VIDEO NOIR AND THE SHADOWS OF NIGHT
John Cassavetes is worshiped as an auteur by teeming masses of
cineastes. But few of his admirers realize that he established his
career not through his experimental cinema or even the theater, but
through good ol' commercial TV. How Sweet It Was!, a classic history
of early television published in 1966, wrote: "John Cassavetes was
practically unknown anywhere until he began making a name for himself
in live TV plays."
Cassavetes as an escaped convict in "You Got To Have Luck", a
first-season episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents
His IMDb filmography lists a number of live TV productions, his
breakthrough coming with his performance as a misunderstood juvenile
delinquent in Reginald Rose's Crime In The Streets (1955).
With Sal Mineo and fellow future director Mark Rydell in Don Siegel's
film version of Crime In The Streets.
He reprized the role in a film version the next year (post-Marty
Hollywood realizing they could film TV plays very cheaply), which
would lead to his starring in the film version of yet another live TV
play, Edge Of The City (note the noirish title for what is mostly a
character study about an AWOL GI becoming friends with a black
Cassavetes was signed to a contract by MGM and cast opposite aging
matinee idol Robert Taylor in Saddle The Wind, a western written by
Rod Serling (?!). Saddle The Wind is notable, aside from the Serling
credit, for showcasing the old-vs-new acting style matchup between
Taylor and Cassavetes, in the tradition of Gielgud and Brando in
Julius Caesar and the infamous battlings of Raymond Massey and James
Dean in East Of Eden.
Cassavetes was seemingly on the threshold of a big movie career. But
when Edge Of The City was released he attacked it on Jean Shepherd's
radio show as typical Hollywood phoniness. He told the radio audience
-- Shepherd's legendary "Night People" -- that he wanted to make a
film that was real. He asked listeners to send in money to help him
achieve his goal.
And money came in.
Dropped by MGM, Cassavetes began taking any movie or TV part he was
offered to to fund his personal film project, called Shadows. After
two years of filming, editing, and scrounging for money, Cassavetes
still needed funds to complete the second version of Shadows (yes,
there are two versions of Shadows - but that's another story). So in
1959, to raise completion money he agreed to star in a TV series for
Johnny Staccato is a Korean War vet, a Greenwich Village jazz pianist
who became a private eye to make ends meet. He uses a Village jazz
club (Waldo's) as his base where he not only meets clients but even
jams with the house band.
The pilot, "The Naked Truth", starts with a full two minutes of
dialogue-free music, as Johnny jams at with the combo at Waldo's.
(Like man, dig that smoke-filled basement nightclub set with the
abstract art -- must have been quite a sight to viewers accustomed to
Gunsmoke and Ozzie & Harriet.)
Eventually Johnny gets a phone call -- while making time with a hot
chick in a Waldo's booth -- and splits the scene, getting his gun from
the hat check girl. We hear Cassavetes in a voiceover (what would noir
be without them?):
"Why did I leave the Village that night? Because I put my musician's
union card in mothballs five years ago...when it dawned on me that my
talent was an octave lower than my ambition, while my heart is still
on the bandstand, I pay for the groceries away from the piano... and
when I get a business call these days even at two in the morning, I
An old friend of Johnny's, a Col. Parkerish impresario called "The
Senator", has a problem. A Confidential-style scandal sheet is
blackmailing The Senator's client, a teen idol played by Michael
Landon (this episode has quite a cast -- I haven't even mentioned the
young Ruta Lee, or movie vet Eduardo Cianelli as clubowner/surrogate
father Waldo) in what may have been his last pre-Carwright role
(Bonanza would debut two days after Staccato premiered).
Johnny confronts the scandal sheet publisher (played by prolific radio
and Dragnet actor Stacy Harris) and ends up the target of Harris'
diminutive henchman, who is none other than Nick Cravat, Burt
Lancaster's old circus partner and sidekick in swashbucklers like The
Crimson Pirate (Cravat seldom spoke onscreen due to his thick Noo Yawk
accent, and is characteristically mute here). The episode's climax is
a tense, very noir shootout in a deserted parking garage.
Although the half-hour format does not allow for terribly deep
character development and occasionally forces hurried plot exposition,
Johnny Staccato is an excellent example of video noir, evocatively
shot in moody B&W, with some exteriors filmed (silent) on location in
New York (in between shooting Shadows? Or maybe the other way
The music is by the great Elmer Bernstein (Magnificent Seven, Great
Escape). The theme is reminiscent of his classic score for The Man
With The Golden Arm.
One of my favorite Staccato moments is the opening narration for "The
Poet's Touch". It's nighttime in the Village, and Johnny is on the
street, peering through the window of a beatnik cafe:
"It was chilly in Greenwich Village and most of the Beat Generation
activity was indoors. However the few who were not allergic to fresh
air were on the streets. Behind the beards and in front of the makeup
were mostly pretty nice kids. Right now they believe in abstract art
and poetry... Zen Buddhism -- faith or folly?... Dylan Thomas --
success or failure?... Is the Beat Generation really beat, or merely
deadbeat?... Later on they'll believe in shaving, money, women,
children and maybe station wagons."
The script for "The Poet's Touch" is co-credited to Hollis Alpert, a
well known journalist and film critic of the '60s. Perhaps the
observational-reportage tone comes from him.
An uncharacteristic light moment from "The Poet's Touch", as Johnny
has a laugh with an effete literary magazine editor, played against
type by dese, dem, and dose character actor Mike Kellin. The
black-clad beat chick is choreographer Sylvia Lewis.
If not quite a changing of the guard, Johnny Staccato is certainly a
cultural meeting ground as noir icons like Charles McGraw, Ted de
Corsia, Elisha Cook Jr, Marc Lawrence, and Paul Stewart appear
alongside aside Cassavetes cohorts such as Gena Rowlands (the real
life Mrs. Johnny C.), Val Avery, John Marley, Lelia Goldoni (yes, the
leading lady of Shadows, making a very rare TV appearance), and Rupert
Crosse (another Shadows alum).
"You're gonna listen to me sing and you're gonna like it"; Charles
McGraw croons to our hero in "Murder for Credit", directed by
With Elisha Cook Jr in the Cassavetes-helmed "Evil". John clearly
liked to cast noir vets when behind the camera.
Cassavetes himself directed five episodes, and if the frantic pace of
TV production did not allow for much experimentation, it at least
provided him with training in Hollywood-style filmmaking.
Cassavetes seeks out familiar territory in the shadows
Cassavetes only filmed 27 episodes of Johnny Staccato. He claimed he
quit, but I think it more likely that Universal and/or NBC simply
pulled the plug early. After directing commercially unsuccessful
features Too Late Blues (which bears a strong resemblance to Johnny
Staccato, but is unfortunately shot in garish color) and the Stanly
Kramer problem picture A Child Is Waiting, Cassavetes would continue
to work for Universal, appearing in another, unsold private eye pilot
with Rowlands and Jack Klugman in 1964. He tried to raise money for
his own films taking any jobs he could. Some of these worked, such as
his role in the classic Combat episode "S.I.W.", as a GI suspected of
a self inflicted wound. But there also gigs like his appearance in a
Virginian episode as the mountain man patriarch of a clan of Wyoming
hillbillies -- complete with Ulysses S. Grant's old beard. The only
rational explanation for this wonderfully absurd casting would be that
he owed Universal a commitment and this was the only project available
during his window.
However, within a few months of that fiasco Cassavetes would be cast
as the always-griping army prisoner Franko in The Dirty Dozen.
Director Robert Aldrich so loved his take on the character that he
built the role up, allowing Cassavetes to steal virtually all his
scenes. The Dirty Dozen was the megahit of 1967 and established
Casavetes once and for all as a character star. But true to form, he
would never fully commit himself to such a career, using his stardom
only to finance his directorial projects.
Johnny Staccato holds up pretty well today, making up part of the
great TV noir detective troika along with David Janssen's Richard
Diamond and Darren McGavin's Mike Hammer (perhaps more about those in
a future entry). I consider all three to be superior to Peter Gunn,
which aside from its Mancini music and occasional script touches from
Blake Edwards I find overrated.
As I said at the start, John Cassavetes is a veritable demigod among
many film aficionados. But for those of us who can respect but not
love his rather self-indulgent if trailblazing cinematic oeuvre, we
reserve our greatest affection for a modest little half-hour of
television entertainment called Johnny Staccato.