Tuesday, 4 August 2020
Johnny Staccato (aka Staccato)
The Piano Player
Air date: September 1959 - March 1960
27 Episodes. DVD Region 1
Johnny Staccato was TV’s jazz detective. Played by actor/director John Cassavetes, the show initially aired for a good half of the episodes as Staccato. Somewhere in the middle of the series, Elmer Bernstein’s roaring opening theme pitched against a jagged and memorable opening title sequence (which... well, I’ve no idea who designed it but it would have made Saul Bass proud and certainly seems ripped off from/influenced by him) is replaced by a less interesting sequence of Johnny running, then breaking a window to shoot his revolver through it. Annoyingly, the shot of Cassavetes in close up, peering through the glass, reveals a different smash pattern to the long shot, with a piece of glass hanging down in front of Johnny’s face which was absent when he actually crashes through the window initially. It’s at this point that the show is retitled to Johnny Staccato and uses a lighter theme tune... although the original, reminiscent perhaps of Bernstein’s famous opening titles for The Man With The Golden Arm, is retained for the end credits.
That being said, a few episodes using the original opening sequence occur on occasion after the show’s title change so, this probably means that the episodes were originally aired in a different order to when they were completed. Despite critical acclaim, the show was cancelled after one season so I’m wondering if, midway, the show was slightly re-tooled with an eye on a more popular reception, if the show runners got wind of the cancellation way ahead of time (although I didn’t notice any real sea change myself).
The series features Johnny, who works at Waldo’s Jazz Bar (Waldo appears in most episodes and is played by Eduardo Ciannelli) but he also takes big 'side order' jobs as a private detective. There are loads of guest appearances by once or 'soon to be' famous actors such as Martin Landau, Mary Tyler Moore, Dean Stockwell, Cassavetes' wife Gena Rowlands and, one of my favourites, Elisha Cook Jr... but the show was also noted for the musicians who sometimes appeared in minor, musical roles such as jazz legends like Shelly Manne... as well as the piano guy who sometimes takes over from Johnny when he’s off working a case, the now extremely famous composer John Williams, back when he was also known as Johnny.
The plots are simple and the show only runs for half hour episodes but they are compact stories. Sometimes Johnny will come up with a solution to the crime of the week but, sometimes, things will go wrong and the real criminal is not always revealed. The tone is upbeat but very dark as Johnny starts asking questions and getting himself in trouble as he tries to help out a friend.
Oh yeah, about that... quite a lot of the time he’s out to help a friend and more often than not, he never seems to get paid for a case, often because the person who has hired him to investigate things winds up dead at some point. Which explains why he is always short of cash, although his regular gig as jazz pianist at Waldos certainly pays him enough to give out plenty of ‘flash money’ to grease the wheels of an informant’s mind when he wants to get a jump on things.
There are also five episodes which, even if you didn’t know it from the end credits, are also directed by John Cassavetes and, wow, are they well lit and staged. Those ones must have really popped off of those TV sets and right into the headspace of the viewer back in ‘59/’60. Despite the obviousness of some of the plots (which may not have been all that obvious at the time), there is still an element of surprise to the show. Not because of the plot twists where, say, Johnny’s friend turns out to be the person who did the murder after all... but because the dark tone is just so unrelenting and hard hitting compared to what you expect from a show of the time (and perhaps a lot darker than someone might pitch a show like this today).
The show follows Johnny C playing Johnny S with Cassavetes giving the viewer a hard line in voice over which is usually also quite downbeat and cynical. That being said, not every episode has a downer of an ending. For instance, the 1959 Christmas episode, where future Diamonds Are Forever gangster Marc Lawrence (“I didn’t know there was a pool down there.”) plays an ex-con, brother to a shop Santa who he is pressuring to help commit a robbery... ends with a more cheerful scene at Waldo’s where Cassavetes breaks the fourth wall even more than usual by talking directly into the camera at the audience with a Christmas greeting.
That being said, the darkness of Johnny’s world tends to not stay in the side lines for long and I have to wonder, despite the critical appreciation it got, if the gritty edges of the storytelling helped hasten the show towards cancellation. Did they see it coming? Well, maybe. In the last episode, after failing to protect the new pianist from two guys he himself guns down, leaving the elderly widow of the man by his corpse in the street, Johnny waxes darkly lyrical in ‘voice over’ about the horrors of killing and walks off the show telling the audience... “I’m done!” So, yeah, maybe by that time they knew.
What I do know myself is, Johnny Staccato is a riveting series featuring a very cool central performance by Cassavetes, some brilliant jazz scoring by Elmer Bernstein, punchy stories and is generally as entertaining as hell. Maybe if it had gone on longer it would have ended up a caricature of itself at some point but this is a show I could have certainly have watched a lot more of and I would have loved it if it had transitioned into an hour long format at some point. Still, at least the series has survived the years while many shows contemporary to it haven’t. So I’ll just be thankful for what we’ve got here and say, if you like Cassavetes looking sleek but gritty in clean, black and white photography, you need to check this one out.