A Case Against Film Noir: Why “The Blue Gardenia” is ‘merely’ a great crime thriller
Last week’s Noir Alley installment on TCM was Blue Gardenia starring Anne Baxter, a marvelous film filled with sharp women, poisonous men, and dark shadows around every corner. I love this film, but I find that if I try to enjoy it as a pure, canonical Film Noir, it falls short. I’ve written elsewhere about how categories and labels can have the power to transform both subject and object, and that line of thinking has an application here.
Film genres and categories always have a subjective component to them. What is fantasy to one is science fiction to another; at a certain point a romantic comedy is just a “comedy.” These are decisions that Hollywood, Netflix, and even Flickchart try to make for us, but we needn’t always agree with them. By making our own rules about the shape we want our own personal genres to take, we take ownership of our own capacity for enjoyment. If we draw these boundaries in certain ways, we can create new zones of enjoyment for ourselves as we watch stories fit squarely into, or intentionally transcend, our expectations.
Last week I discovered that my own personal definition of film noir does not fit with Eddie Muller’s, host of Noir Alley and whom I nevertheless still regard as the Nabob of Noir and the Pooh-Bah of Pulp. Up until now, his choices have landed (more or less) squarely inside my personal definition of film noir, but this week he stepped outside of it for the first time. The “delta” between Blue Gardenia and my own (carefully crafted and UNIMPEACHABLY correct) definition of Noir illustrates not only some notable angles at which to view the film, but also something about the nature of genre and subjective experience.
The name “film noir” uses a color metaphor to try to describe a film’s mood, both its visual style and its morality. The action should take place in shadows; the camera should move at odd, upsetting angles. Everyone should quip, wordsmith, and street-poeticize at every opportunity. The “hero” should be the hardest, blackest cynic we can find, and the world should be a caustic, apathetic blast-zone of malaise and sin. Or if it doesn’t start that way, it should get that way right quick.
This is the aspect of noir that is easiest to identify, even to newcomers. Noir just feels that way.
Blue Gardenia gets this right. The thick barred shadows in the newspaper office, the panicked search for a payphone that’s not being watched by the cops, the hard fall from laughing over Polynesian pearl divers to murder. A world where the concept of date rape might be a hard sell to the authorities. Roommates that say things like “…Now that he’s been murdered, that always makes a man so romantic…”
The ultimate emotional impact of the film’s stylistic “gestalt” should be unmistakably “black,” and I submit that this is one necessary condition for true Noir status. But it’s not the only one.
A true Film Noir should not accept the premise that time within the frame always moves forward. Part of the noir experience is that things Aren’t Right with the world, that balances that normally are safe to rely on no longer apply. The best way that a film can give you that feeling is by telling the story backwards.
Okay, maybe not (necessarily) “backwards” backwards, but there should be some sense that the beginning of the movie is not the beginning of the story. Laura‘s opening lines are about the forthcoming death of the heroine we haven’t met yet. The Maltese Falcon reveals in the second act that the search for the falcon has been going on for years before O’Shaughnessy ever stepped into Spade’s office. Detour (perhaps the “purest” example of capital-N Noir ever made) starts and ends with our hero telling us the story of how far he’s fallen. The action of the film is both past and present, outside of time and above it.
With films that do this well, the audience is given a little piece of the bewilderment felt by our hero. It may be an unsettling sense that “this thing is bigger than I thought,” or it may just be that weird soupy feeling of sad memories unspooling into our cold coffee.
I submit that these emotions should be central to Noir, and I do not find them in sufficient abundance in Blue Gardenia. There is the slightest touch of it at the end, where what we thought was merely character backstory turns out to drive a major plot twist. But we do not spend any significant portion with that weight of history and/or memory on our minds.
This is the subtlest of my criteria to try to apply to a film, and it’s neither an easy nor a common storytelling technique. But the associated disorientation is crucial to the point that I believe Noir is trying to make, that the world and its comforting relationships and structures are simply expedient accidents that we happen take for granted. At any moment, the stack of Jenga blocks could receive a cosmic bump, and then the underlying chaotic, immoral, and truly “black” nature of existence will be revealed.
The most famous feature of film noir is also its most morally controversial. The femme fatale has been a staple archetype for centuries, but here she finds new room to flex her wings and talons amidst the dented testosterone of these dark streets. She is an unmissable part of the noir landscape, and without her the genre would be a gritty but empty experiment in style and lighting.
I say that the femme fatale is a controversial topic because our expectation of her presence predisposes an audience to be on the lookout for “which of these females is the fatal one,” a tendency which has done, and is doing, serious damage to our real-life social frameworks. Seeing it in cool movies reinforces knee-jerk reactions to an already brutally pigeon-holed sex, and it rewards storytellers for continuing to do so. Moreover, it’s not like the femme fatale notion is an endless goldmine of material; much more interesting stories have been told about an homme fatale, with (mysteriously!) much less archetypal stickiness.
But surely we can be forgiven for a male-dominated industry finding fear and danger in the powerful female form. It is as good an excuse as any to let the cinematic conversation become primarily about what goes on “down there” (I’m pointing at my crotch now). Because that’s what we all want to talk about, men and women; that’s what we’re all most afraid of and it’s what we’re almost uniquely unable to communicate about non-obliquely. The tragedy is that the y-chromosome who wields the lens-phallus uses the language of violence, sadness, and death to express his fundamental confusions about sex and sexual power.
The Blue Gardenia comes very close to a true subversion of this trope (which according to the magic math of film criticism would actually be better than fitting into it). Our heroine is moved from a place of pleasant stability into a dark and dizzy parallel life by a sexually destructive man who exploits her innocence as a weakness.
Unfortunately, our “fatal man” (the godzillian Raymond Burr) spends a great majority of the film dead. His impact on the story is lasting, surely, but what I’m looking for in a personne fatale is to watch them excruciatingly ablate a soul across a matter of hours, not to run into a bad-luck piece of timing in the first act. As it stands, Burr functions more as a McGuffin than as a satisfying homme fatale.
This exercise in nitpickery could be seen to be casting aspersions on The Blue Gardenia as a film and I do not mean that at all. This brilliant film functions as a perfect case study in the value and power of having your own personal genres operate within the narrowest possible margins — not for the sake of pedantic, intellectual onanism (well, not just for that), but because such frames, when correctly applied, give films a more satisfyingly “correct” mental context in which to enjoy them.
As discerning consumers, we win no points by making our own personal genre-tents bigger than they need to be. Genres and subgenres like “film noir” are not just metadata tags in IMDb’s MySQL database. They exist in order to help us enjoy and celebrate the films that we want to, when we want to.
The value that a carefully constructed personal genre definition gives to me is such that if I need to mentally label films like The Blue Gardenia as merely “noirish” in order to have the most fun with them (like I do in the ((many)) paragraphs above), then I’m fine with that, and you should be too.