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Television from the mid '50's to the mid '60's, probably due to its roots
the theater, was far more stylized than today's fare. Most of us who
it then, certainly as kids growing up, were probably not really aware of
this aspect. We just watched and enjoyed. But in retrospect, or through
seeing various classic shows on disc or tape, this stylistic aspect
very clear. Also lacking then was today's bottomless well of technological
possibility, giving most productions of the time a rather cut-and-dried
that might seem hopelessly lacking in dimensionality to the young viewer
this time. But there were true gems lying about in this older, rougher
ground. It was this era, lest we forget, that spawned the peerless,
Twilight Zone, a series that perfectly sampled the over and undercurrents
its time as no other ever has, and which owed much of its power to the
realities of low-tech TV. Also produced in this era was the superb Have
Will Travel with its perfect blend of psychological and physical
one of several excellent western series that aired then.
But in terms of pure style, no TV series of that time, of any genre, could match the half-hour crime drama Peter Gunn, a production so stylized and stylistically detailed, and so measured, that it almost resembled Japanese Kabuki. Every aspect of this Blake Edwards-produced series was meticulously detailed and managed, from the near-blank style of its acting to even the visuals that preceded and terminated breaks for commercials. In fact, it was the pre-commercial segue that became my favorite. In the sequence, a musical G-clef unwound itself and morphed into a Giacommeti-like human figure, all against a slowly-arpeggiated, extremely cool jazz guitar chord. This very slick sequence got past me the first time around, when the show was in its network run and I was too young to really appreciate it. But years later, when the series was in local syndication and airing at midnight, I stayed up just to watch and listen to it. It was that cool.
Most Peter Gunn episodes were cut from a similar template: the caper to be addressed transpired in a pre-credit sequence (Peter Gunn was one of the first shows to jump directly to story before rolling opening creds.) Then Craig Steven's almost impossibly urbane private eye, Peter Gunn, would step onto the case, always bending the law just enough to keep Herschel Bernardi's way dour NYPD detective, Lt. Jacobi, unsure of whom to arrest first: Gunn or the perps in question. The often-repeated sight of Jacobi arriving on the scene, snub .38 drawn, ready to arrest the suspect, only to find Gunn already there and in control, never failed to amuse. When Gunn was not effortlessly staying two steps ahead of Jacobi, he was lizarding at Mother's, a waterfront jazz club, and getting his flirt on with its sultry headlining singer, blonde neutron bombshell Edie Hart, played by Lola Albright, a type of lady that might be defined as Marilyn Monroe's far more experienced sister. The show's sense of cool was almost too much, but not quite, a fact that made it eminently watchable then, and has allowed it to live on even now in syndication.
Underpinning and significantly defining the series was Henry Mancini's superb music. Mancini passed away in the mid 90's and is just now getting his due, including a postage stamp in his memory. His Peter Gunn theme is still being covered today but it was his incidental music for the series that I loved best, especially the stuff that played as the pre-credit story opened. Mancini took the then-popular West Coast, cool jazz sound and further iced it down, doing things like blending flute and tremoloed vibraphones to sustain a menacing, ever-darkening cloud behind the plot. Mancini was a master of all moods, which he crafted with lush harmonies and gliding melodies (The ageless Days of Wine and Roses and Moon River are his; lyrics by Johnny Mercer.) Mancini was very prolific and did many great things that sort of slid by while no one was really looking, probably because he never tried to acquire the spotlight himself, as himself. He mainly let his work do the walking and talking. His soundtrack to the movie Hatari (an intermittently very entertaining action flick with John Wayne as an African big game capture expert) remains worthy and remarkable to this day. As a freshman at the University of Idaho, I watched Mancini guest-conduct the university orchestra; the Maestro forbearing graciously as his `Baby Elephant Walk', an incidental piece from the Hatari soundtrack that became an international hit, was butchered by the inept flute section. It was heart-rending. Mancini also did the music for another similar but unsuccessful TV series, Mr. Lucky, based on the Cary Grant movie character from the mid-forties. Mr. Lucky died fairly quickly, but its theme music, featuring the squishiest, most liquid Hammond organ voice ever recorded, lives on, in my memory at least.
"Peter Gunn" was one of the most enjoyable TV-detective series of all time! Every week, the black-and-white cinematography (by Hollywood veterans like Philip Lathrop), the jazzy music (by the incomparable Henry Mancini; the album won the first Grammy "Album of the Year" in 1958), and the sharp writing and directing (contributed and supervised by the creator, Blake Edwards) combined, along with the incredibly "cool" performances of Craig Stevens, Lola Albright, Herschel Bernardi, and Hope Emerson, to create a mini-movie, a little "film noir" that took the elements of the big studio thrillers and condensed them into 24 minutes! There was always time for a little musical interlude, with Lola Albright's Edie performing a standard. It was all done with style, wit and verve. Now, the entire first season is available on DVD, and it's as sophisticated and seductive as such movies as "Double Indemnity" or "The Killers" or "The Big Sleep", only in short bursts.
Are you a fan of 1940s film noir? If so, check out this Peter Gunn
compilation. You'll find a lot of the same type of snappy dialogue and
great black & white cinematography complete with shadows and
interesting camera angles. Also featured are interesting stories, a
"cool" (or "crazy" as the expression of the time period was) lead
character in Craig Stevens and an absolutely dead-gorgeous blonde in
True, you can't develop character studies or much of an intricate plot in 25- minute stories, but if you just "dig" the atmosphere, you'll find a real sleeper of a DVD series here. Wonderful stuff for film noir buffs.
This was one of the most provocative series ever made for TV, inaugurating a whole new genre. In addition to having the best music (by Henry Mancini) ever written for TV, it was perhaps the first and only film noire series.
It's true that anime series like "Cowboy Bebop" have elements never
considered in 1950's TV, like a definitive end to the series,
and tragedy. But the mood of "Bebop", its music, its eccentric characters
and the cynical humor of the hero can all be traced to "Peter Gunn." (And
show that nothing is completely original, some have said that "Gunn" was
derived from Will Eisner's classic comic strip character of the 40's and
50's, "The Spirit.")
Gunn had a great supporting cast. There was the old jazz lady Mother, whose jazz bar just happened to attract the best West Coast jazz artists of the day (occasionally mentioned by name in the episodes); her house singer Edie Hart, whose love for Gunn was remarkably passionate; and Lieutenant Jacoby, who had a love/hate relationship with Gunn. There were equally weird characters involved. One episode in the second DVD volume has Gunn protecting Timothy - who happens to be a sea lion, with his own cute little theme song. More typical, in the first volume, was a story about a dead body found in Edie Hart's apartment, which is being painted. The attitude of the painter of all these police and goons in the apartment, and making his job harder, goes beyond comic relief to a featured comic part.
Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, Mike Hammer and Rocky King (Roscoe Karnes)
were all just a few well-known Private Detectives of our Popular
Fiction. Though there were some obvious similarities, each one had some
individually unique characteristics that gave them their own
"personalities". All the above mentioned were multi-media characters,
save for Roscoe Karnes' clever, under-stated everyman character from
the DuMont Network's "ROCKY KING INSIDE DETECTIVE" series of the early
1950's. The 3 others were first gum-shoeing it first in the pages of
the Detective Novel; then were adapted to Radio, Film, Comic
Strips/Books and Television.
In the ensuing years we saw some string of original, 'Made for TV' Private I's. There was Ralph Bellamy as Mike Barnett- "MAN AGAINST CRIME" (1949-54), Don Haggerty in the title role in "THE FILES OF JEFFREY JONES (1954-55) and Frank Lovejoy portraying the main guy in "MEET McGRAW" (1957-58).
But it was a case of the cool, urbane and cerebral "PETER GUNN" (1958-61) who brought the sleuthing business to an unprecedented high on the little, living room screen. The series was a creation of a young writer by the name of Blake Edwards. And if Peter Gunn has a middle name, it surely must be "Style".
A typical GUNN episode was a murder mystery and like a good citizen, Mr. Gunn (Craig Stevens) always worked closely with the Local Police; especially with a certain Lieutenant Jacoby (Hershcel Bernardi) who is a regular and the number 1 supporting player. Gunn's home away from home was Mothers, the coolest of cool Jazz Clubs. It was there that he met with girlfriend, singer Edie Hart (Lola Albright).
Peter Gunn was a successful Detective, so there was never any doubt that he could take care of himself and shoot with the best of them. But the gun-play and fisticuffs were played down, though not eliminated. The series instead relied on well constructed plot, clever dialog, skilled direction and fine performances by the fine cast.
The production was also on of contrasts, for there was a lot of real film making skills being put into play to create mood, which could vary a great deal from scene to scene. Most scenes were shot in dark, shadowy lighting. This worked well for both setting up the scenes feeling and taking advantage of being rendered in good, old Black & White.
One Trademark of "PETER GUNN" was the teaser opening that was utilized. In a typical one of these "grabbers", the camera would slowly close in on the subject or subject, often with no dialog. Then the murder would suddenly occur with a shot or some other means, just as the background music would be growing to a crescendo, then suddenly the music changes to the famous Peter Gunn Opening Theme while simultaneously the Peter Gunn opening Title and Credits would rapidly flash across the screen.
And about this music, we just can't say enough for the score written and performed by Henry Mancini and Orchestra. The incidental music was properly exciting and lively or eerie and menacing as needed. And as for that haunting, infectious Peter Gunn Theme, well we just don't have enough superlatives in the English Dictionary to describe it. This is such a fine instrumental that its fame is spread far and wide and surpassed the familiarity of the GUNN Series.
The characterization of Peter Gunn as delivered by Craig Stevens was one of a worldly guy who is highly intelligent, well educated and quite well suited for handling anything that would come his way. In the final analysis, it is almost as if Mr. Craig Stevens was playing it as if Cary Grant were a Private Detective.
Thank God for Re-Run Channels like Nick At Night, Nick's TV Land and local Channels like our WMET TV Channel 23 here in Chicago.
Peter Gunn DVD sets 1 & 2 contain the first 32 episodes of this series.
These are reproduced in good quality video and audio, with easy to use
menus and good jacket art clearly listing episode titles.
The series is a joy to watch. As other reviewers have already noted, this series displays a good example of early TV production values in an era without special effects. Stories are acted out by excellent interplay between performers. Sets were limited to just a few stock locations and outdoor scenes were nearly always back lot scenes, ..at night. Special scenes are often just talking heads of the actors, looking down, seen from the "corpse's eye view". All tricks of the trade by excellent directors presenting well written scripts, in a short time, on a shorter budget. And, it all works still as artful production.
It would be nice to see the remaining episodes made available in the same high quality professional manner. The 82 remaining episodes would easily fit onto two (or three) additional multi-disc DVD sets.
Anyone out there at A&E listening?
although i didn't get to see pete do his thing when the show originally aired from 1958-61 i have thoroughly enjoyed watching the released episodes on homevideo.peter gunn has the smoothest demeanor about the cases he works,but when he gets riled,look out.he can spar with the best of them.i'm sure it helps his image to be dating the pretty night club singer at the local scene called mothers.this way,it doesn't seem like he's just a hood bustin machine,but also a loverboy on the side.henry mancini does wonders for this show with its slick "crime jazz" that sets the tone at the beginning of each episode.i recommend anyone who is into police or detective stories to get into pete if they haven't already.
A masterful interpretation of a wonderful TV show AND musical experience (thank you, Henry Mancini). And thank you, Kabuki!! This was one of the hottest TV shows of the 1950's, spawning a slew of imitators, a chart-topping record from Ray Anthony, a theme that has been covered by dozens of artists and which caused at least one existing TV series (M-Squad, starring Lee Marvin) to change its theme to a jazzier format (thank you, Count Basie). I grew up with this stuff, and to my mind, Peter Gunn exemplified television's 'golden age' in a way few others could. If only today's television fare could come close.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In a way, PETER GUNN was (and is) to be enjoyed as Hollywood's own
modest version of the virtues of French auteur, J.P. Melville: a
dreamily nocturnal jazz-laced exercise of style over content in which
the achingly desirable Lola Albright provides counterpoint sultriness
to the stone-faced stoicism of Craig Stevens' Cary Grant-like Gunn.
But there is one episode entitled "The Comic," starring Shelly Berman as a neurotic funnyman (Danny Arnold) who insists his wife is out to destroy him and enlists the hero's help to prevent it. The show is basically two monologues: the first one is of Arnold explaining the cause of his concerns to Gunn; the second is of a crucial portion of the nightclub stand-up act itself, in which through metaphor and analogy, it becomes increasingly more clear that it is Arnold who is a mortal threat to his wife and not the other way around. His monologue which is "killing" the audience is thus transformed in the story from being merely comic to a confession of first degree murder.
Berman's performance defines what tour-de-force means and is one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) neglected acting job in the history of network television (he received no Emmy). It is also quite possibly the most personal, successfully concentrated expression by Edwards of his divided, comedic/depressive sensibility. So direct, so simple, but the final effect is enormous.
That this half-hour installment is not one of the legends in the annals of the golden age of television is one of the Industry's cruelest mysteries.
Rating for the Series: A generous 8
for this one sterling episode: a steely 10
Composite Score: 9
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