Whenever I hear this film being brought up by fans, historians, and critics, they always consider this film to be where Elvis' acting is at his best. But is it really deserving of that title, and even if Elvis' performance was as great as people build it up to be, is the film itself good in terms of story, character, visuals, and music; ON WITH THE REVIEW!
Directed by Michael Curtiz (who's directed classics like "The Adventures Of Robin Hood", "Mildred Pierce", "Angels With Dirty Faces", "Yankee Doodle Dandy", and his crowning achievement "Casablanca"), Elvis stars as teenage rebel Danny Fisher who gets flunked out of High School a second time for his rude and violent behavior, as he tries to support his family by working as a busboy at a nightclub owned by the hot shot gangster of New Orleans Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau). One night at Maxie's club, Danny is forced to perform on stage to prove to Maxie that he was only singing for his girlfriend Ronnie (Carolyn Jones) instead of having some kind of affair with her as he suspects, and he becomes a hit thus proving Maxie that his girlfriend was telling the truth. After saving his skin, he's approached by night club owner Charlie LeGrand (Paul Stewart), who's impressed by his singing and wants him to perform at his, which is the only nightclub that Maxie doesn't have his greasy hands on. Danny accepts the offer and is of course loved by audiences, but his grouchy but caring father (Dean Jagger) disapproves his decision to sing rather than finishing up High School. When Maxie discovers how popular Danny is, he wants Danny to come back and work for him as a singer, which Danny turns him down knowing how ruthless he is. After refusing Maxie's offer, Maxie tries to get Danny to crawl back to him by threatening him with violence and blackmail that mostly involve his father.
Originally the film was going to star James Dean as a boxer during the "Great Depression", but after Dean's tragic death, they got Elvis to fill in his shoes since he played the bad boy so well in "Jailhouse Rock", where they decided to set the story in modern day New Orleans, and make the character a singer to suit the actor playing him. To me, as understandable as the changes are, it almost seemed like they were trading in such an interesting and dramatic concept for another standard film for the era where the only appeal is the actor playing our lead, who can act well but we can never see past his hair, mannerisms, voice, and hips to see him play a totally different character. But after finally seeing this film after hearing the praise that it gets as I was being skeptical about it thinking that it's just going to be another average Elvis film, I surprisingly found it better than his previous film.
And speaking of writing, another thing that the film out does than what previous Elvis' films have had is the story with a script co-written by Herbert Baker (who co-wrote "Loving You") and play writer and actor (best known for his role as Frank Pentangeli in "The Godfather Part 2") Michael V. Gazzo. I'm not saying that the story doesn't have its noticeable tropes because it does, like the Father who goes against his son’s dreams, the innocent love interest, and the liar revealed cliche. But what makes this story work better than all the stories in Elvis' previous films was there was always a constant feeling of risk being present. Almost every action that Danny does involves a sacrifice that will effect him greatly, and will effect others if he doesn't give in, which keeps you wondering how Danny will get out of this, or if he is going to get out of this, and if the people and places he tries to protect are going to be safe from harm from this ruthless gangster. The story didn't feel as predictable as something like "Jailhouse Rock" or "Loving You" since something tragic and risque is always happening to the characters, where it in the end seems like that the film did have a story to tell whether Elvis was in it as a singer, or if James Dean was going to be a boxer.
Sure "Love Me Tender" had an intense story line too along with having a sad and ballsy ending for a film staring Elvis, but we didn't have characters that we felt connected too aside from Elvis, who wasn't even the star of that movie. In this film we do. All the actors in this movie play and fit their roles so well that the chemistry and their relations with one another feels real, as their characters and backstories come across as way more interesting compared to any of the other characters in Elvis' previous films, especially the character Ronnie who Carolyn Jones does fantastic job at playing as her character becomes more and more intriguing as well as tragic as the film moves forward, which took me by surprise considering that I wasn't intrigued by the character or the performance when I first met her. Another performance that caught me by surprise was Walter Matthau as Maxie Field's. I know Matthau can do drama, but I've never seen him in any other films outside of comedy until this film, and he plays this black hearted wiseass gangster so brilliantly that you feel intimidated by him and what he's capable of which makes the stakes feel high and challenging when Danny has to try and block him at every turn. Plus you have Vic Morrow playing a stone cold thug working on Maxie's payroll who gives a performance just as badass as Elvis'. Dean Jagger nails it as Danny's loser father, who may come across as stubborn and harsh, but you do get the impression that he only wants what's best for his son, and that he is trying as hard as he can to get back in the working habit so that his son can go back to school without feeling the need to work. Out of all the on-screen interactions that Elvis has, this to me is the most emotionally gripping because how they go off at each other when they get into arguments over their desires and yet have many other scenes of them getting along as father and son are acted out so powerfully that their relationship feels authentic. The only character and performance I didn't find all that intriguing however is Dolores Hart as Nellie who Danny falls in love with. She does give a much better and more memorable performance here than she did in "Loving You", but in terms of character she's just the typical young innocent who is just waiting to be kissed by our lead. And I'd be lying if I said that her dramatic performance didn't get a little too exaggerated at times. Their relationship was cute since you feel that Danny needs someone nice and innocent in his life, but personally I wouldn’t mind if Nellie was scrapped from the film altogether.
Although the acting, story, and characters all play a huge part in making the film so heartbreaking and dramatic, the last major thing that contributes plenty to the film’s emotions is the environment for the film itself. Right from the start of the film as I saw the singing merchants on the empty streets of New Orleans, I was immediately sucked right into the film's New Orleans atmosphere. And as the film continued I still found myself lost in the city of New Orleans, for looking festive while at the same dark and gritty thanks to the cinematography from Russell Hartlan who's perfect for filming Black-&-White films like this (including films such as "Blackboard Jungle" and "To Kill A Mockingbird"). I especially love his use of shadows, lighting, and the different angles he uses to create this dark and ominous tone to make it feel like there's danger around every corner whenever Danny walks the streets of the city, despite it being so sunny and pleasant in so many other scenes of the movie. This whole film definitely plays out like a classic Film-Noir should from the way it’s directed, shot, and acted. The fight scenes are clunky at times but they still feel like something you'd see from that type of film along with the suspense and emotional attachment supporting those scenes to help make you forgive how clumsy they are. The only thing that this film has that other Film-Noirs don't is Elvis and his singing.
Which leads me to the last thing for me to talk about (that I usually discuss after describing Elvis' performance in a film) the songs. Rather then feeling out of place for a Film-Noir, they beautifully match with the New Orleans feel that this film brings as the majority of songs he sings are usually sung inside the club "King Creole" that's a jovial but sleazy joint drenched with shadows and cigarette smoke where his singing should be present in the film’s world. And all the songs that Elvis sings for the club scenes are awesome! "Dixieland Rock" is an energetic song and performance that really brings that New Orleans feel with its music. The song "Young Dreams" is a lovely tune that Elvis sings with charm and passion as he sits on the side of the stage leaning on his guitar with his band singing and playing in the shadows. The scene when Elvis and his band performs the song "New Orleans" is the best visual song sequence in the film due to the way its shot at a low angle to make their shadows appear to be larger than life (that is definitely one of the scenes in the movie where the Film-Noir style shines at best) along with the song having a cool and smooth blues and rock rhythm and beat. And the last two songs "Don't Ask Me Why" and "As Long As I Have You" are touching love ballets that fit with the emotion of each scene both subtly and powerfully. Adding to the awesome of factor of the scenes of Elvis performing at the clubs is we get two songs written from the same guys who wrote four of the songs in "Jailhouse Rock" that are just as catchy and fun as the songs they previously wrote. The first song "Trouble" that Danny sings at Maxie's Club with a jazz band goes from being hardcore blues, to ending with that classic New Orleans style jazz, as Elvis gives a tough presence that feels badass while he shakes and sings. And the second song "King Creole" tells an interesting story about a Cajun guitar player that’s carried through a rockin' melody, while we see Elvis play guitar as he does what he's best known for when holding one. The only song in the club scenes that doesn't get a whole song sequence is "Hard Headed Women" since it's only performed in the background as his sister looks for a table, which is sad considering that it's one of Elvis' popular hit singles.
Now while most of Elvis' songs are performed inside the clubs, there are three songs that he does sing when he isn't performing inside one. He gazes out the window singing the song "Crawfish" with a merchant (played by jazz singer Kitty White) as he gets ready for work and school in his first scene in the movie, that helps with the process of sucking you right into the film's world right after the cold opening and opening credits. Is forced to sing an accapella song called "Steadfast, Loyal and True" for a bunch of gangsters, that's nice but nothing special. And he performs the song "Lover Doll" with an acoustic guitar at a store as a means distraction to help a gang of thugs to steal items from the store, that's a cute song and performance, but a little ridiculous considering how almost no one finds it suspicious or questionable that a guy just randomly shows up inside a store playing. Even though I prefer to see Elvis perform his songs only in the clubs where it feels more proper and warranted for a classic Film-Noir, the song scenes outside the club are not only good, but they do connect to the story. Danny singing for the gangsters does lead to him singing on the stage at the club where they hang-out at later on. And Danny performing at the store causes him to meet Nellie, as well as being the first dirty thing that he does in the film to support his family (even if his action is a bit far-fetched). I don't know any classic Black-&-White Film Noirs that are musical based, and if "King Creole" isn't the first musical of that genre, than it’s definitely the most popular one. The film could be great if Elvis didn't sing, but if his profession was boxing instead of singing, well since I know I'm looking at Elvis and that he already establish a music career it'd be hard for me to buy him doing another profession for money, which is what makes the singing scenes work well within the concept of the film's dramatic story and edgy world
I hate to sound like any other critic or Elvis fan who praises this movie, but I'm sorry, I honestly do think that this is by far Elvis' best movie that I don't think can be topped by the others that follow after since his later films uses the predictable Elvis formula that gets old fast. It's not pitch perfect, but the flaws don't at all distract from the overall emotional investment that the film carries. The story and character are endearing. The acting from Elvis and the cast is top notch. The look of the film is stunning. And the music is enjoyable and stays true to the film's atmosphere. If you have to see one Elvis film, then "King Creole" is with no question in my mind thee one to see!