, in fact, the person responsible.
Much of The Blue Gardenia’s success depends on how much you like Baxter’s character. Luckily, the actress is likable in the ways Joan Crawford is – she’s in no doubt a product of studio manufacturing, but she possesses a type of intelligent, mature beauty that makes her a heroine who always rises above the lurid interest that surrounds her. Since she’s the kind of Hollywood archetype who perpetually seems to be giving a performance, it's undoubtable that her acting style fits The Blue Gardenia perfectly – the film’s overwrought, and so is she. And we can’t get enough of that killer combo, even if the commodity in front of us is more than a little chintzy.
By contrast, While the City Sleeps is a cinematic dogfight wherein it doesn’t matter who prevails. What matters, and what’s compelling, is how its characters differ in their methods of getting to the top of the food chain.
It revolves around a news corporation’s grappling with the sudden death of its leader, the mighty, ruthless Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick). Though Kyne made it clear in his will that he wanted his inexperienced son Walter (Vincent Price) to take over for him in the face of his demise, the vast majority of the company’s leading figures, particularly editor Jon Day Griffith (Thomas Griffith), television personality Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews), and newly appointed ace journalist Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino), find themselves deeply dissatisfied with the decision and ready to make their money elsewhere.
The situation is made more serious, however, when a serial murderer, dubbed “The Lipstick Killer” by Kyne shortly before his passing, begins terrorizing the young women of New York. Knowing full well that the job given to him won’t much suit his talents, Walter decides to turn the reporting of the story into a competition. If one of the trio of media figures is able to identify the killer before the cops can, then they’ll be appointed as executive director. Simple as that.
And so a frantic chase ensues, with all lifting their sleeves above their elbows and going where they’ve never gone before. In a different film, the criminal catching would be the utmost priority. But Lang couldn’t care less about the racket circling around the film’s sequence of murders. More important to him is the spotlighting of the pitiless dramas that go on behind the scenes of the newspaper business.
In While the City Sleeps, the "inside look" angle is coercive. These characters, all whip-smart and dependably perceptive, are investing, the actors playing them convincingly wearing facades of unyielding ambition. The criminal aspect of the film is effective, but we’re much more thrilled by the movie’s catty conversations and the way aspiration is seen at its most monstrous. Lang, usually more cinematographically dependent, minimizes his catering to our ocular likings and instead sees the allure in crisp dialogue. And when dialogue’s this crisp, that’s a good thing.
Lang (1890-1976), the Expressionism defining Austrian-German filmmaker who found great success in the U.S. in the 1940s and ‘50s with the film noir genre, is adept at manipulating his visual and tonal sensibilities to best fit the material. The Blue Gardenia is photographically murky and dreamily atmospheric, images of psychological whirlpools, shattered glass, and gasps followed by a hand to the mouth prolific in order to better characterize the turmoil at its center. While the City Sleeps is flatly shot during scenes highlighting snappy newspaper jargon but transitions to coffee-stained blackness when emotions run high and danger lurks. Both films, inexpensively produced, are the sort that have the potential to be forgettable if produced without artistic provocation. But Lang provides a zest that makes them feel like more than genre exercises.
Though diverging sonically, The Blue Gardenia and While the City Sleeps complement each other magnificently. Together, they work beautifully as a double feature that subverts the cliché that a crime movie’s most valuable aspect is oftentimes its criminal element. Turns out that features of the category can still be effectual even if searching for the humanistic core outdoes the crafting of a whodunit. Auspiciously, these noir pictures do it right.
The Blue Gardenia: B+
While the City Sleeps: A-