In 1927, New Orleans jazz band-leader Pete Kelly tries to stay free of the influence of bootlegger Fran McCarg, who wants a cut of the action and insists Kelly hire his untalented girlfriend as a singer.
This is one of the great unheralded classics of 1950s American cinema. It opens with a cornet falling off a hearse during a New Orleans funeral, then cuts to a post-WWI boxcar crap shoot where GI Pete Kelly wins the now-dented instrument, then cuts to the main story with Kelly as an established musician and that battered cornet as close to his heart as a cowboy’s horse or a gangster’s gun. Director-star Jack Webb, hot off the seminal Dragnet TV series, does several very unusual things: he treats jazz seriously (and fills the soundtrack with the authentic sounds of 1927 rather than re-orchestrating them to suit the tastes of 1955), depicts Prohibition-era gangsterism in a politically complex manner, and deals in a devastating manner with the psychological fall-out of creativity and criminality. All in the framework of a rattling good thriller with blazing musical turns from Oscar-nominated Peggy Lee (‘The Rainbow Song’) and Ella Fitzgerald (‘Hard-Hearted Hannah’).
The crux of the plot is that Kelly finds it impossible to retain his integrity when organised crime moves to take over all aspects of the nightclub business along with the booze supply, while Edmond O’Brien’s heavy is a serious version of the role he would send up unforgettably in another great ‘50s musical, The Girl Can’t Help It. Lee, paradoxically cast as a gangster’s moll who isn’t a great singer, cracks up when she can’t make it on stage, and has an affecting mad scene in a hellhole asylum. Watch out also for Lee Marvin as a trombone player and Janet Leigh as a predatory flapper.