'Johnny Staccato': A Detective on the Downbeat

What this show lacks in credible beatniks it makes for in the jazz references.

Johnny Staccato has been something of a holy grail among hepcats of TV crime, and now this one-season wonder from 1959-60 finds its way onto DVD looking sharp as a fresh fedora. Starring John Cassavetes when he was just setting out to conquer the world, it has all the hallmarks of the era of jazzy private eyes like Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond. Now that we can finally get a look at it, the best episodes are very good and the routine ones at least have a noirish atmosphere provided by New York location shooting and the hard-driving music of Elmer Bernstein.

Johnny Staccato is a handsome little bantam who plays piano in a jazz club called Waldo's on MacDougall Street in Greenwich Village. He's handy with the ladies, who are always stacked and glamorous. He also works as a private eye who packs a revolver. It's a good thing he's got the night job, because the people he helps are rarely paying clients. They're more likely to be friends or even strangers into whose business he's meddling.

Most of the early episodes are predictable plotwise as Johnny runs around chasing bad guys and finishing the job with a gunfight or two-fisted dust-up. Some stories have holes, like a guy held prisoner in a room with a phone. The prime attractions are the jazz atmosphere of Waldo's and the many linking shots of Johnny trudging around New York locales, riding the subway, dodging traffic. This is one of the show's chief parallels with M Squad, which was also made by Revue Studios and shares some of the creative personnel.

After several episodes, the show gets distinctly moodier and more downbeat. Stories become based on character in a way that dictates the flow of the plot rather than pushes the figures through it. Episodes dwell on character turns sometimes only tangential to the story, and this has the effect of strengthening the story.

One example of character is Episode 9, "Fly Baby, Fly!" scripted by Philip S. Goodman and directed by Robert B. Sinclair. The "special guest star" is Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes' wife; they were already working on his first directorial feature, Shadows. She shows up halfway through the story, after Johnny is acting as a courier on an airplane.

The audience knows he's carrying a bomb that's supposed to go off in-flight. This is the Alfred Hitchcock theory of suspense, and it works like gangbusters during the lengthy perorations from a comically boring passenger (Howard Freeman) and bits of business where they mix up their suitcases. By the way, this is an example of how the series often creates irony by telling the audience something that Johnny doesn't know, even though he's dropping bits of narration on our ears now and again. He may be telling it, but he doesn't know all of it.

Another example of character is the very next episode, "Tempted", in which an old friend (Elizabeth Montgomery, already bewitching) shows up with an expensive necklace that gets stolen. After a turn of events, Johnny has to make a decision between a fortune or doing the right thing. The story takes a few surprising turns, and one of the reasons we can get surprised is that we're paying more attention to Johnny's quandary, which is more important than the plot. Sinclair directs again; the show's most frequent writer, Richard Carr, co-scripted with Alfred Hitchcock Presents veteran Francis Cockrell.

Cassavetes himself directs five episodes, which are marked by a tendency to highlight the actors in close-up while they spill their guts in dramatic arias. Maybe the show should be called Belcanto. His first episode as director is Episode 2, "Murder for Credit", which allows over-the-top bouts from a loudmouth star (Charles McGraw), a washed-up canary (Marilyn Clark) and an aspiring songwriter (Martin Landau). It's scripted by Carr and Laurence Mascott.

Then Cassavetes directs Episode 7, "Evil", which marks the point where the show starts to hit stride. Carr's almost too-rich script is about Brother Max (Alexander Scourby), a thundering preacher and con artist, and the sad, lonely people he fleeces, all of whom get their vivid moments in the spotlight. The show opens with a Twilight Zone moment as his glowering face looks into the camera and declaims "Evil attacks you through your television sets." He's not actually a televangelist but might as well be.

Veteran noir character Elisha Cook Jr. shows up as an alky who perpetually confesses his sins. There's a remarkable setpiece where an old lady (Elizabeth Patterson) surrounded by birds in cages declares that she's lived her whole life without doing anything important. Her implication is that even if she's been rooked, it doesn't matter as long as she believes she's done something positive by giving her money away. With considerations like this and scenes about the manipulation of the crowd, "Evil" goes beyond mundane questions of law and feels like a serious examination of its title quality.

Next Cassavetes helms Episode 13, "A Piece of Paradise" by Robert L. Jacks. This whodunit opens with the fetishized murder of a pair of shapely gams in glittery high heels. They're throttled, or rather their owner is. The rest of the show alternates between sweaty close-ups of an unpleasant bull-headed cop who's mighty keen to pin the murder on someone else, and sweaty close-ups of the pathetic little gimp who loved the dance-hall floozie. We eventually realize the ironic kinship between pursuer and pursued, but this isn't pushed heavily. It's another vehicle for actors without too much detection involved.

The star's next outing as director is Episode 19, "Night of Jeopardy", a highpoint of noir nightmarishness as Johnny finds himself in a desperate situation he doesn't understand, abandoned by the authorities and endangering his friends, while he navigates a night world of vivid, crazy characters. There's an uncredited stoolie named Lazarus ("a guy upstairs") in thick tiny specs. He emerges from the shadows in the middle of a loud party, whispers something unknown, and vanishes. There's an unusually violent and provocative African-American gentleman (Morris Buchanan), evidently high, who plays an ambiguous role on Johnny's journey. This is a tense, breathless, disorienting episode that spends a lot of time framing people in dark stairwells. It's scripted by Carr and producer Everett Chambers.

Finally, Cassavetes directs Episode 22, "Solomon", a remarkable outing written by Stanford Whitmore and possibly the show's finest half hour. Elisha Cook Jr. shows up again, in a role 180 degrees from the pathetic drunk of "Evil". He's the self-proclaimed "world's greatest defense attorney" representing accused murderess Cloris Leachman! She gets a hell of a reveal. It's a stark, expressionistic, almost abstract chamber drama with heightened performances, virtually a Brechtian examination of ideas one doesn't run across in detective shows.

Leachman's character makes a statement about her husband that will, to echo the odd supporting character here and there, totally flip the lids of any squares. The line, given a startling reading, is "We laughed. Peter was gay. He gave me a moment to recuperate." Just as the viewer assumes this must be an example of the older standard usage, since nobody talked about homosexuals this way on TV in 1960, the rest of the dialogue makes it clear that, in fact, we really are supposed to attach the later meaning as well. Were they bypassing the censors with hip code that a mainstream audience might not grasp? Wigsville, man.

John Brahm, a veteran director of '40s noir who moved into TV (including M Squad), helms "Collector's Item", scripted by Carr and Whitmore. This episode is unusual for having an all-black guest cast. Juano Hernandez, a remarkable and underused actor who only took non-stereotyped roles, plays an Ellingtonian pianist at Basin Street East, a real-life swank club. He's being blackmailed over a singer's death. Johnny gets to knock one guy out and shoot another, thus proving that he's prepared to treat the races equally. For the record, Brahm also directs "An Act of Terror", a nutty-ventriloquist tale by Carr and Bernard C. Schoenfeld (Oscar nominee for Caged).

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