Film noir is often used to describe a genre, however it is more easily described as a stylistic approach to a film. To achieve this dark “mood”, directors make use of lighting to create “chiaroscuro”, which refers to the extreme contrast of light used in visual art. In King Creole, scenes filmed at night and in alleyways are highlighted by streetlights, casting extreme dark shadows next to their highlighted faces. Other scenes involving the pharmacy show this effect as well. Danny’s face becomes dramatically illuminated when he hides behind the shelves as he spies on his father’s conversation with the pharmacy manager. Not only does the thoughtful use of scenery to amplify this effect create a more dramatic and suspenseful mood, but it is also an effective technique to indicate and direct the audience’s attention towards important details. This use of chiaroscuro is a signature aspect of film noir to create an intense visual experience.Characters in film noir typically follow similar scripts. As soldiers returned from the war only to discover they had no jobs, film noir was born in the 1940s which captured the collective disillusionment that America was feeling. These films rose in popularity because of the relatability of the characters who “walked the wrong side of the tracks” as a result of circumstance. Danny Fisher flunks out of high school at the beginning of the movie and spends the rest of the film struggling to make ends meet to support his family and create a life for himself. His father, after dealing with the loss of his wife, struggles to hold a job and is constantly talked down upon by his coworker. Even Charlie LeGrand, the owner of the King Creole, struggles financially until Danny is hired as a performer. More distinct than all of these scripted male roles is the character, Ronnie. Ever since Danny’s scene where he rescues her from her abusive date, she can be recognized as trouble. Similarly, the femme fatale of film noir is a female who is classified as a suspicious and mysterious temptress. Ronnie’s relationship with Danny only confuses him as he struggles to make ends meet. Her character develops through a side plot about her struggle for freedom from Maxie Fields, owner of The Blue Shade. This complexity of the female character is also reflected in film noir, especially considering a feminist, psychoanalytic approach to the role of females in movies through the decades. Especially when film noir was popular in film, the role of women was often to create a character who could be antagonized (for their lack of morals and suspicious actions), sympathized for (although with guilt on the part of the audience for the voyeurist perspective of watching mischief), and then punished (which would relieve the audience of their guilt by showing that bad morals have consequences). Ronnie is no different: we are suspicious of her involvement with Maxie Fields, until we discover that she is manipulated and abused in their relationship. However, her outward sexuality and devious personality is still punished at the cost of her life in a twist ending.
King Creole threw many unexpected situations at the audience. Danny’s confusing relationship with Nellie at the shop starts out on the wrong foot with him deceiving her and bringing her to a hotel room for sex. This is key to the plot development because her rejection further complicates Danny’s quasi-relationship with both Nellie and Ronnie by causing a foil between the “good girl” and the “bad girl”. This dichotomy of women and “right vs. wrong” surrounds the film’s protagonist as he chooses between Charlie LeGrand or Maxie Fields, being a student or being a performer,and choosing between himself or choosing his family. Danny’s conflict towards internal resolution also highlights another function of film noir. Showing characters having moral difficulty was a way to relate to the American audience who were struggling with staying on the “right side of the tracks” themselves. Since the 1940s, this “mood” of plot development, following a protagonist who falls into temptation and struggles to learn how to be truly morally upstanding, has echoed within audiences through the decades. It isn’t without fault that Danny is able to grow up, though. Continuing with the film noir code, Danny falls into temptation and hits rock bottom when he involves himself in a band of robbers who assault his father. This duplicitous scheme ties King Creole as a film noir because it not only involves Danny in the darker side of humanity, but because of the betrayal towards a close and important character – his father. As a result, these plot developments resonate with the audience who sympathizes for Danny’s lack of judgement and his journey through character development. The plot doesn’t simply function as a way to create a protagonist, however. Film noir uses plot as a way to distress the audience, but also as a way to punish moral imperfection. Under a feminist approach to film noir, the femme fatale is almost always punished for her vices and sinful involvement with the male protagonist, despite his intentions with her. King Creole is no different. In a shocking ending, Ronnie is shot by Maxie Fields and the moment is only tormented further because she and Danny had just become “freed”. Serving its function in a film noir, this twist shocks the audience back into the world of reality and consequences, one which the American people were trying to avoid.
King Creole is a successful film not only because it features musical phenomenon Elvis Presley. The music, filming, casting, and production were all key elements that can classify this film as film noir. Since the end of World War II, the darker side of humanity and the economic losses involved really exposed to the world that there exists a collective feeling of disillusionment. By capturing the American mood in film, King Creole shot to success with its relatable casting, compelling story, and unexpected twists.