Today’s post is dedicated to a show that lasted just one season but which deserves to be remembered. Filmed in LA but set in New York, the half-hour adventures of Johnny Staccato (Revue/NBC; US 1959-60) featured great jazz music, some amazing actors and was an unusually intense production, as befitting its extraordinary lead actor.
The following review is offered as part of Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog, who also celebrates great music on his blog, so I’m hoping he’ll be doubly interested in this particular post!
The classic phase of film noir came to a close in the late 1950s with the release of Welles’ Touch of Evil and Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow, thrillers whose focus on race and sexuality signalled a more adult mode that seemed to reflect a shift away from the fading patrician values of the crumbling Hollywood studio system. Staccato lasted one season during this transitional period, offering mini noir adventures shot partially on location in New York and starring new wave star John Cassavetes, who at the time was completing his ground-breaking indie directorial debut, Shadows.
The show was made in clear imitation of Blake Edwards’ hugely popular Peter Gunn, in which Craig Stevens’ clean cut super-smooth sleuth used a bar as base of operations in a series of half-hour adventures backed by the smooth jazz of Henry Mancini. With its East Coast setting requiring a more introspective sensibility, Staccato has Elmer Bernstein providing the hot big band sound for a moodier and more soulful private eye series reflecting Cassavetes’ intense persona as the eponymous Greenwich Village jazz pianist who makes a living sorting out other people’s problems. These range from baby trafficking and intimidation from crooked fighting promoters, blackmailing scandal sheet owners, over-zealous cops, drug pushers and several unhinged war veterans (Staccato was a soldier in the Korea). Jazz is central to the show with musicians such as Pete Candoli, Barney Kessel Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell and even cellist Fred Katz all performing on screen. New York’s melting pot is primarily represented in musical terms, even for stories set in the Black, Hispanic and Japanese communities, though it’s the beatnik generation that gets the most coverage with the hardboiled dialogue usually laced with hipster argot (‘Play it cool, man’).
Almost permanently penumbral and beautifully shot in black and white (cinematographers include Lionel Lindon), the most visually dynamic episodes are the five directed by Cassavetes himself; these include a story about a crooked evangelist, which opens with an unbroken two-minute reverse tracking shot; and a three-hander about a pacifist (Cloris Leachman) who murders her gay husband that co-stars noir legend Elisha Cook Jr and which is often visually startling despite taking place in only two sets. Cassavetes makes for an engaging and unusual hero, frequently impatient, agitated and exasperated by the insanity that surrounds his clients and friends (played by many of the actor’s close associates, including Gena Rowlands, Val Avery and John Marley). In his final case Staccato fails to protect his client and swears off his trade as a PI, heading off uncertainly into the dark for a perfect noir finale.
DVD Availability: Available in the US and the UK in a series set, it provides very strong black and white images; the audio is a little harsh and loud in the upper register on occasion but is otherwise fairly decent. There are a few noticeable instances of music replacement throughout due to rights problems.
Director: John Cassavetes, Boris Sagal, John Brahm, Paul Henreid (and others)
Producer: Everett Chambers
Screenplay: Richard Carr, Robert L. Jacks (and others)
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon, John F. Warren (and others)
Art Direction: John Meehan
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: John Cassavetes, Eduardo Ciannelli