Blues in the Night (1941)

US / 88 minutes / bw / Warner–First National Dir: Anatole Litvak Scr: Robert Rossen, Elia Kazan (uncredited) Story: Hot Nocturne (unproduced play) by Edwin Gilbert Cine: Ernie Haller Cast: Priscilla Lane, Betty Field, Richard Whorf, Lloyd Nolan, Jack Carson, Wally Ford, Elia Kazan, Peter Whitney, Billy Halop, Howard Da Silva, Joyce Compton, Herbert Heywood, George Lloyd, Charles Wilson, Matt McHugh, William Gillespie, Jimmie Lunceford and His Band, Will Osborne and His Band, Mabel Todd, Ernest Whitman, Napoleon Simpson, Dudley Dickerson.

Blues in the Night - 0 Ernest Whitman & Napoleon Simpson

Ernest Whitman and Napoleon Simpson.

Brilliant jazz pianist Jigger Pine (Whorf) and drummer Peppi (Halop) are rocking the joint at the St. Louis Cafe, egged on by their clarinetist fan and would-be band member Nickie Haroyan (Kazan). Jigger gets into a fight with an obstreperous drunk (McHugh) and the trio end up in a cell for a few hours while Nickie’s mom arranges bail. There they meet Jigger’s old bassist pal Pete Bossett (Whitney) and Jigger spells out his vision to the other three:

“You think I never thought about starting a band before? I thought about it lots of times. I’m always thinking about it. But it’s got to be our kind of music. Our kind of band. The songs we’ve heard when we’ve been knocking around this country. Blues, real blues, the kind that come out of people, real people, their hopes and their dreams, what they’ve got and what they want, the whole USA in one chorus. . . . And that band ain’t just kinda blowin’ and poundin’ and scrapin’. That’s five guys, no more, who feel, play, live, even think the same way. That ain’t a band, it’s a unit. It’s one guy multiplied five times. It’s a unit that even breathes on the same beat. It’s gonna kick on its own in a style that’s theirs and nobody else’s. It’s like a hand in a glove, five fingers, each to fit quick and slick.”

Blues in the Night - 1 Nickie calls Mom to bail them out

Nickie (Elia Kazan) calls Mom to bail out him and his pals (Whorf and Halop).

And there are quirks in the reification of this dream, at least as portrayed in this movie. The four in that jail cell form Jigger’s “unit” all right—adding trumpeter Leo Powell (Carson) and his wife, singer Ginger “Character” Powell (Lane), along the way—but almost nothing of what they play is the blues; rather, it’s jazz of various kinds, some resembling a sort of proto-rock’n’roll. The only two bluesy pieces are a short piano solo Jigger plays after a row with the woman he comes to love (see below) and the movie’s title song, “Blues in the Night” (music Harold Arlen, words Johnny Mercer, as for all the other songs on the soundtrack). This latter, the biggest hit to come out of the movie (and accorded an Oscar nomination) is sung by an unnamed black prisoner (Gillespie) with three of his cellmates (Whitman, Simpson, Dickerson), also black, accompanying him a cappella.

Which leads to another odd thing about this movie’s pretensions to the blues. Exactly zero of the movie’s black cast are given a screen credit. Even Joyce Compton, who plays a taxi dancer who’s dragged along in the obstreperous drunk’s wake and who has about as small a part in a movie as one can have before not being in it all (what a waste of Joyce Compton’s talent!), gets a screen credit, being white. This lack of credit was disastrous for Gillespie’s career: it had been thought he could use this appearance as a springboard to greater things, but any audience member peering at the closing credits to find out who the great singer was would peer in vain. The first of several hit recordings of the song came from Woody Herman; the list of hits doesn’t include a version by Gillespie.

But back to the plot.

The quartet tours around, playing their music where they can, eventually finding themselves in New Orleans, which is where they find Character and Leo. There’s bad blood between Pete and Leo over some money Pete lent the trumpeter. Despite Pete’s warnings, Leo cons a few bucks out of Jigger—his last few bucks—to get his trumpet out of hock. (It’s a repeated theme in the movie that, whenever someone wholly unreliable approaches Jigger for money, he has full confidence in them, hands over the dough, and never gets it back.) Leo plans to run out on the debt, but he and Character end up as part of the “unit.”

Gigs are received rapturously but there’s never much money involved. The six are journeying by freight-train boxcar when they help another “passenger” aboard. They assume he’s a bum and share their food and drink with him. In fact, he’s escaped con Del Davis (Nolan), and he sticks them up for what little cash they’ve got.

Blues in the Night - 2 Del hols up our heroes

Del (Lloyd Nolan) holss up our heroes aboard the boxcar.

It’s from the moment of Del’s appearance onward that Blues in the Night shows its real film noir chops. (As Tony D’Ambra has pointed out, the movie was released at about the same time as The MALTESE FALCON [1941], often cited as the progenitor of the genre.) Apparently the original casting choice for Del was James Cagney, but it’s a blessing that, for whatever reason, Nolan got the nod instead. The whole dynamic of the movie would have changed had Cagney played the part: Del would have become the focus, with the band reduced to secondary status. For the movie to function properly (which it certainly does, despite the cavils noted above), the prime focus has to be on the band, the “unit.” This Nolan manages to effect while at the same time delivering a quite hair-raising turn as the charming sociopath.

Having robbed them, Del decides he likes them. He gives them the address of a roadhouse he knows (and, he implies, owns) where they’ll be able to get a residency. In due course they find the joimt, The Jungle, a dilapidated dump run by the sullen Sam Paryas (Da Silva), assisted by the crippled pianist Brad Ames (Ford) and the spitfire chanteuse Kay Grant (Field). Sam’s just about to throw our heroes out on their collective ear when Del arrives. It emerges that the reason Del was in jail was that Sam and Kay sold him out after the last (unspecified) job the trio did. Now he’s back and he’s taking over The Jungle.

Blues in the Night - 3 first sight of the Jungle isn't prepossessing

The “unit’s” first sight of The Jungle isn’t prepossessing. Left to right: Leo (Jack Carso), Nickie (Elia Kazan), Pete (Peter Whitney), Peppi (Billy Halop), Character (Priscilla Lane), Jigger (Richard Whorf).

Blues in the Night - 4 Sam

The unwelcoming Sam (Howard Da Silva).

But not, it seems, Kay, despite the fact that, after initially screaming at him that he should go get lost, she admits she still carries a torch for him. She therefore decides to try to lure him back through taunting him by bestowing her favors very flagrantly on another. The lucky (?) recipient is the reprobate Leo, who, despite being married to Character, merrily betrays her—and humiliates her by making very little effort to cover the betrayal up. The other band-members want to kick the scumbag out, but Jigger’s concerned with the integrity of the “unit” and Character doesn’t want to lose her husband—especially since she’s discovered she’s carrying his child. It’s this bombshell—plus a punch on the jaw from Pete—that finally gets Leo back onto the straight and narrow, and henceforward he’s an exemplary husband.

Blues in the Night - 5 Kay is less than pleased at Del's return

Kay (Betty Field) is less than pleased at the of return of Del (Lloyd Nolan).

The physician consulted, Dr. Morse (uncredited), tells Character that she must give up work within a few weeks. Jigger believes he can groom Kay to take over as frontwoman for the band for the duration of the pregnancy, but the sole product of the endless rehearsals through which he puts her is that he falls for her hook, line and sinker. Obviously he pays no heed when Brad, who’s infatuated with her, tells him she’s poison.

When she demands he go solo and aim for the big time, Jigger does exactly as he’s told: he deserts the band and sells out completely. The next time we see him he’s wearing a silver suit and performing pap in a snazzy NYC venue with Guy Heiser’s Band (in reality Will Osborne and His Band, with Mabel Todd as vocalist). Here again we find a disturbing discontinuity between Jigger’s stated aims for the “unit” and what they’ve actually been playing: some (far from all) of their music is sufficiently middle-of-the-road that it wouldn’t sound amiss at a Guy Heiser’s Band gig.

Blues in the Night - 7 Jigger in sold-out mode

Jigger (Richard Whorf) really has sold-out.

Blues in the Night - 6 Brad knows Kay's leaving

Brad (Wally Ford) faces the fact that Kay’s finally leaving.

That night Kay tells him she’s dumping him, that she’s never loved him, he’s a sap, the only man she has the hots for is Del, and so on. Betty Field here, as throughout the movie, gives us a brilliant rendition of the venomous femme fatale, transitioning instantly and seemingly effortlessly between sexy siren (and there’s no denying that her sexuality fairly smokes from the screen) and repellent monster. Although she continued working until the late 1960s, her career as a theatrical star was in grave decline by the end of the 1940s. In Blues in the Night she offers a marvelous counterpoint to Lane’s performance as the lovely and talented but decidedly wholesome Character.

Blues in the Night - 9 Jigger goes downhill in NYC

Blues in the Night - 10 companion piece to pic 9

Jigger (Richard Whorf) goes downhill in NYC.

After his moment of truth with Kay, Jigger goes on a protracted bender. By the time the rest of the “unit” finds him, he’s begging for drinks in bars. He discovers he can’t remember even the basics of the music he used to play, then collapses. After three months in the hospital being treated for a “neuropsychiatric disorder” he’s back to his old self again—perhaps even better, to judge by the virtuoso piano performance we witness. But then Kay, destitute once more, comes back to The Jungle in search of Jigger or preferably Del . . .

Blues in the Night - 8 SEE TEXT

Kay (Betty Field, right) abusively derides Character (Priscilla Lane) as she and the rest of the “unit” try to rescue Jigger from his new life.

By now we’ve realized quite how ruthless Del is. The Jungle has long been transformed into a roaring success, thanks to the band’s performances downstairs and the (presumably illicit) gambling that’s going on upstairs. Before her departure with Jigger, Kay told Del—truthfully—that Sam had several times suggested to her that the joint could so easily revert to the two of them: all it would take would be a single phonecall to the cops informing them of Del’s status as an escaped con. The gangster’s response was to go with a couple of his heavies and take Sam off for a “drive in the country” from which he never returns. Kay is too self-centered to realize that, after Sam’s demise, she too remains a threat to Del.

Blues in the Night - 13 Jigger and Del fight, with Kay in bg

Jigger (Richard Worf) and Del (Lloyd Nolan) duke it out, as Kay (Betty Field) watches.

The movie originated when Kazan bought an option on Gilbert’s unproduced play (see credits above) with the intention of adapting it to make a Broadway musical of it. That never happened, and instead the project ended up at Warner. Kazan is later reported to have remarked that he thought, based on his experiences in this movie, that Litvak was a crap director. Perhaps this was the spur for Kazan himself to become a director (this was his last acting gig aside from a couple of much later bit parts), but even so it’s an odd remark, because Litvak was by no means a crap director and some of his work in Blues in the Night is quite brilliant.

Blues in the Night - 14 Kay shoots to kill

Kay (Betty Field) shoots to kill.

Two of the movie’s outstanding sequences are dream ones: first there’s a relatively short nightmare Kay has when Jigger has been driving her relentlessly in song rehearsals (she sees a tiny version of herself dancing along a giant keyboard and eventually falling through it), and then later there’s the more protracted fevre dream that Jigger experiences in the hospital, a sequence of which Hitchcock might have been proud. Another very pretty effect occurs after Del has robbed the “unit” aboard the freight train. The shadows of the boxcar’s barred windows fall across Del as he moves around, telling us precisely where he should really be.

Blues in the Night - 11 Kay's nightmare during rehearsal

Kay (Betty Field) suffers a nightmare during those interminable rehearsals.

Blues in the Night - 12 Jigger's fevre dream in hospital

The fevre dreams Jigger (Richard Whorf) undergoes in the hospital include clashing visions of Character (Priscilla Lane) and Kay (Betty Field).

There are some curious features of the movie. One is that the “unit” never seems to acquire itself a name. What did The Jungle put on its posters and in its ads? Another is that arguably the movie’s two best numbers aren’t done by the unit at all: an unnamed prisoner (William Gillespie, as we saw) sings “Blues in the Night” while Kay Grant (dubbed by Trudy Erwin) renders “Wait till it Happens to You” with, supposedly, Wally Ford providing piano accompaniment.

As you’ll gather, I’m kicking myself that Blues in the Night didn’t make its way into my A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir, but I’m hardly unique in the error. The movie tends to be listed as a musical, which was also how it was treated (none too favorably) on its release. And, in a sense, it is a musical, in that we see lots of musical performances, but it’s a film noir more than in it’s anything else, and a fully formed one at that. We have criminals, a sap or two, a memorable femme fatale, amnesia, hallucinatory sequences, violent deaths . . . and, although our heroes do find a happy ending of sorts, in the eyes of the world they’d be seen as losers, as consignees to the abyss of nonentity.

Blues in the Night - closer


On Blues in the Night



14 thoughts on “Blues in the Night (1941)

  1. Also, Kazan not notable for measured judgment. I’m most familiar with the Glenn Miller Orch. record of the title tune…there was a rather odd tendency to misuse terms such as blues, jazz and rag/ragtime in that era that persisted at least through E.L. Doctorow’s great success as novelist…

  2. I have to confess I’m not a great Kazan fan . . . and I say this as someone who (many years ago) even plowed through one of his godawful novels.

    That’s interesting about the confusion of “terms such as blues, jazz and rag/ragtime in that era”; I hadn’t been aware of it. Does it tie in, do you know, with the platitude that the blues were rediscovered by white Brits?

    • After they were Discovered by white folkies in the 1950s, who turned away for the most part from the Chicago and southeastern (B. B. King) electric blues folks, whose work was developing alongside country music and gospel at midcentury, in favor of celebrating the acoustic and seemingly more rustic blues performers they could bring forward, such as Mississippi John Hurt and Elizabeth Cotten…much as they preferred bluegrass and “old-time” country music performers (such as Doc Watson and his older colleagues) over electric country…while the country, blues, gospel, and rhythm and blues “moderns” were spinning off the western swing, rockabilly, rock and roll and soul music that would have its brief vogue (koff), along with the young art students Over There eventually doing their best to emulate Muddy Waters and Elmore James…when not simply Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins like more of the kids over here…it was less (I suspect) racism than simply ignorance (two sides of the same coin) that had at least one notable dictionary defining rock and roll as “two beat jazz” as late as the latter ’60s…though it was certainly racism that had segregated sales charts and radio programming…but one of the advantages of radio in the States was that you couldn’t keep the kids and others from tuning into any station they could find, including those Not Meant for them.

  3. So glad you featured this film. Sounds like this compelling story has a lot of atmosphere. It doesn’t look like it’s available on YouTube, but I will search for it online.

    This is a really interesting post, all of it, including the music discussion in the comments. I was sad to read that the black actors did not have screen credits. So unfair!

  4. Many thanks for dropping by! I do hope you have success in tracking the movie down. It’s certainly a movie that doesn’t deserve to be so obscure.

    I was sad to read that the black actors did not have screen credits.

    Even though it wasn’t uncommon for this to happen in Hollywood at the time, it seems positively bizarre in the context of this movie.

  5. Fantastic review John – unquestionably one of your best! – of a film I’ve seen and have the highest praise for. I too discovered it through our excellent mutual friend Tony d’Ambra. Roosen and Kazan’s script, Haller’s photography and those two dream sequences you [point out are all superlative. It is of course outrageous that the African-American actors didn’t receive screen credit, but hardly surprising all things considered. Yes Kazan was way off base calling Litvak a crap director. A little MAYERLING, CITY FOR CONQUEST or THE SNAKE PIT anyone? In case case of the best films where music is the subject. Great work John!

    • Many thanks for dropping by, Sam, and for the kind words. I’m amused that it’s Tony to whom we must both be grateful! That aside, it’s astonishing that such a fine movie should have sunk into such obscurity.

  6. Pingback: Stolen Identity (1953) | Noirish

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