Editors' Contribution

Blues, Smoke and Shadows: Jazz in 'Musical' Noir Films

Author: Sheri Chinen Biesen (Rowan University)

  • Blues, Smoke and Shadows: Jazz in 'Musical' Noir Films

    Editors' Contribution

    Blues, Smoke and Shadows: Jazz in 'Musical' Noir Films


How to Cite:

Chinen Biesen, S., (2021) “Blues, Smoke and Shadows: Jazz in 'Musical' Noir Films”, Film Criticism 45(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.1054

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“Nothing matters but the music,” is a famous motto from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s dark musical dance melodrama The Red Shoes (1948).1 In fact, the music was essential to many dark stylish noir productions. Jazz music flourished in ‘musical’ noir films, distinct for smoke, shadows and bluesy nightclub performers.2 The music recalled Harlem’s Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington and Lena Horne jammed for gangsters.3 Jazz in musical film noir cinematically projected murky cabaret joints which evoked Jazz Age speakeasies and illicit affairs that challenged Hollywood censorship. The cultural status of jazz, namely the historical association of the jazz ‘lifestyle,’ was cinematically depicted as one outside the norms of mainstream American life. Jazz and the urban nightclub milieu became the sound and space for illicit activity in film noir. Jazz infused shadowy-styled crime films conveying a distinctive seedy atmosphere of nightlife, booze, cabarets, speakeasies and ‘taboo’ Jazz Age prohibitions. Early gangster films centered on illegal dealings, violent hoodlums, scantily-clad showgirls dancing burlesque, singing the blues and illicit affairs conducted in dive bars or backstage dressing rooms.4

Yet jazz embodied freedom, multiethnic democracy and was even censored by the Nazis during World War II. Jazz gained popularity in the Big Band Swing Era. Hollywood jazz musicals emerged with sound-era talkies, as in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s original score for Love Me Tonight (1932), which included “Isn’t It Romantic,” and Irving Berlin’s music for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ Top Hat (1935). As the war commenced, Abel Meeropol penned blues number “ Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday’s jazz hit—which she later performed on British television.5 The protest song critiqued the lynching and racial violence against Blacks in the American South and would continue to have cultural resonance in its call for social justice decades later in an era of civil rights. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.” The filmic rendering of jazz shifted from ‘seedy,’ underground and ‘illicit’ to stylish, ‘cultured’ and aspirational during the war and postwar years. (The hip, sophisticated iconography in Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day, for instance, was shot in expansive outdoor spaces at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, as yachts sail by on the water, rather than the dark claustrophobic confines of a nightclub.) Jazz critic Nate Chinen recalls Amiri Baraka’s conception of jazz as “trying to foster a self-reliant alternative culture as a reaction to popular culture.” He observes that jazz “constitutes just a sliver of our cultural landscape. But within those margins, there are worlds to explore, joys to savor, even miracles to be found.”6

Jazz performing in musical noir featured low-lit lounges, enthralling minor key sounds of musicians, and blue film scores suggesting censorable activity in afterhours nightspots. Smoky jazz noir nightclubs created an atmospheric milieu in Blues in the Night (1941), Jammin’ the Blues (1944, with Lester Young), Phantom Lady (1944), To Have and Have Not (1944, with Hoagy Carmichael), Gilda (1946), The Man I Love (1947), New Orleans (1947, with Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday), Young Man With A Horn (1950, with Harry James), Sweet Smell of Success (1957, with Chico Hamilton Quintet), Paris Blues (1961, with Duke Ellington’s jazz score), and A Man Called Adam (1966, with Benny Carter’s jazz score).7 Louis Malle’s French noir Elevator to the Gallows (1957, Ascenseur pour l'échafaud / Lift to the Scaffold) is renowned for its evocative moody blue Miles Davis jazz score.

Harold Arlen, known for “the wail of the blues” writing music for Harlem’s Cotton Club, composed jazz for Blues in the Night where a musician goes insane after tangling with a femme fatale singer.

Warner Bros. wanted Duke Ellington for the film, but cast Jimmie Lunceford’s big band. Arlen composed “Over the Rainbow” (for The Wizard of Oz), “Stormy Weather,” “I Got a Right to Sing the Blues,” “ The Man That Got Away,” and the noir musical’s jazz theme, “ Blues in the Night,” a song which became a huge hit and a jazz standard. Blues in the Night was a dark noir musical steeped in the streetwise milieu and social realist critique rooted in the collective plight of the 1930s Depression era. Its musicians ride the rails, a scrappy gang of drifters playing music in a boxcar. After the jazz band starts a brawl and winds up in jail, they’re musically inspired by fellow prisoners who sing the blues as they sit behind bars. William Gillespie delivers a moving rendition of Arlen’s “ Blues in the Night.”

Dooley Wilson croons bluesy strains of “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca (1942) and Duke Ellington performs “ C Jam Blues” in jazz music short Jam Session (1942).

Jazz noir proliferated in 1944. Gjon Mili’s jazz noir short Jammin’ the Blues (produced for Warner Bros. Melody Masters series based on his Life magazine photo-essay) included a legendary array of jazz musicians in a shadowy noir-styled jam session: Lester Young, Red Callender, Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, Marlow Morris, Joe Jones, Illinois Jacquet, Sidney Catlett, John Simmons, and Barney Kessel, as singer Marie Bryant dances the jitterbug in silhouette with Archie Savage. Censors warned jazz music in Phantom Lady implied musicians were drug addicts as they jammed in a sexual jazz ‘jive’ sequence.

Lauren Bacall sings with Hoagy Carmichael and seductively entices Humphrey Bogart and men at the bar in To Have and Have Not.

In jazz noir Gilda, Rita Hayworth sings the blues, dances, tosses her hair, and performs “ Put the Blame on Mame” striptease in a nightclub pealing off her gloves inviting viewers to unzip her strapless gown—before she is yanked off stage and violently slapped by estranged lover-turned-homme fatale husband Glenn Ford.

Jazz conveyed the blues amid smoke and shadows in musical noir films The Man I Love and Road House (1948) with torch singer Ida Lupino. Jazz musical New Orleans reimagined Orson Welles’ unproduced Story of Jazz with Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Kid Ory, Red Callender, and Woody Herman. Young Man With A Horn, with music by Harry James, promoted femme fatale Lauren Bacall grabbing jazz musician Kirk Douglas’ hair in a torrid embrace, growling: “ Put down your trumpet, jazzman—I’m in the mood for love!” Its trailer was evocative of Blues in the Night.

As Hollywood shifted to color films, “Blues in the Night” composer Arlen penned moody afterhours torch song “ The Man That Got Away” with Ira Gershwin for Judy Garland in George Cukor’s noir musical A Star Is Born (1954), reimagining the blues, smoke and shadows of jazz ‘musical’ noir in brooding color.

Frank Sinatra crooned the blues with Doris Day in Young at Heart (1954).8 A few years later, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story (1961) featured Latin jazz-infused music composed by Leonard Bernstein, who had also scored Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). Bernstein noted the contemporary downbeat noir musical reworking of Romeo and Juliet highlighting racial prejudice in the civil rights era. “I don’t know how many people begged me not to waste my time on something that could not possibly succeed. After all, how could we do a musical where there are two bodies lying on the stage at the end of the first act and everybody eventually dies…a show that’s so filled with hatefulness and ugliness…not even a whisper about a happy ending was heard.”9

Elmer Bernstein composed the score for Sweet Smell of Success with jazz composed by Chico Hamilton and Fred Katz, performed by Chico Hamilton Quintet. Miles Davis’ haunting jazz score in Elevator to the Gallows evokes loneliness as doomed femme fatale Jeanne Moreau wanders late-night streets aimlessly searching for her illicit lover who killed her husband for her.

Davis played his jazz score on French television and performed “ So What” (with John Coltrane) from his Kind of Blue album on CBS television in the US. In A Man Called Adam, Sammy Davis Jr. plays a jazz musician who destroys himself performing—to Benny Carter’s score as Nat Adderly plays. It explored issues of gender, ethnic/racial and sexual identity in the civil rights era with Louis Armstrong, Cicely Tyson (who later married Miles Davis), Ossie Davis, Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra Jr., Lola Falana, Jeanette Dubois, Johnny Brown and Mel Tormé swingin’ “All That Jazz.”

The legacy of dark ‘musical’ jazz noir films is seen in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) and All That Jazz (1979), Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977), Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight (1986, with Dexter Gordon), Clint Eastwood’s Bird (1988, about jazz legend Charlie Parker), Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues (1990, with Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts and music by Branford Marsalis Quartet and Terence Blanchard), Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again (1991), Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1997), the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998), Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Rob Marshall’s Chicago (2002).10 The influence of dark music films continues to resonate—in noir-styled MTV music videos, dark musical biopics like Ray (2004) and Get On Up (2014), to recent films La La Land (2016), Bad Times at the El Royale (2018), Rocket Man (2019), Hamilton (2020), jazz-infused black-and-white Netflix film Malcolm and Marie (2021), long-form Franco-American jazz drama The Eddy (2020), and Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story (2021).11 These atmospheric musical performances—whether on film, youtube or MTV/television—evoke a brooding jazz noir milieu.

Biographical Note

Dr. Sheri Chinen Biesen is Professor of Film History at Rowan University and author of Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), and Film Censorship: Regulating America’s Screen (Wallflower/Columbia University Press, 2018). She received her Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin, M.A. and B.A. at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television and has taught at USC, University of California, University of Texas, and in England. She has contributed to BBC documentary The Rules of Film Noir, The Netflix Effect: Technology and Entertainment in the 21st Century, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Hollywood on Location, Film and History, Film Noir: The Directors, Literature/Film Quarterly, Turner Classic Movies’ Public Enemies Warner Bros. Gangster Collection, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Film Noir: The Encyclopedia, Gangster Film Reader, Film Noir Reader 4, Historian, Television and Television History, Popular Culture Review, served as Secretary of Literature/Film Association, Founding Chair of ‘Stars & Screen’ Film & Media History Conference, serves on the editorial board of Film Criticism, and edited The Velvet Light Trap.


  1. The influence of The Red Shoes is seen in Black Swan (2010).
  2. For further reading on jazz music in ‘musical’ noir films, see Sheri Chinen Biesen, Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.
  3. Aljean Harmetz of the New York Times described jazz performances in Harlem’s Cotton Club, where Lena Horne sang, as: “the customers were white, the barely dressed dancers were light-skinned blacks, Duke Ellington was the star of the show and the proprietors were gangsters.” Aljean Harmetz, “Lena Horne, Sultry Singer,” New York Times, May 9, 2010, A1.
  4. As seen in earlier gangster films, hard-boiled crime novels, radio dramas and serials. Newsreels, pulp fiction stories and crime films portrayed Prohibition-era gangsters with sadistic (or misogynistic) violence and a fast-paced incarnation of real-life Jazz Age crime with gritty realism and tabloid sensationalism.
  5. Meeropol (aka Lewis Allan). Holiday sang 1939 hit “Strange Fruit” on British television Chelsea at Nine, London, 1959.
  6. Nate Chinen, “From the Basement to the Broadcast,” WBGO.org, 12 May 2020. https://www.wbgo.org/post/basement-broadcast-word-nate-chinen-editorial-director-wbgo; John Coltrane’s profound experimental jazz is considered in Nate Chinen, “Coltrane’s Universe,” The Coda Collection, 2021. https://codacollection.co/films/live-1960-1965 (Full disclosure: Nate Chinen is my brother.)
  7. Anatomy of a Murder (1959) was also known for Duke Ellington’s jazz score.
  8. Including a bluesy afterhours rendition of Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things.” (The film’s title was changed to match recording star Sinatra’s popular hit song.)
  9. Leonard Bernstein in Craig Zadan, Sondheim and Co. (New York: DaCapo, 1994), 17; Leonard Bernstein in Howard Taubman, “A Foot in Each Camp,” New York Times, October 13, 1957, 129.
  10. The popular 1978 Police hit song “Roxanne” was musically reinterpreted as a bluesy jazz tango dance number in Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!
  11. Also, Love Me or Leave (1955), Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955, with Ella Fitzgerald), Funny Girl (1968), Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), and long-form Fosse/Verdon (2019).