Friday, December 3, 2010

Johnny Came Lately

Film music grandmaster Elmer Bernstein made his bones in the mid-1950s by following the trail first blazed by Alex North, to blend Jazz instruments and Jazz composition elements into noirish movie scores. Bernstein wrote the music for The Man with the Golden Arm, Sweet Smell of Success, his non-film album Blues and Brass, the later Some Came Running and Walk on the Wild Side, and more. Piggybacking on Bernstein's style and success, television cop shows like M Squad and Peter Gunn began using Jazz too, and then the producers of a Gunn rival called Staccato (broadcast in 1959) hired Bernstein to work his magic once more.

Set in New York's Greenwich Village, the one-season, 27-episode Staccato series starred vibrant and intense young actor John Cassavetes in his one and only series television role, as a private eye who'd rather play Jazz piano and hang out at his friend Waldo's namesake nightclub than go down the Mean Streets. But some other friend's problem, some stranger's need for help, always pulls him back into action. And with Cassavetes, one really does mean action: he strides everywhere, bursts into rooms, charges up and down stairs, makes snap decisions, talks tough and fast and gets clobbered often.

The show's opening credit sequence each week set the tone, offering 30 seconds of John running pell-mell through the darkened streets and alleys of the Village; and that frantic pace continued through 25-minute stories that seemed to cram-in twice that in plot and suspense and sudden action. Rising young actors and familiar character players guested--Michael Landon, Gena Rowlands (soon Cassavetes' wife), Alexander Scourby, Elizabeth Montgomery (didn't twitch her nose, though), Jack Weston, Susan Oliver, Geraldine Brooks, Frank DeKova, and others, all of them hurting or angry or on the sly.

Staccato was truly exciting, and a total contrast to the more laid-back Peter Gunn with sleepy Craig Stevens. The Gunn show's success was largely due to Henry Mancini's score, delivered by top-flight West Coast players--plus lovely Lola Albright as the chanteuse at Mother's club. But Bernstein's music had more of an edge and truly was more jaggedly "staccato," with lots of brass and driving rhythms played by many of the same studio-ace musicians, guys like Shelly Manne, Barney Kessel, Pete Candoli, Johnny Williams (then a Jazz pianist, later to become film score giant John W. of Jaws/Star Wars/Superman/Indiana Jones fame), Reds Mitchell and Norvo, Ronnie Lang, the Nash brothers, et al.

I was 16 when Staccato had its one year, and I watched every week. The show didn't make it, disappeared into the NBC vaults, and was forgotten. Cassavetes shaped a maverick career, creating his own tough and independent films as both actor and director. Bernstein moved on to score, I don't know, maybe a couple hundred other movies ranging from The Ten Commandments to The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird to The Great Escape, Animal House to Ghostbusters, and Hawaii to Airplane! So fifty years busily synch-sprocketed by.

I held on to my copy of the Staccato soundtrack and played it occasionally, wondering if the show would ever resurface. A few years back, I noticed an eBay auction selling videotape copies of the series, so I bid and won somebody's private bootleg stash. I watched maybe half of the tapes, slightly disappointed that the show didn't quite match up to my rosy memories, but mostly just bummed by the low-quality duplication. Still, I vowed I'd really dig in some weekend...

Then a month ago I discovered an ad for the newly and legally reissued, 3 DVD set of all 27 episodes of (now retitled) Johnny Staccato: Television's Jazz Detective. I fired off my $20... and have been in TV heaven ever since I tore off the plastic wrap and spun the first DVD. The show was, and still is, excellent, blending film noir, timeless plots, philosophical questions, droll comedy, Beat Generation shenanigans, social injustice, on-location photography in the Big Apple (a few exotic destinations too), and yes, loads of action.

Oh, and some damn fine Jazz too. (Now: anybody need a VHS set, cheap...?)

1 comment:

Alan Kurtz said...

Great piece, Ed. I too remember Staccato from its original run. I took John Cassavetes for one cool cat, an actor who genuinely dug jazz. Years later, I saw the 1959 version of his film Shadows, for which Mingus supposedly provided "additional music." Mostly Cassavetes relied on Mingus's sideman Shafi Hadi to ad lib "saxaphone" [sic] solos for the soundtrack. When I realized that Cassavetes didn't know how to spell saxophone, illusions of his hipness were instantly dispelled.