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Director and film historian Paul Schrader commented that in “most every dramatic Hollywood film from 1941 to 1953,” as Americans grew less romantic as a society and more disillusioned in the wake of the Depression, World War II, and other historical events, “lighting grew darker, characters more corrupt, themes more fatalistic, and the tone more hopeless . . . Never before had films dared to take such a harsh uncompromising look at American life.”1 Thus, as film noir emerged during World War II, a series of distinctive crime films featured jazz music and cabaret-style performances in dark, smoky nightclubs. These “film noir musicals” seem to defy classification insofar as they challenge the conventional strictures of film noir and musicals, becoming instead a hybrid form that draws from both genres. Warner Bros.’ 1941 Blues in the Night produced by Hal Wallis and Henry Blanke and directed by Anatole Litvak was definitive in establishing noir musicals. It opens with a “boogie-woogie” piano player jammin’ with a band, jitterbugs whirling on a cramped dance floor, and neon lights flashing, “Hot Food! Hot Jazz! Hot Drinks!” In short order, the musicians start a brawl, destroy the bar, and end up in a dimly lit St. Louis jail where they hear African American prisoners wailing the blues. Inspired by that music, the group hits the road, playing, singing, and living the blues. They hitch rides on railcars traveling cross-country from St. Louis to New Orleans jazz clubs, pool halls, and cheap bars. These claustrophobic , shadowy settings suggest their entrapment behind bars in jail cells, in a dark cramped boxcar, and a psychiatric hospital. The band is lured into a dangerous underworld when they become embroiled with an unsavory crowd. They meet a chapter three Blues in the Night The Noir Musical on the Brink of World War II blu e s i n t h e n i g h t 21 fugitive who pulls a gun and robs them as they steal a ride in a boxcar. The fugitive then offers them a job. Things go downhill once they settle in a shady Jersey gambling nightspot with a backroom speakeasy run by gangsters. The band inhabits a shrouded, ramshackle garage. They make music, but barely survive the dangerous criminal milieu behind the jazz joint’s duplicitous façade. Friends and lovers turn out to be back-stabbers: everyone in its noir-style yarn doubledeals and betrays each other. A gangster’s moll turns into a murderous femme fatale. A self-destructive jazz musician deteriorates, ends up on skid row and is sent to an insane asylum after tangling with her. She guns down her fugitive former lover and is killed by a disabled suitor who crashes his car off a cliff in a thundering rain-soaked night. Blues in the Night portrayed a gritty show business world where a scrappy band of jazz musicians try to play authentic blues music and score a big break after doing jail time. But they never make it to Hollywood or Broadway. They stare at the lights of the Big Apple from the Jungle, a roadhouse across the river, ride the rails, and try not to get killed by gangsters. When Richard Whorf’s conflicted bandleader tries to leave the band and make it big, he ends up selling out and going crazy. After the tormented musician collapses on a piano in a bar, unable to play, a surreal nightmare montage reveals his heartbreak, subsequent psychological deterioration in a sanitarium, and loss of his blues music. Blues in the Night was steeped in the streetwise social realist critique of gangster films. This is the stuff of noir, set to music. Despite the film’s nocturnal setting and criminal element, music and jazz performances are at the heart of Blues in the Night. It captures both the spirit of film noir and the dark side of musicals. Critics noted that Blues in the Night was trying to do something different with the musical genre.2 With its moody jazz/ blues soundtrack, rain-slicked city streets, dark alleys, and neon lights, it was much like film noir. In fact, music was an intrinsic facet of film noir, making it in many ways more musical than any genre other than the musical itself. Boasting impressive original music by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer and a famous title song that became a jazz standard, Blues in the Night garnered interest when it previewed in fall 1941...


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