Blues in the Night Review

I don't think I've ever seen a picture like Blues in the Night, and that's why I love it. I immediately fell for the film on a first viewing last November on the Turner Classic Movies channel. Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, was guest programmer for the night and just went on and on about how odd, strange, and fascinating Anatole Litvak's 1941 musical-noir hybrid was. Right around when star and future director Richard Whorf, playing a character named, I kid you not, Jigger Pine, absolutely laid into a drunk not once, but twice for obnoxiously demanding Jigger's jazz group play "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," I was hooked. The blows are ferocious. Good enough to rewind and watch again. Jigger's frenetic piano playing gets interrupted against his will and he'll simply not allow any artistic compromise, even if it's from a guy who's had too much to drink at a little dive in St. Louis.

Blues in the Night is really, really great. To my knowledge, it's a one of a kind melding of film noir and rapid fire musical. You simply can't escape the presence of either. The shadows and darkness of Ernest Haller's cinematography and Robert Rossen's screenplay combine with a selection of itchy musical numbers, none better or more well known than the title track. We first hear it in a prison after Jigger and his buddies Peppi (Billy Halop) and Nickie (Elia Kazan) have been brought in for that opening melee. The cell across from theirs just happens to be filled with several melodious black men who belt out "Blues in the Night" to memorable effect. A montage, the first of several in the film, all done by Don Siegel, follows, and despite some slightly racist imagery like watermelons hoisted by black workers, it perfectly maintains the breathless pace Litvak has already mastered from scene one.

The film tends to move like this throughout, bullet pointing its way across city, state, and plot point. It's quite the ride, only getting a little bogged down in the midsection. Without wanting to give too much away (though the plot should be the last reason to watch this thing), Jigger and his merry men, after meeting up with trumpeter Leo (Jack Carson) and his wife, a singer named Character (Priscilla Lane), hop trains to gigs and encounter bad guy Del Davis (Lloyd Nolan). He robs them of the few bucks they've made before sort of befriending the band and telling them about a place in New Jersey they can play. They land at "The Jungle" and eventually things get sorted out for a residence, but not before some tension and the introduction of Betty Field as songstress Kay. Jigger will fall for her and leave the band, only to have his sanity tested in a harrowing Siegel montage that burrows its way into your memory. If Dali saw the film, he was no doubt secretly envious.

Siegel's montages really add something largely unseen in films of this era. There's a nightmarish quality, especially in the final one, to these images. The impossibly fast pace the film operates on becomes like a David Lynch film in those sequences. It's simultaneously terrifying and intriguing. The comfort of the bluesy jazz numbers strikes an odd balance with the disorientation found within the noir portions. This is a decidedly difficult combination to achieve, yet here we have just such a film in perfect harmony with two unabashedly different filmic modes. The jazz fits just fine with noir, as witnessed by later films of the 1950s that employ that type of music to great effect, but Blues in the Night still thinks it's a musical for much of the picture. Happy-go-lucky jam sessions glisten on trains, in abandoned clubs, and inside barns. It's clearly about the music, man. These cats simply want to play their instruments and make enough to live on in the process.

Here's where Blues in the Night turns subversive. The film was adapted from a play by Edwin Gilbert, the rights to which had been purchased by Elia Kazan. Kazan would, of course, move on to a fruitful directing career, marred by his involvement in naming names to HUAC, but nonetheless highlighted by On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, and my personal favourite, A Face in the Crowd. This was his final time in front of the camera, supposedly deciding that he could direct better than Anatole Litvak, who he'd previously acted for in the James Cagney vehicle City for Conquest. Though Kazan's performance is fine here, he wasn't blessed with movie star looks and he's basically playing a well-trained lapdog. The future director had actually purchased the rights to the play, called Hot Nocturne prior to it becoming a movie, done a little uncredited writing, and sold it off, presumably to Warner Bros. Keeping in mind Kazan's political views and his roots in the Group Theatre, there's clearly a connection between that interest and the film's most basic ideas.

Whorf's Jigger is a musician through and through, to a fault. His only ambition is music and being able to play the kind he likes - the blues, as he characterises it. Money doesn't interest him and he thinks nothing of lending a few bucks to strangers. In this, we have a battle between art and commerce and a strong aversion to compromise. Further on in the film, Jigger finds himself involved with an annoying musical act which the film basically pokes fun at, thus spitting in the face of the vast array of traditional musicals emerging out of Hollywood at the time. He's obviously miserable, having disobeyed his own credo of taking what he likes to play extremely seriously and on an all or nothing contingent. The decision is made to quit that racket and return to what he loves. Is it reading into the film too much to ascertain a light socialist angle here? I hope not, because that's where my head was frequently. Screenwriter and future director Rossen (All the King's Men, The Hustler) would also face HUAC's wrath, succumbing to the committee's public torture sessions after being blacklisted. It just seems apparent that the fierce adherence to creative doctrine practiced by Jigger was completely intentional. Throughout the film, he's shown as a rigid proponent of not selling out, not compromising his ideals. Granted, this was 1941, just before the U.S. entered World War II, but politics are politics and these seem more than obvious if you know what you're looking for amid the rubble.

So is this a leftist fantasy? Perhaps, but that doesn't negate its appeal to the vast majority of viewers uninterested in attaching politics to film. The songs are certainly the immediate aspect for easy latching onto. The title number was nominated for an Academy Award, where Johnny Mercer's lyrics and Harold Arlen's music lost to the song "The Last Time I Saw Paris" from the now-forgotten Lady Be Good. The remaining cuts are never less than fun, with the exception of that hopefully satirical straight musical tripe when Jigger briefly sells his soul. The sheer speed these songs are played with is enough to leave the viewer slackjawed. At times, the entire film feels like it's on amphetamines, with breakneck camera moves and editing that jumps with abandon early on. And that's hardly a dig. The dialogue is delivered so unbelievably fast in these scenes that you'd think the actors wandered over from Columbia's His Girl Friday set. Pauses? What pauses?

Eventually, though, we enter film noir territory and how. The opening slugs do fit nicely within the style, but by far the most obvious dips are found in the final climax. Rain pouring from the sky, artificially of course, and the darkness of studio shadows ominously laying the backdrop, we get murder, cover-up, and some form of Code-enforced justice. The vein of noir has been opened wide. Jigger's entire storyline fits nicely within the dark mold, complete with a beautifully nasty femme fatale. In its own unique way, the film has been leading up to this point throughout the nearly ninety minute running time. Simply having a straight musical, even at a clip of fast forward, wouldn't cut it. Something substantial has to happen and it has to happen to the characters involved in the final part of the last act. The ending goes a little sunny, reminding us that musicals are supposed to be happy affairs, but the consistency of artistic integrity and faithfulness is maintained. Blues in the Night is closer to film noir than much of what gets labeled as such nowadays, but it's just as equally a musical anchored by snappy jazz numbers. The convergence is beautiful to see unfold - a minor classic in need of more recognition.

The Disc

Warner Bros. releases Blues in the Night to R1 DVD on a dual-layered disc, though one not even close to being filled to capacity. The original 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio is adhered to and the film has been progressively transferred. Some light scratches are most noticeable early on, with mild grain and speckles present as well. It's otherwise quite clean and without any major damage in the image. Contrast and detail are both adequate, and probably above average for a film of this age (1941). I especially liked how the shadowy blacks look in the final, rain-soaked climax. For a movie of very modest popularity and released somewhat under the radar here on DVD, this looks more than satisfactory for my taste.

Audio is vital to this film, as the songs play a major part in the viewer's enjoyment. Even though only an English Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is offered, it allows the music and dialogue to come through clearly and without incident. It's impossible to forget you're hearing the limitations of mono, but this is a comparatively excellent effort and possibly a little better than I anticipated. Volume is maybe on the low side, though the levels are consistent throughout the film. Nothing in terms of hissing or pops was audible. There are also subtitles in French and English for the hearing impaired. They're white in colour and available both for the songs and the dialogue.

A pair of musical shorts and three Porky Pig cartoons, each of which are available elsewhere, highlight the seemingly thin, but welcome bonus material. Both "Jammin' the Blues" (10:16) and "Melody Master: Jimmie Lunceford and His Dance Orchestra" (10:13) have appeared on previous Warner Bros. DVD releases. However, the latter truly does belong here because Lunceford and his band make cameo appearances in Blues in the Night. "Jammin' the Blues" has a less direct connection, though it too nonetheless feels right at home. The mesmerising, Oscar-nominated short made by Gjon Mili and with technical direction from Norman Granz can also be found on the DVD for Passage to Marseille, a 1944 war film exclusive to the Humphrey Bogart Signature Collection Vol. 2. Another R1 release, entitled Improvisation, contains the short alongside several jazz-related odds and ends, but "Jammin' the Blues" looks glaringly inferior in terms of video quality. Thus, another go for Mili's ten-minute miracle, this time available without buying an entire set of completely unrelated films and with excellent, progressively transferred image and sound to boot, is most appreciated indeed. It's an essential watch for jazz fans and once seen, the short film is almost impossible to forget.

The trio of animated shorts, all in colour and featuring Porky Pig, may be a little less exciting in comparison. Both "Kitty Kornered" (7:05) and "Swooner Crooner" (7:20) have already been issued in Looney Tunes Golden Collections, volumes two and three, respectively. In the former, supervised by Robert Clampett, Porky must deal with Sylvester and his three other cats through, among other things, a Martian invasion. The song "Blues in the Night" is briefly heard. The latter cartoon was directed by Frank Tashlin and finds farmer Porky trying to keep his chickens laying eggs despite a Frank Sinatra-like rooster distracting them. His solution is to audition other soundalike crooners, including fowl versions of Al Jolson, Jimmy Durante, Cab Calloway, and, finally, Bing Crosby. The quality on both of those is exceptional, though they are interlaced, as is "My Favorite Duck" (7:37), which is the Turner dubbed version and hasn't been restored like the other two. In it, Porky battles Daffy Duck in the woods. Daffy is fond of belting out "Blues in the Night" several times in the short. The Chuck Jones cartoon can also be seen in its entirety in the fourth volume of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection, within the Orson Welles-narrated feature film Bugs Bunny Superstar.

Finally, a short audio outtake of the song "Blues in the Night" (1:51) and the film's theatrical trailer (2:53) finish up the bonus features.

Final Thoughts

There's an artificiality to Blues in the Night that may turn off some viewers. It's a film not based in reality, crammed full of weird touches, and never certain where it's going. Yet, for those very reasons, it emerges as highly entertaining. Film noir and jazz would become intertwined in the 1950s, but not like we see here and not with the focus so evenly split on each. Fans of either should absolutely seek this film out. The R1 DVD quietly delivered by Warner Bros. will more than suffice, and the inclusion of the quintessential jazz short "Jammin' the Blues" only sweetens the release.

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Last updated: 01/05/2018 21:15:22

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