Initially it seems an extraneous line—a peripheral bit of amusement. At the dreamy Los Angeles restaurant-club The Blue Gardenia, a male bartender remarks to a patron, “I fancy men myself.” Yet this utterance suggests the elusive theme of one of Fritz Lang’s most underrated films.
Her loyalty to her boyfriend, who is fighting in Korea, has been Nora Larkin’s excuse for not dating, translation, celibacy. She is robbed of that crutch, however, when she opens his “Dear John” letter on her birthday. Indeed, Lang’s mise-en-scène, both at the job and in the apartment they share with another co-worker, suggests that Nora’s real, if unconscious, attraction is for Crystal. Meanwhile, Crystal is dating her ex-spouse, explaining to Nora that Homer has none of the faults of a husband and all the virtues of a boyfriend. This implies her celibacy as well; Homer is Crystal’s “crutch” allowing her to sidestep sexual activity.
Even in the fifties, though, someone has to be getting some action. Seemingly fitting this description are two lady killers: Harry Prebble, the customer who roams the floor of The Blue Gardenia as if he owns the place, and crime columnist Casey Mayo, the proverbial bachelor with a little black book. Curiously, though, when Nora impulsively substitutes herself for a date with Prebble that’s intended for Crystal, we watch Prebble commit himself at ridiculous length to the atmospherics of seduction without ever getting Nora to bed, even in his apartment. Everything in this film is sexually ambiguous (except for the bartender’s admission), including Prebble’s coldness toward women. Casey ends up pursuing Nora, but the film even deprives us of the requisite closing clinch.
Vera Caspary’s murder mystery showcases two bravura performances: Anne Baxter as vulnerable, adorable Nora, Ann Sothern as crafty, gorgeous Crystal.
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