Having flunked high school for the second time Danny Fields (Elvis Presley) needs cash to support his belligerent dad and kindly sister. So he takes a job as a singer at the King Creole nightclub, one of the few joints in New Orleans not run by oily mobster Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau). As a man used to getting his own way, Fields tries to use Danny's friendship with tragic moll Ronnie (Carolyn Jones) as a means of persuading him to perform at his club instead. Whilst pursuing romance with winsome drug store girl Nellie (Dolores Hart), Danny's desire to do right by his family draws him unwittingly down a darker path.
Widely considered Elvis Presley's greatest movie, although Flaming Star (1960) was a fine film in its own right, King Creole contained the performance of which the King himself was most proud. Far removed from the clownish capering of later vehicles, here Elvis was lean, mean and electric on screen. Part of that was down to this being one of the rare occasions where he was paired with a great director, in this instance Michael Curtiz of Casablanca (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and numerous other classics of the studio era. Curtiz had been reluctant to work with Elvis, fearing he would be a preening and arrogant rock rebel but was soon won over by his charm and came to recognize his tremendous potential as an actor. Brooding, charismatic and sensitive, Elvis proved himself the equal of his idols Marlon Brando and James Dean.
Adapted from the novel “A Stone for Danny Fisher” penned by that titan of trash literature Harold Robbins, of The Carpetbaggers (1964) infamy, King Creole was in fact originally written for James Dean and shares some themes in common with the seminal Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Beneath their swagger and rebellious sneers both Dean's Jim Stark and Presley's Danny Fisher emerge as thoroughly decent human beings misunderstood by middle-aged authority figures. Danny makes a few mistakes as he tries to get by but by and large it is the adults that prove the problem, not the kids – whether it is his meek yet oddly implacable father or the callous and corrupt Maxie Fields, so well played by Walter Matthau he practically oozes across the screen. The plot places Danny at a crossroads as the tension hinges on whether his personal problems will lead him into a life of crime or whether his talent can take him to a far better place. Each possibility is physically embodied by the female leads.
Reunited with Elvis after Loving You (1957), Dolores Hart is exceptional as Nellie, a far savvier and outspoken love interest than would prove the norm in Elvis movies. In particular the scene where Nellie is quietly taken aback as Danny tries to get her into bed on their first date is beautifully played and unexpectedly emotional. Nevertheless the star turn here belongs to Carolyn Jones, later much beloved as Morticia in The Addams Family. Jones is heartbreaking as Ronnie, the self-loathing “floozy” who simultaneously embodies everything Danny is danger of becoming and yet perceives in him a tenderness and the possibility of a brighter future left tragically unrealized. The vivid characters are what make King Creole stand out in Elvis' filmography with the film in essence about decent but downtrodden folk trying to make good in a dirty world.
Unusually Curtiz styled this as a musical film noir which means the action segues from taut suspense with Danny eluding knife-wielding thugs down dark alleys, including a young Vic Morrow and Brian G. Hutton, future director of Where Eagles Dare (1969), to scenes with him singing and dancing up a storm onstage. Yet Curtiz bring real power to the musical set-pieces that are flawlessly integrated into the story, showing Danny's growing confidence as a performer. Needless to say the soundtrack is fantastic, maintaining a pulsating, ominous rhythm that serves as the beat of the city. Curtiz imbues the story with a certain mythic grandeur, again comparable to Rebel Without a Cause, and evokes the unique almost mystical ambiance of New Orleans right from the prologue where Danny joins in with the singing street vendors. Interestingly King Creole ranks among a handful of screenwriting credits for Michael V. Gazzo, better known for his many acting appearances as gangsters on film and television, most notably in The Godfather Part II (1974). Co-writer Herbert Baker was a composer, author and songwriter whose past work included seminal rock and roll comedy The Girl Can't Help It (1956). Far removed from the gritty action of King Creole, he also penned Murderers' Row (1966) and The Ambushers (1967), a pair of campy spy spoofs with Dean Martin as Matt Helm as well as Mae West's disastrous all-star comeback Sextette (1978). Decades later, Baker penned another vehicle for a rock star looking to branch out into movies with the Neil Diamond version of The Jazz Singer (1980).