Friday, April 8, 2011

King Creole (1958, Michael Curtiz)

For the vast majority of film fans and critics who canonize director Michael Curtiz's Casablanca, King Creole is an interesting companion piece they might wish to dismiss.  Compared to his 1938 masterpiece The Adventures of Robin Hood, notice how lackluster and nonchalant Casablanca looks.  Granted, you might call apples and oranges comparing an adventure epic to a slow-burn romance, but if you look beyond the performances in Casablanca, there's a fair stint of apathy in the visual composition and pacing.  Chalk it up to form following function, an extension of the humidity of the characters lives and geography?  I'll buy that to a certain extent, though Curtiz's strength was always his proliferation rather than his visual eye.

And if you're going to play that card, follow my yarn as Morocco has a similar altitude as King Creole's New Orleans.  The attitudes in both movies are similar: affected by weather, idleness and apathy seem the common solution, and large, open air spaces can't prevent the suffocation.

The film derives a power from its noir sensibilities meshed with Presley's circumstance.  Unlike the classic alienated, flawed noir hero, the empathy drawn from Presley's Danny Fisher comes in part from his age-- the film begins on his last day of high school-- and his background.  Elvis's character is again motherless, but the relationship between father and son is deep and thorny.  Like the difference between Paul Newman's Hud and his principled (if emasculated) father, Danny Fisher's ill-advised decisions are rooted in his circumstances surrounding a cowardly father in a family turned upside-down after the death of mother.

Danny works to keep his New Orleans family above water (no pun intended), and the local color not only perfectly encapsulates a lower-class noir struggle, it provides a culture and music that separates itself from other Presley films' white-bread Americana.  He signs on board with a group of local hoodlums after unfairly being denied graduation because of a noble gesture.  He escapes prison time when taken in as a saloon singer, but is soon squeezed by gang boss Maxie (Walter Matthau) to the breaking point.  Saloon-keeper Charlie Le Grand (Paul Stewart) understands the trouble Maxie will bring Danny ("everything he touches turns to drink"), but the muscle gets Danny to sing for his own rival nightclub.

King Creole is very strong as a genre piece and has one of the best screenplays of a Presley film.  It is only occasionally derailed by the slightly cacophonous tones of noir and musical, but unlike any other Presley film that employed so many, the film isn't a showcase for the songs.  No small feat, given the songs are quite good.  Elvis croons "Crawfish" into the streets from his window, trading with local vendors like a scene from Porgy and Bess.  As a musical, King Creole holds itself up to the Hollywood precedent.  Even the numbers he sings in the nightclubs are more atmospheric than commercial.  Compare Elvis's performance of "Trouble" to his more "incidental" songs in Jailhouse Rock to see what can happen when Elvis has had a chance to mature as an actor, and the filmmakers can frame a number rather than having him sing into the camera.  Even the silly implementation of "Love Doll"-- a number Danny performs in a five-and-dime as a beard while the rest of the gang heists trinkets-- works in spite of itself.  Curtiz had a handle on Presley, and he really flourishes on screen.

The fact that Elvis inherited the picture rather than it being initially written for him (much like Presley's other best film, Flaming Star) says loads about Presley's unfair acting reputation and, even more clearly, gives insight as to why so many of his films are forgettable.  To write a Presley film meant to settle for the least common denominator.  The celebrity was a curse in that audience expectations were in place before page one was written.  The isolation caused by such super-stardom only amplified Presley's noir hero performance.  Apparently during production, Elvis was excited to partake in famous New Orleans cuisine but, instead, had to order room service as the legendary Antoine's couldn't guarantee crowd control. 

King Creole is Presley's most living, breathing picture that boasts one of his best performances.  The noir blueprint is a sturdy one for a reason: today many B-pictures have survived based on this reputation where their A-features have been forgotten.  King Creole is a solid, three and a half star picture with strengths across the board that have been greatly overlooked.  For the record, Casablanca is a pretty good three and a half star picture too. -- ***½ / four stars

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