Tuesday, February 21, 2006

53. Dopey

Occasionally, a true thing is suddenly there in a movie, obvious to everyone except me--or so I think, if only because it comes at me like an unexpected solid object, a fastball through my living room window. I'm usually letting my attention wander to a film's minutiae--a weird table lamp, the gleam of a bumper, the gray beauty of a starlet's cheek. Such meandering gives the movie I'm watching a little breathing room, where it can make mistakes I don't notice, or that I forgive--continuity errors, crew members caught in reflective surfaces, actors with inexplicable accents--and allows me to stick with it, a patient son forgiving of faults. Again, though, every once in a while I get a jolt, and I feel myself fall away from the film, no longer its confidante (sometimes its only friend in the room), instead scowling, the kind of viewer I've trained myself not to be. But I can't help it: the true thing won't stop being true.

This happened with The Blue Gardenia (1953), and I was completely unprepared for such a falling-out--not bitter, more regretful and disappointed, but there it was. Odd, considering the director--Fritz Lang--the cast--Anne Baxter, Richard Conte, Ann Sothern, Raymond Burr, even a cameo by Nat Cole playing himself (performing the title song in a Tiki lounge, wearing a lei!)--and the story--Norah Larkin (Baxter) receives a "Dear Jane" letter from her man serving in Korea, goes out with date-rapist Harry Prebble (Burr), who ends up dead, with of course Norah as the key suspect, while investigative reporter Casey Mayo (Conte) falls for Norah. A Lang noir, the fog of moral ambiguity deepened by the panic--and the novelty--of the Wrong Man-as-Woman. What more could I have wanted?

For a while, not much. Baxter plays a pretty good drunk, and manages more or less to keep her head as she turns fugitive. Burr is almost-miscast--but works with, not against, my misgivings; his Harry Prebble has an ex-football-star's self-confidence, a kind of beefy assertion that made me accept him as a wolf--and completely understand his demise as he advances ever more violently on Baxter's woozy, broken-hearted recklessness. Conte also takes advantage of his odd casting as a hardboiled reporter who wants to nab "the Blue Gardenia"--as his paper calls Burr's killer, after the nightclub where he was last seen alive (and where Cole sings)--by giving his character the air of a clipped but soft-hearted romantic. Lang as well seems to relish playing with the genre, with echoes of--references to?--The Big Heat, released in the same year; both films have a central investigator (Glenn Ford's Det. Bannion in The Big Heat) who is a clench-jawed sweetheart. And both movies explore the depths of misogyny with unflinching brutality. And incidentally, The Blue Gardenia is beautifully shot, an expressionistic chiaruscuro landscape across which the characters stretch their long and anxious shadows.

And then it all fell apart: Mayo is contacted by Norah--one is trying to get his scoop, the other running scared--and Norah poses as a friend of the "Blue Gardenia"--and here it comes: Conte believes her. I actually thought he was playing along--hasn't every character in the position of confessor, from psychiatrist to priest to cop--to ace reporter, fer petessake--gone through this kind of thing? But he actually believes her--and is stunned when he finds out she's the suspect. At first, I thought Norah was the numskull for dreaming up such a creaky ruse; but she knew her man better than I did, obviously. I sat there, getting dopier myself--I find density of the brain catching--trying to figure out why the script needed Mayo to become a dolt. Maybe, if he had known Norah was the suspect, he would've had to turn her in. No, he was too eager for a scoop to shy away from trouble. Or maybe he wouldn't have fallen in love with her if he saw her as a murderer, as opposed to a pal who'd do a favor for another pal. After all, even Norah thought she did it. Closer, perhaps. But in the end I couldn't completely justify such blankness.

Now, there is a horror/suspense film rule that at some key point someone is going to have to do something truly stupid--and not from the audience's point of view, who knows all about the monster long before its victims; but the character him/herself has to commit a blatantly idiotic act--usually involving separation from the others, or the weapons, or the daylight, or whatever so far has been standing between predator and prey. You can't move this kind of movie forward to its climax without one perfect, severe lapse in the critical faculties. The trick is to save that moment until absolutely necessary. The best films of horror and suspense even mask the stupidity, or encourage us in our own; Hitchcock was exceptionally good at inviting slack-jawed surrender to danger: By the time Lisa (Grace Kelly) goes to Thorwald's (Burr again) apartment in Rear Window (1954), we're as goofy as she is, exhorting her to get on over there--then being gleefully punished for being so stupid. Hitchcock knew our secret: We want to approach that furtive scratching sound at the window; we just need to be tempted, which he does as slick as Satan.

The Blue Gardenia does not seem to be up to the challenge. As I watched Conte get duped, the whole movie stopped, and all I was left with were misgivings and regrets. In an effort to sustain Lang's auteur standing, I will blame the script. But I'll admit I was embarrassed for him. After all these years, it seems fruitless to second-guess the decisions of a hard-working director with a low budget and perhaps other things--like the aforementioned minor masterwork, The Big Heat--on his mind. But I can't entirely absolve Lang, either. Sometimes I just need to admit that anyone can blink. And if there's something in the plot of The Blue Gardenia that can rescue it, if I'm missing something vital, I'd like to know what it is. Because, as usual, if anybody's going to be the dope, I'd rather it be me.

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