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Saturday, January 2, 2010

KING CREOLE: Elvis Noir



NOTE: Thrillville presents "Elvis's 75th Birthday Party" at Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge in Alameda Friday, January 8, 8PM, with special cocktails, music, movies and prizes, no cover



KING CREOLE: ELVIS NOIR

By Will “the Thrill” Viharo

I’m a fringe member of several different pop subcultures suffering from ongoing, online arguments raging amongst my fellow geeks. Namely – what is truly “Tiki”?; which are better, slow zombies or fast zombies?; and Is It Noir? The fact is, all of these groups fall into one ultimately irrelevant category, rendering these heated internal discussions completely meaningless. To wit: Tiki culture as we know and celebrate it in Hedonistic Hipster America is a bastardization of an authentic Polynesian religion, meaning in this context, the concept of “tiki purity” is inherently contradictory; there are no such things as zombies, fast or slow, I’m sorry to admit, so their relative speed is a matter of subjective, unsubstantiated fantasy conjecture; and film noir is a genre only recognized in retrospect by foreign connoisseurs who noted a completely random, unintentional link amongst a series of cynical postwar American movies. Because none of the classic noir films were consciously created to conform to the restrictions of a particular genre, beyond basic crime or melodrama, it’s pointless to definitively designate (or even deny) most movies in contention as undisputable film noir. But we do it anyway. Why? Otherwise we’d be dwelling on the real life horrors of our collectively futile existence in a violent, cruel world. This distraction is so much more fun.


With unapologetic fervor, I love film noir, and I love Elvis Presley, two distinct American icons. What do they have in common, except for the fact you know ‘em when you see ‘em, even if you can’t adequately describe their appeal to an outsider? Noir merged and mated with Elvis one time to produce an unsung (as it were) cinematic milestone from 1958: King Creole. This moody, musical classic, made just prior to The King’s induction into the Army, which inalterably affected the trajectory of his career, for better or worse, is as much a noir film as it is an Elvis movie, two popular but disparate genres not typically mentioned in the same article, much less the same sentence. I have no desire to convince noir purists and Elvis-deniers of this obvious truth. That would be like trying to convince Republicans the public option is crucial for health care reform. You’re philosophically biased against the concept and have already made up your minds to vote against it no matter what I say. This isn’t a life or death point I’m trying to make, anyway. Then why even bother to highlight this issue at all? Because, to paraphrase the title of the 1970 Elvis concert film: that’s the way it is.


The noir pedigree of King Creole comes courtesy of Hungarian immigrant Michael Curtiz, who not only directed many celebrated classics including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Casablanca (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (942), and White Christmas (1954), but also helmed several legitimately recognized noir masterpieces, such as prototypical gangster saga Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), noir pinnacle Mildred Pierce (1945), The Unsuspected (1947), and one of John Garfield’s best, The Breaking Point (1950). Curtiz’s rich, fluid style is very much evident in King Creole.


Based on a Harold Robbins novel entitled A Stone for Danny Fisher, whose protagonist was a boxer, the story was re-tailored for the rock ‘n’ roll rebel’s fourth film (and reportedly once intended for the late James Dean). Set and largely filmed in New Orleans, it concerns a troubled, perpetually held back high school senior (Elvis) moonlighting as a Bourbon Street busboy. Resigned to the fact he’s never going to succeed academically, despite the earnest prodding of his widowed pharmacist father (Dean Jagger), Danny sets his sights on a singing career. He is not only torn between his bereaved father’s mundane aspirations and the call of the red light district’s limelight, but he’s also conflicted romantically, courted by virginal Nellie (Dolores Hart, who also co-starred in 1957’s Loving You and who subsequently left Hollywood to become a nun), and simultaneously suckered in by a “hooker with a heart,” Ronnie, portrayed with slinky sensuality by Carolyn Jones. Furthermore, once he’s proven his viability as an entertainer, Danny is confronted with a crisis of conscience when his non-binding contract at the “King Creole” club, run by upstanding businessman Charlie LeGrand (Paul Stewart), is usurped by notorious local gangster kingpin Maxie Fields (a growling, grimacing Walter Matthau), who blackmails Danny into an exclusive gig at Maxie’s own club, “The Blue Shade.” Other challenging complications include a botched robbery orchestrated by Maxie’s hired thug Shark (a smarmy Vic Morrow) which has tragic ramifications for Danny and his family, and the fact that Ronnie, Maxie’s resident whore, is in love with Danny and dreams of running away with him even though she remains inextricably enslaved by Fields.


Dames, deception, desperation, danger, decadence and even a very noir-specific coma-induced dream montage are mixed to make one steamy, sultry stew, or gumbo, as the case may be. The sizzling jazz-blues-rock soundtrack is practically extraneous to the pulpy proceedings, but it features several of Elvis’s finest movie songs and performances, including Leiber and Stoller’s kick-ass anthem “Trouble,” “Dixieland Rock,” the chart-topping hit “Hard-Headed Woman,” “Crawfish,” “New Orleans” and the pulsating title tune. The richly evocative, chiaroscuro New Orleans location photography is as atmospherically effective here as it was in Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950), and the screenplay by Robbins and Herbert Baker often crackles with brutal wit in the best noir tradition. “That’s a pretty piece of material,” Danny says to the haunted, horny hooker as he fondles her one night on the street. “You oughta have a dress made out of it.” Another piece of pulp poetry: one evening when Ronnie is set up to seduce Danny in Maxie’s pad, the smitten lad laments, “Your heart wouldn’t be in it.” “You wouldn’t miss it,” she shoots back cynically. This isn’t terrain typically associated with Elvis – it’s a world removed from the sunny Vegas racetrack and the happy Hawaiian luau. Hoods, hookers, killers, strippers, and stylishly seedy nightclubs occupy this shadowy, shady, neon-lit netherworld. Elvis’s revelatory performance as Danny is brooding, authentic and passionate; his soul-searching quest for rescue and redemption amid temptation and tragedy is truly touching. It’s even more impressive than his raunchy redneck role in the autobiographical (and more accessible) smash hit from the previous year, Jailhouse Rock. This is Elvis, existential style.


Elvis went on to several other notable dramatic roles, including the tortured half-breed Indian in Don Siegel’s excellent Western Flaming Star (1960), and the equally tormented aspiring author in the melodramatic potboiler Wild in the Country (1961), with a typically torrid screenplay by Clifford Odets. But King Creole, even by the entertainer’s own humble estimation, remained 23 year old Elvis Presley’s unprecedented and unduplicated achievement as a “serious” actor. It’s a shame that his thespian talents never reached the same potential as his revolutionary singing career, and Colonel Parker undermined his prize prodigy’s legitimacy by exploiting him as a bankable, bubble-brained beach boy, but hey – that’s noir for you. I rest my case. You’ve been a fantastic audience. TCB and thank you, thank you very much.


This article originally appeared in the Noir City Sentinel