Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Classic TV Flashback: Peter Gunn (1958)

Peter Gunn
Debut: September 22, 1958
Created by Blake Edwards
Starring: Craig Stevens, Lola Albright, Herschel Bernardi, Hope Emerson, Byron Kane
Synopsis: Peter Gunn is a suave, well-dressed private investigator with a love of cool jazz and a knack for finding trouble.

Trey: Peter Gunn is a 1958-1961 series that aired first on NBC and then ABC. It has some similarities to Mr. Lucky, another Blake Edwards series we watched.  Cary Grant was an inspiration for the style of the main character and it has a score by Henry Mancini. In fact, it's theme is probably one of the most recognizable pieces of music of the later half of the 20th Century.

Jason: After this recent re-exposure, that theme song is hounding my mind on a constant involuntary mental replay. Not only is it endlessly catchy, but it has spawned a multitude of derivative offspring in a variety of genres. I love the B-52s take on "Planet Claire," to name one example. 

Trey: Indeed! We watched the second episode, "Streetcar Jones" where a jazz club band leader wants to prove one of his musician friends is innocent of a murder, but the musician's lawyer high-priced lawyer suspiciously doesn't want his assistance. The whole series is available on Freevee.

Peter Gunn has a sort of sophisticated style and hints wry humor of Mr. Lucky. It doesn't quite charm me the way the episodes of that series did. The lack of the sidekick is part of it, but I don't think the character of Gunn (or possibly the portrayal) has quite the charm of the titular Mr. Lucky. Of course, watching only one episode of a series always presents the risk that you don't really have a good sample to judge it by.

Jason: It seemed to me to have an incrementally more "serious" tone than Mr. Lucky, and I agree about the diminished charm. In this episode at least, Craig Stevens' portrayal of Gunn feels icy cold, an utterly unflappable fellow who only turns on the charm at pressing need. He takes a heck of ass-whooping without a single complaint, though his natural beauty remains (stylishly) marred by (dashing) bruises for the rest of the episode. 

I must also agree on Gunn's sidekick-less condition. His Crockett could use a Tubbs.

Trey: Back to Mancini for the moment, his musical cues here are perhaps even better than the ones in Mr. Lucky

Jason: I wonder if the music was tailor-made for this especially Jazz-centric episode?

Trey: Jazz-centric, it was. Hearing the hep jazz cat patter here, I wonder if TV of the late 50s represented the jazz subculture any more accurately that 80s TV would do with rock of its era? I did like Carlo Fiore's almost Zen master portrayal of Streetcar Jones. A decade later, such a loopy character would be portrayed as being on drugs, but here, there's no indication he's high on anything but jazz.

Jason: Great Neal Cassady's ghost! The jailhouse discussion of the distinction between "getting it" and "digging it" was almost hilarious in its earnest examination of the ineffable. I have to think you are correct in your suspicions, and I too imagined fully qualified hepcats of the era cringing at the portrayal of their patois.

I really felt the director's hand in this episode, and he's swinging for the fences. The opening sequence features a transition from the Big Eye club's sign (a big eye) to the business end of a saxophone jamming away inside, letting us know right out of the box that someone cares about making this show look as cool as possible. Again, I am reminded of Miami Vice.

Trey: It's a stylized world in some ways. Half-hour episodes don't leave time to worry about gritty realism.

Jason: My verdict: It didn't knock me out the way Mr. Lucky did, but Blake Edwards is doing fine TV work if this episode is any indication. 

Trey: Just the thing for viewing after dinner at the supper club with a martini in your hand.

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