Preston Lang makes his EQMM debut in our current issue (March/April 2020). The New York City writer and teacher has three novels in print and is also the author of a number of well-received short stories and plays. His short fiction includes “Vacation Selfies,” which was selected by Jonathan Lethem to appear in Best American Mystery Stories 2019; his most recent novels are Sunk Costs and Price Hike (2018 and 2019). Something we did not know about Preston until he submitted this post is that “lounge pianist” is among the jobs he’s worked in addition to writing. He brings knowledge of his two arts (music and fiction) together in this piece about crime movies. —Janet Hutchings
Recently I started writing a noir novel, a 1950s period piece about one of New York’s worst jazz pianists. It got me to pay extra attention to all the piano players in classic movies. Unsurprisingly, Jazz is the soundtrack of noir. Sometimes the music is piped in over the deceit and the violence, but other times it’s part of the natural environment of the story, and what easier way to introduce music than from an old piano in some run-down saloon?
For this list, I’ve tried to concentrate on those who are part of the narrative. A number of great jazz artists played piano in film noirs in nonspeaking roles. They do a number as themselves (or as Nightclub Pianist) but don’t really exist as characters in the film. Some of the best examples of these are Earl Hines with an all-star jazz band in the Vegas mob thriller The Strip, Hadda Brooks playing and singing in the Bogart classic A Lonely Place, and Matt Dennis performing his own composition “Angel Eyes” in Jennifer.
Both the terms noir and jazz will be used fairly loosely here. At the same time, there have to be some standards, so Liberace playing Chopin in South Seas Sinner doesn’t qualify. Though it does exemplify one of the most common types of jazzmen in these films: the American, playing familiar tunes far from home in a seedy bar during dangerous times.
Number 1: Sam, Casablanca (1942)
Played by Dooley Wilson, Sam is probably the most famous piano player in film history. Whenever his arms are in the shot, though, it’s pretty obvious that he’s not actually playing. Still, Sam is a compelling character. Right from the start, he has a loyalty to Rick that’s hard to square with the fact that Rick seems like an amoral bastard. They were together in Paris, maybe a few other places, but clearly Sam doesn’t depend on Rick for his survival—he could make a lot more playing somewhere else. Some people find his deference to the white characters offensive. This is certainly fair, and I’d definitely be interested in a prequel more focused on Sam.
Number 2: Cricket, To Have and Have Not (1944)
Staying with Bogart films, we have another American expat in Vichy held territory—Martinique this time. The movie is very loosely based on a Hemingway novel. Then Faulkner worked on the screenplay. But Cricket is unaffected by the heavyweight literary pedigree. Like Sam, he’s just playing his songs while the world burns around him. Yet like Sam, you never really doubt his antifascist credentials. Unlike Sam, he really is playing the piano.
The actor here is Hoagy Carmichael, composer of songs like “Skylark,” “Stardust,” and “The Nearness of You.” Incidentally, in the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, Bond is described as resembling Carmichael. Here he plays a few originals and accompanies a teenaged Lauren Bacall. He doesn’t talk much, but he’s important enough that Bacall has to say goodbye to him before the film can end.
Number 3: Al Roberts, Detour (1945)
The first one on the list who’s the main character. The movie starts with Al, played by Tom Neal, on the run, listening to a song in a shabby bar in Nevada that reminds him of his life back in New York where he and his singer girlfriend gigged with a big band. When she leaves him to pursue her dreams in Hollywood, he follows and gets into a lot of trouble hitchhiking.
Like Sam, he likes to pat the piano with flat hands, pumping in a rhythmic right-left pattern. He also has dreams of playing Beethoven at Carnegie Hall. This is a fairly common trope in many of these films. Even though we see Al playing in some pretty upscale rooms, the implication is that he’s degrading himself by playing popular tunes and boogie-woogie. This feels more like a conceit of filmmakers rather than an attitude that was common among real jazz musicians of the time.
His dreams, of course, don’t come true, and he’s left waiting for his doom, listening to the song that reminds him of the woman who was the source of all the trouble.
Number 4: Martin Blair, Black Angel (1946)
Here the protagonist is also haunted by a leitmotif—the song “Heartbreaker,” a hit written by Martin when he was a brilliant young songwriter. When we first meet him, he’s playing in a low-end bar, holding it together until the end of the number when he crashes headfirst into the keys and has to be carried home by a friend.
When his ex is murdered, he teams up with the wife of the man accused of the crime. They go undercover as a musical act to try to get the dirt on a gangster nightclub owner played by Peter Lorre whom they believe is the real killer.
Martin is played by Dan Duryea who’s best known for portraying sleazy villains. Here he gets a chance at a more sympathetic character. He’s also an excellent fake piano player, and he manages to synchronize his touching of the keys with the sounds that come out of it.
Number 5: Danny Rice, Istanbul (1957)
Nat Cole appeared in many movies, generally doing a song or two as himself. In Istanbul, a remake of The Lady from Shanghai, he plays Danny Rice, singer and pianist, friend to a diamond smuggler played by Errol Flynn. Danny trades a few bland lines with Flynn’s character—good to see you again—and he pines for a woman back in New York.
It might not be worth including, but towards the end of the film for a brief moment it looks like Danny is going to get in on the action. There might be a free seat on a plane out of Turkey. Does he get to fly? Might Danny end up with the diamonds? No, doesn’t come through, and Danny calls his girlfriend long distance.
Number 6: Charlie, Shoot The Piano Player (1960)
Truffaut’s French new wave take on David Goodis’s classic Down There centers on a saloon pianist who calls himself Charlie. Real-life singer Charles Aznavour plays the role, and again, we’re dealing with a degraded classical prodigy, plinking out tunes in a shabby bar. A coworker says of him, “All we know is he’s the piano man . . . who minds his own business.” Which could sum up most of the people on the list. He’s hesitant, an observer, but when his criminal brother needs help, Charlie is dragged into the underworld.
Number 7: Aurelius Rex, All Night Long (1962)
A small independent film set in the London Jazz scene of the early 60s, All Night Long opens—as most films should—with a chummy conversation between Charles Mingus and Sir Richard Attenborough. Soon we meet Aurelius Rex, a pianist and bandleader. But he’s not down and out in the least; he’s a huge success, married to a wonderful woman. Unfortunately for him, he’s also in a retelling of Othello. The racial angle of the relationship is barely acknowledged, but the deception and the potential for violence are effectively wrought. In addition, real-life pianist Dave Brubeck comes to the party as himself and sits in for a few songs.
Aurelius plays one Duke Ellington number with the band but spends the rest of the film listening before finally reacting.
Number 8: Jack Riley, The Long Goodbye (1973)
A lot of noir purists dismissed this film as mean-spirited parody, but it feels true to the spirit of Philip Marlowe adrift in an era of topless yoga and acid rock that clearly isn’t built for him.
Jack Riley is a minor character, popping up in a cheap bar where Marlowe goes to check his messages. He’s playing the title song that follows Marlow through the film, mutating from cool jazz to supermarket Muzak. The song was written and played (at least in Jack’s scene) by John Williams—yeah, the guy who wrote the themes to Jaws, Star Wars, and Harry Potter. Williams was an excellent bop pianist in his youth, and the song has a classic feel, reminiscent of “Angel Eyes.”
It’s clear Jack is barely making a living during this dark period for hep cats. “Cheap as I work, he can’t lose,” Jack says of his boss. The place is empty, and unlike most skid row movie pianos, this one is authentically out of tune.