Archive for Blues in the Night

Jazz Paroxysm

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2020 by dcairns

BLUES IN THE NIGHT feels to me like one of the fastest films ever made, not only for the typical rat-a-tat of Warner Bros dialogue, aided by a large cast (a jazz band and various associates) but because of the hopped-up dynamism of Litvak’s camerawork and cutting, and Don Siegel’s furious, hallucinogenic montages (Vorkapich on steroids). Half jazz musical, half noir, it’s not well-known because the stars are Richard Whorf and Priscilla Lane and Jack Carson and Betty Field and Lloyd Nolan and Wallace Ford. Personally, I never knew Elia Kazan had a brief career as a Warner character player. All of them are terrific, but none is a headliner.

Though much less generic than Litvak’s CITY FOR CONQUEST, on which screenwriter Robert Rossen also worked, this one shares its surprising downbeat tendencies — the characters are all bound for fame and fortune but don’t get there, and in this film never even smell the big time. Plus crime and scheming and madness get in the way — just as the band have walked from the cattle-car they rode in on towards the latest dive venue, singing brightly together — the closest we get to full-on musical cinema fantasy — the exterior set is suitably unconvincing — things suddenly take a turn for the horrible. Field, the trampy girl from OF MICE AND MEN, who always seems to be angling for a strangling in a barn, hangs around in a barn A LOT. Lloyd Nolan plays a vicious heister who’s all the more alarming because he likes our innocent musicians. Like Kirk Douglas, so terrifying in OUT OF THE PAST, he’s PLEASANT. Wally Ford is a boozy gambling addict with a gimpy leg, and Howard da Silva is just Howard da Silva, with the face of a suspicious egg, polishing glasses and glowering with ball-bearing eyes.

Amazing stuff — a jazz riot provoked when Frank McHugh’s uglier brother pugnaciously requests “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” (good thing Sam Fuller never met this band) — jazz jail (Jazzcatraz?) where we glimpse some actual black people, so at least the movie acknowledges where the music comes from — and TWO jazz nightmares as Field tries to become a chanteuse — Susan Alexander Kane histrionics and Dali-meets-Busby-Berkeley optics — and then Whorf (a successful art director who decided to branch out — really rather good in this!) suffers a mental breakdown and things get fully Freddy Krugerish. The dollarbook surrealism of the imagery is slashed to bloody shreds by Don Siegel’s aggressive cutting (were his films as director so beautifully stark because he’d gotten all the flamboyance out of his system sweating over the Warners optical printer?)

At his lowest ebb, or on his way to it, Whorf finds himself in a candy-ass monkey suit tickling ivories with “Guy Heiser and his band,” a really vicious parody of Kay Kyser’s novelty act. I don’t know where they found the girl singer but Wally Ford may have drawn on some of his FREAKS connections…

Lowered expectations — CITY and BLUES both beat up their characters to such an extent that circumstances they’d have seen as tragic at the films’ outset come to seem like ecstatic happy endings after the pounding they’ve had. When its relentless pace and careening tonal shifts finally screeched to an end title, we were relieved too, and elated.

Melodrama at lightspeed.

BLUES IN THE NIGHT stars Jean Sherman; Mae Jackson; Sam Harris; Michael Shayne; Gooper; Phroso; ‘Googi’; Mert Fleagle / Bert Fleagle; Soapy; Dixie Belle Lee; Dad Fitchitt; Hamilton Burger; Butts McGee; ‘Hot Garters’ Gardner; Ham; Prof. Lesley Joyce; Irana Preveza; James Kirkham; and Sgt. Dickens.

The Pan

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 31, 2020 by dcairns

Don Siegel is one of the best sources for Anatole Litvak stories in his memoir, A Siegel Film.

There’s quite a lot about Siegel’s montages for BLUES IN THE NIGHT, which a big part of that film. In one yarn, both Litvak (producer as well as director) and Hal Wallis (production supervisor) expect to see the montages first. Siegel is simply going to project the rushes for both men, but he’s advised if he does that, one of them will feel compelled to nitpick and his beautiful work will be undone. So he books two screening rooms, prints two prints, and Wallis and Litvak happily watch separately, giving the montages the OK. Now read on:

Later, when Litvak was dubbing the picture, he told me that he was
worried about the title song, ‘Blues in the Night’.

ME: I wouldn’t worry about that. It’s the best blues I’ve ever heard. If I
were you, I’d worry about your picture, which is five per cent as
good as the song . . .
LITVAK: (Annoyed) You think you’re pretty good, don’t you Don?
ME: (Fresh as usual) You said some pretty nice things about the
LITVAK: True, but when you dolly into the poster you could have had
someone walk past the poster. And you should have started on
that person and ended on the poster. You must always have a
reason for your camera movement, be it a dolly or a pan.
And you know something, he was right. He taught me a lesson I used for
the rest of my life.

I’m not always certain how truthful Siegel’s stories are. His recounting of the circumstances in which Barbara Steele departed the production of FLAMING STAR disagrees with hers’, and while Barbara might equally well be distorting the facts, her version MAKES SENSE, portrays both of them IN CHARACTER, and of the two of them, he seems to be the one who might have motivation to rearrange the facts to make himself look better.

But the above anecdote rings true, partly because it describes just the kind of shot Litvak is always doing. For instance, CITY FOR CONQUEST begins with a train coming towards us — it passes — and the camera is led, in apparently panning after it, onto a sign that serves as establishing shot:

ACT OF LOVE pulls off a more elaborate variation. We start on a passing train, seen from above. That pulls the camera round in a leftward pan to a road, at eye level, along which a bus advances. Now the lens is gravitationally tugged into another leftward pan by the bus, and we land on a piece of expressive graffiti which serves as a different kind of establishing shot, a sociopolitical one:

It’s close to a 360 pan, but operating on two levels, down at the railway track and up at the road.

This example is arguably a little fancy, but Litvak’s lesson is a good one! You can use people and other moving objects such as vehicles to motivate the camera moves you want to do anyway.