Appellate Judge Tom Becker is stuck with, fresh out of luck with, the blues.
Gats. Gams. Gangsters.
And the music that made the '20s roar.
Jack Webb will be forever remembered as Joe Friday, the tight-lipped, straight-arrow LA cop from Dragnet, a program that enjoyed a successful run in the '50s, another in the '60s, and big screen feature in 1954. Webb directed that feature, and he followed it the next year with Pete Kelly's Blues, a film inspired, in part, by the actor/director's love of jazz.
With a script by frequent Dragnet scribe Richard L. Breen and the lead role taken on by Joe Friday himself, is Pete Kelly's Blues just another crime drama with a hipster beat—or is it something more?
Facts of the Case
Cornet player Pete Kelly (Jack Webb, Sunset Blvd.) and the guys in his band, Pete Kelly's Big 7, are happy playing jazz at Rudy's Prohibition-era speakeasy. Sure, it doesn't pay much, but Rudy's a good guy, the crowd's decent, the cigarette girl's hot, and they're making the music they love.
All that happiness changes one night when gangster Fran McCarg (Edmond O'Brien, The Barefoot Contessa) demands to "represent" the band—and take 25 percent. He's making the same "offer" to all the bands in Kansas City, and when the musicians get together to decide how to get rid of him, Pete decide they'd be better off playing along.
On top of this, Pete's girl, the beautiful and wealthy Ivy (Janet Leigh, Psycho) is pushing Pete to marry her. Then McCarg decides his alcoholic mistress (Peggy Lee, Lady and the Tramp) should become the band's singer.
Pretty soon, Pete learns that even when you go along to get along, it doesn't make things easier. Now, Pete wants out of his unholy alliance with McCarg. But McCarg's not going away.
Not without a fight.
Pete Kelly's Blues seems like it started as a big-screen extension of Dragnet. It features the same droning and unnecessary narration from Webb that could easily be coming out of the mouth of Joe Friday, and Webb's character is, again, the clean-cut and rather dull straight-shooter.
The story is fairly preposterous. McCarg is supposed to be an organized crime figure, but he has no organization behind him, just a couple of scowling and easily roughed-up bodyguards. We know he's fearsome because of Edmond O'Brien's unibrow and his penchant for breaking things when he gets angry. Seriously. You look at this guy funny, and he's throwing bottles and shot glasses against the wall.
Then there's the weird romance angle. Only in a movie directed by Jack Webb would Leigh's gorgeous, fun-loving, and rich flapper Ivy pine over Webb's dour and school-marmish Pete. She spends the entire film chasing him, risking her life in some instances, and if I had a hundred years to ponder it, I still couldn't tell you why.
But Pete Kelly's Blues has a lot to recommend it, starting with its look. It was shot in CinemaScope, and Webb, along with cinematographer Hal Rosson and production designer Harper Goff, make great use of the format, with beautifully composed shots. Being familiar with Webb's work mainly through TV, I had no idea he was such a sophisticated visual stylist.
We get an extraordinary pre-credit sequence set at a funeral in New Orleans in 1915 that adds nothing to the story but everything to the film, immediately marking it as special and inventive. The rest of the film takes place in 1927, and Goff's production design is evocative without being overwhelming. Webb and Rosson give us a gangland killing in a rainy alley that would make Scorsese take notice and a haunting sequence in which Ella Fitzgerald sings the title song, the flame from a gas lamp burning to her left, cigarette smoke curling and filling the frame to her right. As an actor, Webb may have redefined the word "flat," but as a director, he's a poet.
Then there's the cast. O'Brien is fun to watch as he menaces just to the edge of overacting, and Leigh somehow makes us believe that Webb is a sexy guy worth stalking. We have the usually villainous Lee Marvin in a subdued, introspective role as one of Webb's bandmates; Andy Devine, known for his broad comedy, just great in a serious role as a cop; a ridiculously young Martin Milner (Adam-12) impressive as a hotheaded drummer; and Ella Fitzgerald singing "Hard-Hearted Hannah," itself worth the price of the disc.
Best of all is Peggy Lee as O'Brien's fragile, unhappy mistress. Lee received an Oscar nomination for her work here, and she has one of those big "Oscar scenes" near the end of the film. That sequence, frankly, is overwritten and contrived, but Lee does deliver an award-worthy performance in her earlier scenes, giving a depiction of world-weary resignation that is both chilling and heartbreaking ("He keeps saying all I need is a good start, but when you're 35, the only start you need is for home").
Add to all this some audaciously snappy dialogue, clever set pieces, and a great score, and you've got a film that is definitely worth seeking out.
From an audio/visual standpoint, Warner has done an outstanding job with this disc. The 53-year-old film looks flawless. While purists might find the remastered 5.1 soundtrack to be unauthentic, it offers a phenomenal rendering of the score, including vocal performances by Fitzgerald and Lee. The packaging is nice too; the expressionistic blue and white case suggests that the film is more hip than it actually is.
Where Warner drops the ball is with the extras. We get a cartoon and a live-action short, neither of which has anything to do with jazz, crime, Prohibition, Jack Webb, Peggy Lee, or anything else involving the film. These are pleasant, and it's better than getting nothing, but it almost seems like a cheat. If they weren't going to give us anything specific to the film—commentary, featurette, biography—they at least could have found some supplements that worked thematically, the way Sony did when they released Golden Boy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While I have newfound respect for Webb as a director, as an actor, he's just lost. His stiffness was looked on affectionately as part of Joe Friday's persona on Dragnet; here, it's just a liability. It's particularly noticeable during quiet moments, when Pete is supposed to be thinking or listening. Webb either freezes and stares blankly into the camera or tries to execute some unnatural looking movement, like boyishly kicking the dirt or fluttering his hands. A scene of quiet dialogue between Webb and Marvin is almost painful to watch.
And really, Jack Webb, what is up with the narration? I can see that you're a cornet player, I can see that Ivy is in the bar, I can see that Rose is singing with you. Why do you feel compelled to announce these things on the soundtrack?
A weak story and stiff lead performance aren't enough to detract from the many and surprising virtues of Pete Kelly's Blues. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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