Success breaths imitation and the success in 1958 of the Blake Edwards created TV series Peter Gunn did just that with Johnny Staccato. Peter Gunn starred Craig Stevens as the sharply dressed detective whose favorite hang-out was a riverfront jazz club called Mother’s (Mother was played by veteran character actress Hope Emerson). That show remains most memorable for its Henry Mancini written Peter Gunn Theme with its driving beat that’s part jazz and part early rock and roll. Gunn, as played by Craig Stevens, was elegant for a private eye. California laid back. He had expensive taste and a sophisticated style. This guy didn’t walk along those mean dark streets we associate with P.I’s like Spade and Marlowe.
During the fall TV season of 1959 NBC premiered Johnny Staccato. It starred John Cassavetes as a jazz musician who supplemented his income by playing private eye. Like Gunn, Staccato’s favorite hangout was a jazz club. For Staccato it was Waldo’s, run by character actor Eduardo Ciannelli, where he played piano. However, there were differences in the two shows. Staccato’s beat is New York. He had the city’s edginess. Waldo’s is set in Greenwich Village as oppose to a nameless west coast city in Peter Gunn. Staccato is closer in style to classic noir like detectives like the aforementioned Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Staccato walked those mean streets. Jazz plays a more important part in the show thanks to the Pete Candoli Combo. In Peter Gunn, Craig Stevens brought a sense of sophisticated class to the private eye genre while Cassavetes brought his street tough persona as well as a jazzy feel.
Until the other day, I have not seen an episode of Johnny Staccato in quite a few years. Then while doing a little channel surfing on TV, I came across an episode that was going to be broadcast during the middle of the night. With Gena Rowlands listed as the guest star, I set the DVR.
The episode was called, Fly, Baby, Fly. Like Peter Gunn, Johnny Staccato has his charm that goes over well with the ladies. In this episode he quickly starts talking to this beautiful blonde (Ingrid Goulde) he meets at Waldo’s when this big lug comes over and informs Staccato he’s muscling in on his dame. It quickly evolves into a fist fight outside the club with Johnny punching out the oversized gorilla. The guy turns out to millionaire Guy Fletcher (Dort Clark) who likes the way Johnny can handle himself. Though they just met, he has a deal in the works that needs a guy just like Johnny. He’s willing to pay one thousand dollars and claims it all above board.
Johnny’s a bit skeptical and says he’ll have to think about it. He doesn’t for too long and agrees to meet Fletcher at his office. The deal involves transporting a briefcase filled with rare stones to California. Apparently, as he tell Johnny, there are people out there who are after the stones and do not want to see this deal completed. He can’t carry the package himself because his face is too well known to everyone involved. He also tells Johnny not to open the case until they are flying over Arizona. Fletcher’s secretary has his ticket. Johnny, steps out of Fletcher’s office for a moment to retrieve it. While Johnny is out, Fletcher quickly switches briefcases. The new briefcase contains an explosive device set to go off when the suitcase is opened.
On board the aircraft, Johnny meets Nina Van Ness (Gena Rowlands), a singer. Johnny manages to sit next to her. In conversation that seems to move along to a cozy point at a rapid pace they discover both are in the music business. She it turns out is a well-known singer. Unfortunately, it also comes out that Nina is Fletcher’s wife and she is on her way to Las Vegas for a quickie divorce. When she finds out Johnny is working for her husband, she wants nothing to do with him.
For Johnny, his detective alarm suddenly goes off. There’s too much coincidence. He is on the same flight, which Fletcher arranged, as Nina. Fletcher gives him this briefcase filled with supposedly rare stones and Fletcher, as Nina mentions, would have no problem killing her. Johnny’s suspicion grows and he notifies the aircraft staff that there may be a bomb on the plane. They need to make an emergency landing.
This particular episode is filled with some intense Hitchcockian style suspense. We the audience know what’s going on, there’s a bomb on board, but Johnny who is telling the story in narration, does not know as much as he think he knows. What also struck me was how relevant the idea, from a show more than fifty years old, of a terrorist bomb on board an aircraft was. The threat that a maniac, filled with so much hatred, was willing to down an entire flight filled with people just to get rid of his wife. We live in a world where, while we cannot live our lives frozen in fear, today we are all well aware of the terrorist attacks that plague the world.
Additionally, it’s interesting to see in this show how airline travel has changed over the years. Smoking during a flight the most obvious. There is also the luggage compartment above that has no doors to secure any packages stored. A flight attendance, all young attractive women, tells Staccato he needs to hold the briefcase in his lap during takeoff. As we all know today that would be a no-no. This little TV detective show reflects how times have changed and gives us a brief history lesson on the way we were.
Cassavetes has always been an intense actor and he style generally works in this New York based series. Some of the episodes remain excellent, others are predictable or uneven. However, they are never dull and all have a noirish feel that remains interesting as well as a jazzy soundtrack by the great Elmer Bernstein.