Sunday, December 5, 2010

TV Noir: Johnny Staccato (1959-60)

John Cassavetes is Johnny Staccato! The 1959-60 TV series is out on DVD! Cassavetes is the title character, a struggling jazz pianist-turned private detective. I used to watch this back in 2004 when the TRIO channel aired it on its Brilliant But Cancelled theme. I'd known about the show for years and finally saw it then. John Cassavetes was great, the chicks were cute, the Crime Jazz was cool, and the atmosphere was hardboiled; I loved the shots of 1959 NYC.

My favorite episodes:

Solomon- Directed by John Cassavetes. As arty and as Noir as this show ever got. It's easy to see how Cassavetes was influenced by European directors...or maybe vice versa. Cloris Leachman and Elisha Cook, Jr. are both great in this.

Night of Jeopardy- Cool plot twist in this story about some missing counterfeit plates; the term "T-Men" gets bandied about a lot.

A Piece of Paradise- Man, is this one downbeat and tragic. A brilliant episode. This is as about as dark in content as network TV got in 1959. A jockey is accused of murder, or was it that tough cop (Bert Freed) who hassles Johnny all the time?

While some aspects of the show are entertainingly dated (Beatniks, 1959-era slang, etc), I'm impressed at how the best shows have timelessness to them, particularly the ones directed by Cassavetes himself. I get the impression that he only agreed to star in Staccato so he could finance his independent films. Speaking of which, film school students should watch these to see how B&W photography is done. As for the acting, Cassavetes is always brilliant; he even breaks into "Victor Franko" mode on occasion!

This show wasn't going to last more than one year, as it's unlike almost anything on TV at the time, if not in concept, then in execution. Though there were other "Swinging Private Eye" shows on before and during Staccato's time: 77 Sunset Strip and its various spin offs; plus Richard Diamond; Peter Gunn; and Mike Hammer, all of which were contemporaries of Staccato. However, those shows lacked the punch and power that Johnny Staccato had. Much is mentioned about the Korean War and its effects on veterans. Staccato is a Korean War vet, as well. I don't think many TV shows of the time took on issues like pacifism, or decried the anti-communist witch hunts, either. There's even a creepy episode where a ventriloquist is semingly "controlled" by his puppet; shades of 1978's Magic, which starred Anthony Hopkins.

Supporting Cast: Eduardo Ciannelli as Waldo is a delightful father figure to Johnny Staccato; Garry "Quincy, M.E." Walberg and several fine guest stars. Martin Landau and John Cassavetes in the same room? They look like brothers!

Cassavetes' voiceover is another notable aspect of the program, too. A must for Noirheads!