Comparing Peter Gunn to Johnny Staccato is interesting because they are superficially very similar. In both there’s the same jazz ambience, the same background of night-clubs and musicians and seedy glamour, the same attempt to create an atmosphere of danger, dynamism and excitement. There are however a few significant differences. As played by John Cassavetes Johnny Staccato is more edgy, he’s cocky but with a touch of self-doubt so the cockiness comes across more as bravado than anything else. He’s less perfect than Peter Gunn, more human, and he’s more sympathetic and more interesting.
There also seems to be more at stake in Johnny Staccato. When Johnny takes risks to help people out you get the feeling that the risks are very real, whereas Peter Gunn is too much the perfect PI for whom such things are easy.
Johnny Staccato also feels like a much more authentic window into the slightly dangerous night-time world of jazz and night-clubs than Peter Gunn (which often seems bemused by this strange world). Much of the action takes place in Waldo’s, a kind of jazz basement club. Waldo (Eduard Ciannelli) is an elderly Italian. He and Johnny are close friends.
I reviewed the first half of the first (and only) season of Johnny Staccato a while back. I’m now going to take a closer look at the second half of that season.
Most of the half-hour American cop/private eye series of this era were made quickly on fairly tight budgets but within those limitations Johnny Staccato manages to be quite stylish. There is a very marked film noir flavour, and it feels like the genuine article rather than the superficial noir style of some of the other crime series of the time. It’s noir in content as well as in the visuals.
Not surprisingly, given his later career as a director, John Cassavetes took the opportunity to direct five of the episodes of Johnny Staccato.
The Episode Guide
In The Return Johnny is trying to help a disturbed Korean War vet who has busted out of an army mental hospital and intends to kill his wife. The guy really is serious about killing his wife but he’s basically a decent guy who has gotten seriously mixed up and Johnny doesn’t want to see him shot by the police, which seems to be a distinct possibility. Johnny also wants to make sure the gut doesn’t kill his wife! Johnny has a special reason for wanting to help the guy since he’s a Korean War vet himself. It’s a good episode and a typical one in that Johnny has a strong personal reason for taking risks to help someone out and it emphasises the fact that Johnny has had to deal with personal demons, and has done so successfully. We get a glimpse into his interior world.
The Unwise Men is a Christmas episode in which a department store Santa (who happens to be one of Johnny’s buddies) is roped into a robbery by his no-good brother. It’s a mess but Johnny thinks he can get him out of it. There’s nothing in it for Staccato but he’s a guy who doesn’t let his friends down.
The Man in the Pit is a broken down jazz musician whose son wants to kill him. Staccato wants to save the son from being a murderer and find out why a harmless old trumpet player would be doing things that seem so out of character.
The Only Witness is Staccato and what he’s a witness to is a gangland killing. And the killer knows Staccato is the witness so it seems highly likely that he’ll take steps to remove him, permanently. This is an episode that sums up why this is such an unusual PI series. Staccato carries a gun (he often does) and this time he draws it twice. But he never fires it. It’s just not the kind of PI series that grabs every opportunity for a shoot-out.
Night of Jeopardy opens with Johnny taking a walk when suddenly a gun battle erupts. Johnny kills one of the hoods, Dave Roman. The hood in question was carrying a package containing plates for counterfeit money and the counterfeiting gang (very big-time mobsters) wants that package. What nobody knows (including Johnny) is that Roman hid the package just before he died. The mobsters think Johnny has the package and they’re prepared to kill all of Johnny’s friends in order to persuade hm, to give them the information he doesn’t have. An unusually violent episode and the violence is quite graphic by 1959 standards. A good episode.
The “hey there’s a guy out there who is an exact double for the hero except that he’s evil” has to be the most tedious of all tedious chichés. Double Feature is a typical example of the cliché in action. In this Staccato’s double is a hit-man. This episode is at best average and is notable mostly for being extremely violent and for showing the cops in a very unfavourable light.
In The List of Death a dying mobster has a list of things he wants to do before he dies and he persuades Staccato to help him. The last item on the list is the surprise one. Very good episode.
An Act of Terror is a story about Thad Clinton, a young ventriloquist, hires Johnny to find his wife. Now any ventriloquism story is going to have a certain amount of weirdness and this one is no exception. It’s not difficult to figure out what’s really going on but at least it’s well executed.
An Angry Young Man is a punk named Carl Humboldt who has a job in a bookstore that is a front for a racket. Johnny has to help him out because he’s fond of the kid’s father and aunt. This one tries a bit too hard to be cute and warm-hearted and it’s a bit contrived. The characterisation of Carl is all over the place and it’s unconvincing. Not one of the better episodes.
In The Mask of Jason Johnny has to act as bodyguard to a contestant in a beauty pageant (the contestant is played by a young Mary Tyler Moore). She’s being menaced by a very very ugly man. Johnny soon discovers that there are other kinds of ugliness and that the ugliness inside can be the worst of all. Quite a good episode.
Johnny Staccato is a bit uneven but mostly it’s very good. John Cassavetes definitely makes an interesting private eye.
Mention should be made of the great jazz theme tune which promises glamour and excitement (which the show generally delivers). In fact there’s jazz all the way though this series and Cassavetes manages to be fairly convincing as both private eye and musician.
The complete series of Johnny Staccato (twenty-seven episodes) is available on DVD in Region 1. The transfers are very good but there are no extras. Johnny Staccato is highly recommended.