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The Crimson Canary (1945)

Jazz and murder provide a potent mixture in this long-neglected B murder mystery about trumpeter Noah Beery, Jr.,’s attempts to clear himself and an old war buddy of a murder charge. The film’s atmosphere is uniquely enhanced by its music, with an innovative jazz score and rare screen appearances by the great saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and bassist Oscar Pettiford—as well as by folk singer Josh White, who performs his bluesy hit of the era, “One Meat Ball.”

Beery is part of a jazz combo playing its last night at Steven Geray’s Los Angeles hot spot. Their singer wants to accompany them to their next gig in San Francisco and even tries to blackmail the band’s members into taking her along. When she turns up dead, with the band’s drummer—who’s in love with her—lying nearby in a drunken stupor, Beery tries to clear him, only to implicate himself and the rest of the band. Can jazz-loving police detective John Litel and Beery’s fiancée (Lois Collier) solve the case before the next downbeat?

The film’s director, John Hoffman, was primarily known as an editor with credits for some of the screen’s great montage sequences, including the earthquake in San Francisco (1936) and the title number in Cover Girl (1944). Co-screenwriter Peggy Phillips was a Broadway insider, having done publicity for Mike Todd and the Shuberts. Her collaborator, Henry Blankfort, who also produced, was a mainstay at Universal. His career was ended by the blacklist, and when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he had to explain to them that the title The Crimson Canary—a reference to the murdered singer—was not Communist propaganda.

d. John Hoffman, 64 minutes, 35mm