Blues in the Night (1941): 4/5
It all starts with a fun, upbeat St. Louis jazz club and a few charismatic characters. Things don’t stay fun for long. A fight breaks out between a musician and a customer, sending the club (and the band members’ lives) into chaos.
Brilliant piano man Jigger (Richard Whorf), after being tossed in jail over the brawl, ultimately decides to leave town. He forms a jazz band with Nickie (Elia Kazan – yes, that Elia Kazan), Leo (Jack Carson), Leo’s wife Ginger aka “Character” (Priscilla Lane) and Peppi (Billy Halop), and they all hop in a box car to New Orleans.
The jazz club they end up at in New Orleans is even more lively than the first, but it comes with it’s own set of complications. The catalysts for these complications are ruthless club owner Del (Lloyd Nolan) and sneaky song siren Kay (Betty Field). The club is called “The Jungle,” and the name suits it well.
Aside from the few fun, dance-inducing jazz club performances, this film is a drama through and through.
It teeters on the border between realistic and exaggerated. Believable and lifelike performances are given, with the exception of Betty Field. Luckily, she can get away with a showy performance because her character is so sassy and emotionally instable.
Director Anatole Litvak throws in a number of artistic techniques that give the film a bit of a surreal, over-the-top mood. The “double exposure” technique (previously discussed in my review of Personal Affair) is used on a number of occasions.
Somehow, walking the tightrope works for this film. The unusual techniques only add to the sense of drama and chaos, while the actors keep the film grounded in reality.
Possibly the greatest thing about this film is Elia Kazan, who delivers a fantastic and scene-stealing performance as eager band member Nickie. He’s most well known as the director of such phenomenal films as On the Waterfront (1954), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and East of Eden (1955). He only has six acting credits to his name. But Blues in the Night makes it very clear that Kazan was not only a pretty darn amazing director, but had his share of acting chops as well.
The one thing that really threw me in this film was Priscilla Lane’s voice. She’s not bad. Her voice is pleasant… but very average. At one point in the film the band has to temporarily replace her as the singer, and they act as though it’s a catastrophe – as though they’ll never find another singer as great as her. This is a problem because when the viewer has already decided that a more striking voice could have been chosen for the band, it becomes hard for them to connect with the band’s dilemma.
Blues in the Night was nominated for a Best Music Oscar for it’s title song, and rightfully so. There are many great songs in this film, and some of the performances alone make it worth watching. The title song is particularly striking when sung by William Gillespie in jail. Even if I hated this film (which I didn’t, as you can tell by my rating) I would watch it again just for that performance.