Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Noir in the Night

Due to the way the dice fell, we wound up with a noir double-bill and a musical noir chaser.

Crime Wave/Decoy (1946) are the one-disc double-bill. Crime Wave, directed by Andre De Toth, is pretty standard cops and robbers stuff. Reformed ex-con Gene Nelson just wants to live quietly with his wife Phyllis Kirk (House of Wax). But a wounded prison escapee (Nedrick Young) wants to hole up with them. Meanwhile, head cop Sterling Hayden is closing in. There are a few scenes that are so classic, you might wonder if De Toth is parodying them. Like when the cops are trying to figure out who the escapee might stay with. Sterling Hayden knows the score on all of them: "What about...?" "Naw, he's up in Sing Sing." "Well, then, ..." "Retired, moved to Florida." "Well, maybe ..." "Don't you keep up on the news? He died last week."

But other than the general awesomeness of Hayden, this isn't anything special. De Toth knocked it out in 13 days, so I guess it was no big deal.

Decoy is a bit different. It wasn't available for a long time and got a kind of cult status. It was written by Nedrick Young (see above) and directed by first-timer Jack Bernhard, but the big draw is Jean Gillie.

The movie starts with Gillie being shot, and flashes back from there. A bank robber on death row won't tell anyone where the money is, not even his moll, Gillie. So she comes up with a plan to revive him after his trip to the gas chamber, and she just needs to convince the prison doctor (Herbert Rudley) to go along. Although he has a gorgeous platinum blonde nurse, Gillie just bowls him over.

The detective on their trail is Jo Jo Portugal - a great name for Sheldon Leonard ("Out you pixies go, t'rough the door or t'rough the winder"). In the final scenes, a dying Gillie asks him to come closer, "Come down to my level for once" and you (and he) expect a confession, or even a kiss. But she laughs in his face, a beautiful, wild, evil laugh, and then expires on the spot! So good. She was a great femme fatale who only made a few movies, then died young.

If you get this disc, feel free to skip Crime Wave.

Blues in the Night (1941) isn't really a noir, even though there's a murder. It's about a little quintet that wants to play the blues, you know, the real stuff. On piano, their leader, is Richard Whorf, looking kind of like Tyrone Power. Elia Kazan is on drums (not directing), with Billy Halop on clarinet. Big Jack Carson is on trumpet and his wife, a character names "Character" (Priscilla Lane) sings. They ride the rails from gig to gig, barely making enough to eat. But when gangster Lloyd Nolan hops in their car and steals their last $5, they don't turn him in, but offer him a sandwich.

That leads him to offer them a job at his New Jersey roadhouse, the Jungle, just across the river from New York. This leads to hard times, woman trouble, and the aforementioned murder. It's a lurid tale of musician's life on the road. The band members aren't very likable (except Character, she's a honey), there isn't as much music as you'd expect, and the kind of boogie-woogie they call the blues is not as hot as it's cracked up to be.

But there's something fresh about the trials of a working band, trying to make the best music they can and a little money if they can. The tone is dark, although there are good times, but overall, there's at least a touch of the noir aesthetic (or was it just made cheaply?).

However, they appear to take the title song seriously - they learn it from some old Negroes in jail. I always thought it was tongue in cheek. Maybe because I first heard it sung by Daffy Duck.

Update: I forgot about the "montages" - Blues in the Night had one or two hallucinatory dream sequences, with the credit "Montages: Don Siegel" - who later directed everything from The Big Steal and Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Dirty Harry.

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