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Noir-vember 2013: Pete Kelly’s Blues

Posted by martinteller on November 24, 2013

“You’re not mean, if you’re that nice to a bird.”
“I’m nice to him because I may get hungry someday and have to eat him.  In the meantime, he can hit G above high C, so I keep him around.”

Pete Kelly (Jack Webb) leads a Kansas City jazz combo in 1927, blowing his trumpet in a speakeasy.  Although the band enjoys their work, they barely scrape by.  So when big time hood Fran McCarg (Edmond O’Brien) tries to put the squeeze on them for 25%, Kelly and his boys resist.  The situation forces out Kelly’s old friend and clarinetist Al (Lee Marvin), and when his hot-headed drummer (Martin Milner) gets in trouble with one of McCarg’s goons (John Dennis), Kelly backs down and gives in.  McCarg foists his alcoholic girlfriend Rose (Peggy Lee) on the group as a singer… befriends her but can’t save her from the bottle.  Besides, he’s got his own troubles to worry about.  His wealthy flapper girlfriend Ivy (Janet Leigh) wants to get hitched, and there’s an FBI agent (Andy Devine) who wants help nailing McCarg.

Webb was no stranger to the director’s chair in 1955.  He’d already helmed many episodes of his hit show “Dragnet”, as well as a movie based on the series.  But his work here is surprisingly artful.  Although the cinemascope and vivid colors don’t exactly say “noir”, he pulls out some pretty impressive imagery.  A scene where Kelly visits Rose — who has been beaten into insanity — is almost avant-garde in its staging and design.  And the climax is a marvelous set piece in an empty dancehall.  There’s some wonderful use of color and dramatic angles.  Compared to another semi-noir about a jazz combo, Blues in the Night, Webb also strives for a slightly more enlightened sense of racial diversity.  The opening scene is set a dozen years earlier: a funeral for an African-American trumpet player.  As the coffin is carted down a dusty road, the trumpet falls into the dirt, where it is picked up and later won by Kelly in a craps game.  Webb acknowledges how white culture co-opts black culture.

And there’s also two songs by Ella Fitzgerald, both fantastic… as are the assorted numbers by Peggy Lee, and the music by the “Pete Kelly 7” (actually Matty Matlock and His All Stars).  It’s a rich soundtrack, only soured when Leigh gets up on a chair and belts out a tune.  Woof… don’t quit your day job, Janet.  I believe I heard somewhere or other that Webb was a big jazz aficionado, and the movie is worth watching for the music alone.

But besides the cinematography and the jazz, the film has other strong assets.  The dialogue is nice and snappy, lots of lingo and clever jabs and tough talk.  Webb’s performance is labeled stiff in some quarters, but I think he does well enough with the character, making him seem like more than just a tough guy with a horn.  There isn’t exactly a sensitivity to him, but he’s believable in the role.  O’Brien and Marvin are reliable as always, Leigh perhaps a little too distant but a nice presence.  It’s Peggy Lee who steals the show, a beaten-down woman who at 35 has already kissed her dreams goodbye long ago.  She was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award, you’ve never heard such a tragic rendition of “Sing a Rainbow”.

Unfortunately, while the individual scenes hold up, they don’t come together as a coherent whole.  Plot threads peter out, either forgotten or abruptly picked up again later.  In the aforementioned scene, Kelly visits Rose to learn where McCarg’s goon is hiding out.  She manages to tell him… but then the goon shows up on his own anyway!  So while the scene is poetic and gives Lee a chance to shine on, it serves no narrative purpose.  There isn’t a strong story driving the film, and even though it’s going in a particular direction, it feels meandering.  However, there’s still lots to recommend here.  Rating: Good (76)

IMDb
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