Pete Kelley’s Blues, 1955. 8/10

Interesting Roaring Twenties crime drama with Jack Webb, Lee Marvin, Janet Lee, Peggy Leigh, Martin Milner, Ella Fitzgerald, Andy Devine, Jayne Mansfield, and Edmund O’Brien. Webb as the title character puts him in the unlikely role of a Kansas City musician…Sounds like John Wayne in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm…O’Brien is hood Frank McCarg, moving in on the speakeasy protection rackets. Devine is tough cop George Tenell.

Marvin plays fellow musician and Pete’s best friend, Art Gannaway. Milner, as Joey Firestone, in a similar role, gets wasted by the hoods for not playing along. Leigh is Ivy, a singer at the club and Pete’s love interest, at least until another singer, Rose (Lee), a gangster protege, gets dumped on Pete.

This movie, also directed by Webb, has attracted notice on the strength of its moody, well-drawn atmosphere and particularly for Fitzgerald’s and Lee’s singing. Marvin’s larger-than-life personality contrasts, thankfully, with you-know-who’s deadpan delivery. How does Webb, the most straight-laced dude of any era, attract two fabulous chicks?

To begin we have a glimpse into the distant past, a funeral along the banks of the Mississippi in 1915. The key reference point is a cornet that falls out of the ornate hearse. Quickly, then, it’s 1919 in Jersey City, where newly-mustered-out soldier Pete picks up the instrument from a boxcar dice game.

Next thing, 1927 Kansas City. I know bow-ties were something in the ’20s, but Jack Webb in a bow-tie makes him look like Mr. Rogers. The snappy voice-over jumps in “the whiskey’s aged–especially if you get here late in the day.” Anyway the pizza at the club looks great.

Ivy has her bit too, regarding a party that night: “Bring the band and we’ll dig a hole in the ceiling.” Anyway, McCarg drops in with a shakedown threat. The band isn’t exactly keen on the deal, but there’s not any wiggle room. When Pete asks Al if McCarg could be trouble, Al assures him there’s no big deal “he’ll just kill one of us, that’s no trouble.”

Now, McCarg’s expendable girl, Rose, is foisted on the band, or, rather, on Pete. All this happens at a boisterous glitzy party; with a very ornate romantic veranda scene. Joey makes the mistake of telling McCarg to get lost. Back on the road, we see the band has a de luxe touring car, room for seven with the jump seats.

But they’re run off the road by another open car. When they hit a tree, Joey’s ejected, but survives. At a recording session, Al tells Pete that he’s out of the band because of the McCarg trouble. When Pete gets back to the club he finds out that one of McCarg’s guys gets roughed up by Joey.

Another great quip from Pete, this time about the club’s cook “he had some savvy once, but he got shellshock, so now he couldn’t set fire to a can of kerosene.” McCarg’s goons come looking for Joey, he tries to escape, but is tommy-gunned in an alley. Back home, Pete finds Rose in his bed; she wants tea, but he says “you wouldn’t like it, I make it with water.”

Undaunted, she kisses him. At a roadhouse across the state line, we get Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Hard Hearted Hannah.’ In the backroom there’s a-workin’ still (of the liquor variety). The lawman Tenell comes calling; he naturally wants help getting McCarg, but Pete doubts the cops ability “go steal an apple” he tells him.

Anyway, Pete gets on board with McCarg. He gets formally introduced, you might say, to Rose, whom he’s supposed to hire on. McCarg is much more put out of shape by her drinking that by Pete’s sarcastic banter. Anyway, she’s lighting up the club with sultry songs, “she comes free,” insists McCarg, as if that’s an attribute.

Meanwhile, Ivy’s singing at an upscale club–featuring some sort of early disco ball. She asks Pete: when should they get married? “When you’re ten year’s old.” My God, Jack Webb romantic?! Tenell peeps in, to give Pete the bad news that his shell-shocked buddy is dead. He figures to ask Rose to see what she can dig up with her inside angle on McCarg.

Unfortunately, Rose is tanked when she goes on, and a tough crowd drowns her out. “She’s gonna sing, you’re gonna listen!” insists McCarg. Then he smacks her around so bad she’s nearly dead. Pete runs into Al, disgusted by Pete’s giving in to McCarg, demands Pete’s instrument. Pete’s insulted and slugs him. Not much of a fight, and they quickly patch it up.

Pete goes to see Tenell, hoping to find Rose. She’s been at an asylum; that is, her injuries resulted in brain damage. Completely out for a showdown, Pete gets back to the club to lay it on the line with McCarg. This is like an Old West duel, as McCarg breaks a beer bottle on the bar, and taunts Pete to make the first move. He passes on the opportunity.

Ivy is waiting for him; but he won’t succumb to her entreaties, because he has to look after business, that is, the business of tying up loose ends, with McCarg as the end. He goes to see Rose, who’s reduced to a six-year-old level.

He tries to pump her, desperately, for info on McCarg and his henchmen. She starts to remember; he contacts Tenell, but there’s no case yet against McCarg. Back at the state-line club, he has a visitor. In the not-so-secret secret still room he gets mugged by Bettenhausen (John Dennis). But the hood wants to deal–he’ll finger McCarg for $1200.

Retrieving a .45, Pete finds Al downstairs; good thing too. But why does he refuse his help? Somehow, Ivy pops up again; doesn’t she know when Pete’s in a jam? At the club, he pries open a cabinet with the incriminating papers. Ivy comes out of the woodwork yet again. Is she setting him up? Looks like it, as goons surround them in the disco ball room.

The ensuing gunbattle is just a bit unrealistic, as Pete takes down a bunch of guys that have position on him. Not to mention that overturned tables appear to be armor-plated. Nonetheless, the bit with the guy falling through the skylight and onto the crashing disco ball is not to be missed. McCarg’s down, and the last guy just walks away. Great denouement.

I’ve got to admit that, as the movie went on, Webb’s performance grew on me. He has plenty of demonstrative, idiosyncratic guys and women to play against, so his dead-pan, far from being an albatross around the characters’ necks, actually serves to establish him as the moral center.

The supporting fast was so good that I wish that Devine and Milner had more scenes. The hoods looked incredibly creepy. Color helped the atmosphere tremendously, not only in the many club scenes, but notably in the quick scene where Milner is gunned down. There’s an almost dazzling array of light from all angles, accentuated by the spray of bullets.

The only qualms I have with this that it’s about 10-15 minutes too long. Several scenes are drawn-out, which precludes some character development, as noted. But this is surprisingly good; one of the better ’50s retro movies about the Roaring Twenties.

Oh,m you got to figure Farmermouse dug those old cars–especially Ivy’s Rolls–all of which must’ve been very difficult to find in decent shape thirty years after most of them were made, so eight jugs of hootch for the Blues here. 8/10

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