Anatole Litvak directs Blues in the Night, an interesting if melodramatic film noir musical. The 1941 motion picture is based on Edwin Gilbert’s play Hot Nocturne, which was picked up by Elia Kazan and reworked. Kazan subsequently sold the material to Warner Brothers, where it was handed to Robert Rossen.
There are a lot of neat elements in Blues in the Night, but it’s certainly not a musical in any aggressive sense. The songs are seldom played through, which is a shame because the Oscar-nominated title piece is stunning. The score by Heinz Roemheld emphasizes the jazzy underpinnings of the picture, while the blues phrasing of the music plays well against the noir visual style.
Jazz pianist Jigger Pine (Richard Whorf) plays gigs across the country with bassist Pete (Peter Whitney) and drummer Peppi (Billy Halop). One day, he’s thrown in the slammer after socking an unruly customer. A clarinetist (Kazan) named Nickie convinces the group to start a band and Jigger goes for it after hearing the segregated black prisoners singing a blues tune.
The unit hooks up with trumpeter Leo (Jack Carson) and his wife Character (Priscilla Lane) and they set out to play a cross-section of dive bars. They come across the hoodlum Del (Lloyd Nolan) and are talked into playing at a club called the Jungle. Things start to go wrong when Kay (Betty Field), Del’s lover, starts to stir up trouble with the band.
Litvak and cinematographer Ernest Haller deliver the goods in a high energy style, starting from the opening moments as characters bustle around a bar. The world of the broke travelling musicians is quixotic, as the gang rides the rails and cuts deals that land them just enough dough to get by. Life is good. It’s not great, but it’s good.
As with most films noir, good isn’t good enough for long. Kay, part of a package of dubious characters at the Jungle, is the essence of the femme fatale. First, she sucks Leo into her lethal web. He’s dragged away from his wife and the band by the brunette’s cunning sexuality. Fortunately, he sees the light before any serious harm is done.
Jigger is not so lucky. Played with seething concentration by Whorf, the pianist is the quiet before the storm. He’s a moral man, but the calculating Kay tugs at his heartstrings and he falls into the pit. Soon, he’s pulled away from his band and pushed into a rinky-dink bandstand gig in New York City. To top it off, Kay flirts with old men while he plays.
Lest one believe that the darkness of Blues in the Night is only related to the trivial breakdown of one’s musical desires, there are miserable forces at work. Kay’s sick attachment to the brutal Del is played out with subtle details. Many characters, including the ill-fated Sam (Howard Da Silva), try in vain to save her from herself.
There’s a certain futility that suggests that even the exceedingly ethical can’t recover every lost soul from damnation. As the prisoners sing, sometimes having “the miseries” is the only path through this thing called life. And sometimes the miseries are repressed behind a mask of slick, smart-alecky drivel.
Blues in the Night is less on the nose than Litvak’s Out of the Fog, but it still runs like a morality play. It’s generally effective, with solid performances and a longsuffering elegance that scarcely edges out some of the cornier moments. And that’s to say nothing of the surreal montage sequences, which add some face-meltingly strange effects to this world of music and madness.