(1941)3Craig ButlerBlues in the Night is not the greatest musical film in the world, but it's a good one and, more than that, an interesting one for musical fans to study. For that matter, film noir aficionados should give it a look as well, for it edges into that territory as well. Certainly Ernest Haller's evocative, moody, stark cinematography is tailormade for noir, and the underworld connection and the man in the clutches of a no-good-for-him femme fatale would also be right at home in an existential detective flick. Unfortunately, Blues doesn't go far enough in that direction, and much of its screenplay therefore comes across as trite and unconvincing melodrama. To make up for that, however, we have some marvelous musical sequences. They're not the big production number type typically associated with musicals of the period, being typically band-with-or-without-singer segments. But the songs themselves are so good, and they're captured so well by Haller and director Anatole Litvak, that they don't need a lot of fancy trappings. The title song, of course, is one of the most remarkable popular songs ever created (even if the full version is not presented in the film). Complexly structured (by Harold Arlen), yet with an opening phrase that strikes so hard that listeners don't seem to care about its structure and blessed with a Johnny Mercer lyric that is sheer poetry, it's a landmark. But Arlen and Mercer have also given the film the incredibly beautiful and wistful "This Time the Dream's On Me," which in any other film would have been the undeniable highlight, as well as the simply delightful "Hang On To Your Lids, Kids" and "Says Who? Says You, Says I." Blues is also worth a look because of its unusual cast. Elia Kazan and Richard Whorf are good, if nothing special, but it's fun watching these future directors plying the acting trade. The rest of the cast includes such second-string luminaries as Lloyd Nolan, Jack Carson, Howard Da Silva, Priscilla Lane and Betty Field, and they turn in strong performances. Blues is certainly flawed, but it's also an interesting, uneven film.
The big-band mystique of the 1940s was explored by Blues in the Night. Future directors Richard Whorf and Elia Kazan star as, respectively, a neurotic band-leader and a carefree clarinettist. Their jazz band travels from one small-time gig to another, always hoping for their big break but always denied fame thanks to their own personal demons. Priscilla Lane and Betty Field portray (again respectively) the good and bad girls in the musicians' lives. While we're never treated to a full rendition of the title song, Blues in the Night scores with its melodramatic set pieces, including a gutsy climactic murder/suicide sequence involving Betty Field and escaped convict Lloyd Nolan.