Anne Baxter plays Norah Larkin, a Los Angeles telephone operator who wakes up after a drunken night to discover she killed a man in self-defense, but can’t prove it.
That’s the pitch, but there’s more plot. A lot more. Richard Conte plays Casey Mayo, plays a prominent newspaper columnist writing a feature story about telephone operators. The film opens with him touring the office. We see the girls at work. Raymond Burr plays Harry Prebble, a smarmy artist who spends his days hitting on the girls.
Three of said girls room together, Norah, Crystal, and Sally. All blondes, divorcee Crystal, ditzy Sally, and girl-next-door Norah prove a sitcom-ready trio.
That night, Norah gets word her fiancé, overseas in the Korean war, has broken their engagement. Prebble calls, asking for Crystal, who’s out for the night. Norah pretends to be Crystal and agrees to meet Prebble at the Blue Gardenia restaurant. Eager to drown her sorrows, she downs a series of fruity alcoholic cocktails with Prebble’s encouragement.
Later, at Prebble’s apartment, he gets handsy. She rebuffs him. He gets forceful. She struggles and hits him with a fireplace poker, then passes out. Coming to a short while later, Norah flees the scene, waking up the next morning hungover with only faint memories of the prior night. But the newspaper headlines announcing Prebble’s murder dredge up bug-eyed flashbacks of the evening and she fears she’s a murderess.
From here, the film transitions to a semi-procedural. This proves awkward, with ditzy Sally opining, “I didn’t like Prebble when he was alive. But now that he’s been murdered… that always makes a man so romantic.”
The police search for evidence. Norah attempts to cover her tracks. In one scene, she burns the dress she wore that evening in a backyard fire pit only for a policeman to appear out of nowhere to remind her fires after hours are illegal. “I guess it’s too late now,” he says.
Meanwhile, Casey senses a story and uses his column to pen an open letter to the killer, who he’s calling “The Blue Gardenia”—a choice that must be killing the restaurant’s business. He invites the killer to contact him, offering a sympathetic ear. In another blow to our suspension of disbelief, said letter is front-page news, with the paper’s entire cover the headline—no photo—and Casey’s name first.
Feeling the pressure, Norah snaps at her roommates. They dismiss it as depression over losing her fiancé. Realizing she can’t go on, Norah phones Casey. They arrange a meeting in a public diner, which proves a sting and the police arrest Norah.
Casey can’t let go of the case, however, and a chance bit of music triggers a breakthrough, revealing the true killer.
This had potential. Another script pass could have excised the roommates. Another writer could have punched up the overall plausibility. Baxter and Burr both convince, with Burr proffering an unsettling mix of smarm and physical menace. Director Fritz Lang seems shackled by the sitcom-like opening, but flexes his formal muscles with a memorable scene set in the newspaper office at night, lit from outside by a flashing “Chronicle” sign. Indeed, the Baxter-Burr-Lang trio seem capable of more.
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