Johnny Staccato

staccatoToday’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

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in Film Noir, New York, Noir on Tuesday, Private Eye. Bookmark the permalink.

48 Responses to Johnny Staccato

  1. realthog says:

    Golly! Never even heard of this one. Thanks for the info, Sergio.

  2. I must confess, Sergio, I never saw this, ‘though I’ve heard of it. It sounds like a great show, though. Why is it that so much excellent TV is cancelled after just one series or two? Shame about the music on the DVD set, but it sounds terrific.

  3. Paula Carr says:

    The name sounds familiar, but I’ve never seen this one either.

    The Peter Gunn show also feature Mary Tyler Moore’s legs. 🙂

  4. Bill Ectric says:

    Why have I not heard of this?! Gotta see it. I’ve been enjoying a 77 Sunset Strip marathon and this Staccato is right up my alley.

  5. Santosh Iyer says:

    Never heard of this. Thanks for informing.
    Most episodes are available on Youtube.
    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UConP2YIED9tscHWZ1cDsxwQ/videos?sort=dd&view=0&shelf_id=0

  6. Colin says:

    This is a superb show and worthy of attention on Fedora, one of the best pieces of noir television from that great era when the small screen was picking up where the movies had left off with the genre.

    • Thanks chum – well said! Incidentally, it observed one of those quaint characteristics of there in the Christmas episode by having the main characters break the fourth wall and wish viewers a merry Christmas. Never see that on Game of Thrones!

      • Colin says:

        🙂 Probably not.Having said that, I’ve never seen any GoT so I’m merely speculating here.

        I really like these early noir/cop shows, as I know you do too, and this is one of the best, in my opinion.

  7. David says:

    Mary Tyler Moore’s legs were featured on the Richard Diamond show not Peter Gunn. Johnny Staccato runs twice a week on GetTV, usually on Wednesdays and Saturdays sometimes between 2am and 6am.

  8. A little before my time, this one, but my OH rates it very highly – definitely worth a revisit, by the sound of it!

  9. I think this was shown on Channel 4 maybe in its wild early days in the 1980s, when you never knew what would come next. Rare old TV series, and foreign and indie films, and Cheers – those were the days.

  10. Simon says:

    I remember seeing some episodes on TV so many years ago, but it is familiar to me.. it was a wonderfully evocative show- I think the box set is a must- in the meantime if anyone wants to catch Cassavetes in another of his classic performances may I recommend Polanski’s classic ” Rosemary’s Baby”
    ( think I used the word ‘ classic ‘ too often there)

  11. Sergio – Thanks for reviewing this show. I’ve read about it, but have never seen it. Now that it is on DVD, I might just ask Santa Claus for it.

  12. John says:

    Love that music! So evocative of that time. Nice touch with the Italian TV promo, too.

    I’d watch Cassavetes as Johnny Staccato over Craig Stevens (reserved, wooden and dull) as Peter Gunn any day. I tried to take in some of the Peter Gunn episodes when I caught them on a nostalgia station and was bored out of my mind. Never made it to the end of any of them. Cassavetes is so much more raw and interesting as an actor and wins major points in the smoldering good looks department. With me at least. ;^) Thanks, for this alert to the DVD set. This die hard renter may just plunk down the cash and buy the set for keeps.

    • My pleasure John – and yes, much as I do like Peter Gunn, it is intrinsically lightweight. Let me know if you have trouble getting DVD copies, very happy to lend you mine.

  13. Sergio, I was impressed with John Cassavetes in THE DIRTY DOZEN and planned to see more of his films which, of course, I never did subsequently. I’d never heard of this television series before and I’d certainly like to check out Elmer Bernstein’s music.

  14. I remember this show, Sergio. Yes, I actually watched it when it was first on television. I’m THAT old. Ha! I always liked John Cassavetes and his iconic un-Hollywood approach to film. He had a New York eye. I believe I saw most of his movies on the big screen at one time or another.

  15. Barry Ergang says:

    I watched this too-short-lived series when it first aired during the heyday of private eye programs in the late Fifties and early Sixties. There are a couple of episodes on YouTube–I watched one called “The Naked Truth” this afternoon.

    Elmer Bernstein’s theme is one I loved from the moment I first heard it.

    “Staccato” might have an east coast sensibility, as you mentioned, Sergio, but the jazz performed by the musicians at Waldo’s, where Staccato hangs out and occasionally jams on piano with them, is of the west coast “cool” variety. East coast jazz from that period tended to be funkier, more soulful–some of it came to be known as “hard bop.”

  16. Some highly delightful reads here. I’m so glad I stumbled upon this little gem. Here’s hoping you’ll visit my blog too. Love and best wishes.

  17. Barry Ergang says:

    This thread reminded me of a couple of other crime series with some great music.

    The theme from “M-Squad,” starring Lee Marvin, was composed by the great Count Basie, leader of my all-time-favorite big band: https://youtu.be/PAhXez5Ib2k.

    Possibly the most unusual private eye series with a jazz soundtrack was the western “Shotgun Slade,” starring Scott Brady (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shotgun_Slade). If you’re curious and/or old enough to feel nostalgic, YouTube has available quite a number of episodes: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=shotgun+slade+full+episodes.

  18. Looks great – completely new to me, thanks Barry.

  19. Jeff Flugel says:

    This is a very good series, Sergio, and you hit the high points well. Have had the DVD set for a while now and have enjoyed the many episodes I’ve watched. I’ve enjoyed discovering these short-lived but high-quality series from the 50s and 60s on DVD that Shout, Timeless and others have put out…there’s something to be said for a limited-run series ending on a high note instead of going on and on until it’s outstayed it welcome. This show even had a nifty noir Christmas episode, “The Unwise Men,” featuring Jack Weston as a department store Santa being bullied into a crime by his ex-con brother (Marc Lawrence).

    Happy Christmas to you and yours, Sergio!

  20. Mike Doran says:

    Before its official DVD release, several Staccato episodes found their way into the “collector’s market” (bootlegs to the rest of us).
    One of them was the Elisha Cook/Cloris Leachman episode, which I showed to my smartass older brother, who sniffed at the look of the show and haughtily declared “Who directed this – Ed Wood?”
    Imagine his chagrin when the credits rolled …

    This VHS tape also contained the original commercials, one of them with John Cassavetes himself.
    Mr. C. is shown standing on a hilltop, watching a young couple in a sailboat down below, dreamily lighting up their Salem cigarettes.
    Cassevetes is heard in voiceover, extolling the sponsor’s gaspers in his “cool” manner; this was typical of the time in US commercial TV – every star of a series was expected to pitch the product, and most did so willingly in service of their jobs.

    Those were the days, my friend …

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