In 1958 NBC started airing Peter Gunn, a private eye TV series that enjoyed considerable success. It ran for two seasons on NBC and then for a third season on ABC. It’s probably the best remembered such series of its era. Peter Gunn was created and produced by Blake Edwards who also wrote and directed a number of episodes. Henry Mancini, a frequent Blake Edwards collaborator, provided what was to become one of the best-known theme tunes in TV history.
The program adheres to the half-hour format that was then standard on American television. The visuals have a definite and conscious film noir feel.
Craig Stevens in the title role is a reasonably convincing tough guy private eye but he's just a little too stolid and even perhaps a bit of a Boy Scout. The world of Peter Gunn is the world of night-clubs and jazz clubs. His cases take him into more sordid surroundings at times but his own world is a fairly classy one. He has a swanky apartment. He always seems clean, maybe too clean to be a private detective. Peter Gunn naturally has some underworld connections, as you would expect in his line of work. He is however very much at home with the arty and literary crowds, the world of pretentious urban sophisticates.
The series is in marked contrast to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer which started screening on rival network CBS in the same year. Mike Hammer is definitely not at home with the arty crowd. Sleazy bars are more his scene. Peter Gunn is a fairly tough guy but he’s totally outclassed in the tough guy department by Mike Hammer as played by Darren McGavin. Gunn also lacks the edge of craziness that Hammer has, and he certainly lacks Hammer’s unapologetic enjoyment of violence.
What this all adds up to is that Peter Gunn is a less interesting series than Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. Less interesting, but it has its strengths.
Gunn spends much of his time at a moderately up-market somewhat trendy bar called Mother’s. He spends more time there than in his office. In fact I’m not even sure that he has an office!
Jazz is not as central to this series as it is to Johnny Staccato but it’s still an important ingredient. The jazz in Peter Gunn though is a much more sedate kind of jazz. Despite his arty connections Peter Gunn is a guy with pretty mainstream tastes. He’s a sharp dresser but far from flashy. He’s somewhat bemused by the excesses of modern art. He represents Middle America flirting cautiously with modernity (and I can’t say I blame Middle America for being cautious about such tendencies).
The overwhelming impression I get from this series is its unevenness. A lot of episodes are really quite routine private eye stories. Murder Is the Price for example is a very conventional revenge story. The Wolfe Case is better but it’s still nothing out of the ordinary. Then just as one starts to lose faith in this series along comes an episode like The Briefcase. This is one of the episodes directed by Blake Edwards and it’s mayhem laced with a little comedy, as you might expect from Blake Edwards. It also has a convoluted but clever story, with everyone trying to get their hands on a briefcase full of incriminating documents. For a semi-comedic story it has a remarkably high body count. The Briefcase is a sparkling and very entertaining little tale.
Then there are episodes like Edge of the Knife and The Comic (one of the episodes written and directed by Blake Edwards), which are remarkably grim and downbeat by the standards of 50s network television with more than a hint of a genuine film noir sensibility.
I guess what Blake Edwards was trying to do with this series was to avoid making his hero into a Mike Hammer clone, and to avoid the taint of vigilante justice that surrounded Hammer. Peter Gunn is not a one-man army and he’s not a maverick. He’s a solid dependable professional. Craig Stevens certainly succeeds in making Gunn more respectable than most screen private eyes, but at the cost of making him just a little bland. Peter Gunn will kill bad guys when he has to and he’ll do it without hesitation but he’ll do it in a very dispassionate manner. It’s just part of the job. Craig Stevens lacks the exuberance, the edginess and the sheer panache that Darren McGavin brought to the rôle of Mike Hammer, and he lacks the humanity that John Cassevetes brings to Johnny Staccato.
Peter Gunn on the whole is middle-of-the-road entertainment executed with a certain amount of style. It’s far from being my favourite private eye series of that era but it’s reasonably enjoyable and it’s worth a look.