Peter Gunn

Last week I wrote a bit about the music from the Peter Gunn television show. It’s something I’ve always been interested in, partly because it’s got the Mancini music, but also because I’m a sucker for old crime shows.  So I’ve started watching the series. Most of the episodes are available on YouTube. I haven’t been binge watching I don’t think. That’s like a whole season in a weekend, right? I’ve just been sneaking in an episode or two a day. And after a half a dozen episodes, I believe I’ll keep it up.

Here’s what the show has going for it. It takes place in the 50’s (the show ran three seasons, from 1958-1961), but not the Happy Days 50’s. This is the adult 50’s with jazz music, crime, and cigarettes. There is a lot of smoking in this show. Even when the hero, Peter Gunn (Craig Stevens) isn’t smoking, and he usually is, it seems the camera man is. Smoke frequently seems to drift into the scenes from off camera. It’s not that I’m a fan of smoking. In real life I hate it. It stinks and it kills you and stupid smokers think it’s ok if they throw their nasty butts wherever they want. But on a screen in black and white it looks cool.

The music is also cool. It’s good jazz. Each episode opens on the soon to be crime scene somewhere on the rough side of the river. As the dim lights come up, so does the foreboding jazz. The opening crime goes down with little or no dialog, and is instead punctuated by drums and horns.  I like how frequently the show will take a few minutes while Edie Hart (Lola Albright) and the band perform a number. It’s like a bit of a variety show stuck into this detective show. But it works. It feels organic. Edie and the band are always there at Mother’s in the background. And occasionally when they perform, and Mother (Hope Emerson) and Pete stop to enjoy a song, the audience gets that pleasure as well.

I like the characters.  Edie is Peter’s girlfriend. She’s a sexy Doris Day type who can sing. I like her relationship with Peter. Even when they are whispering sweet nothings to each on the dock, they’re clever and playful and cool, and it works. Mother is the old broad who owns Mother’s, the jazz joint where Pete hangs out. And there’s Lieutenant Jacoby (Herschel Bernardi), the cop who regularly helps Peter out. Truth be told, I would have cast this guy as the star.  He looks like a waterfront detective ought to look, more Mike Hammer than James Bond. Pete’s a bit too neat and well dressed for my liking. But he handles himself well, and seems to be well liked and respected by the rough waterfront crowd, so I’ll let his pretty-boy looks slide.

The plots are bit thin. In each a bad guy enters the scene causing problems for someone, then Peter, often with the help of Jacoby, steps in and deals with the bad guy, sometimes getting himself roughed up in the process. Of course the plot of each episode has a wrinkle, something to make it interesting–a blind piano player as the only witness to a murder, a hit man who uses dogs as his weapon, Ted Knight uses knockout gas to rob his own bank. But like all these kinds of shows, it’s the time spent with the characters as much as the weekly mystery, that makes them fun.

What’s not to like? Just a couple things. I’ve already mentioned that Peter is too good looking and well dressed. Also, the entire show is shot on a sound stage, even the car chases. This actually works as most of the action takes place in the middle of the night, the time when only criminals and beatniks are awake, so the darkness covers most of the flaws here, so I can pretend I’m watching a play for a while. But the bar fights, when suddenly all the furniture, including the bar and the built in shelves, shatter to to bits of balsa wood, I feel like I’m watching a sketch in the Carol Burnett show.

Finally, while the producers were probably being progressive for their time by giving us one black musician, with a speaking part at that, he’s the only person of color I’ve seen so far. I think there may have been some black folks in the jazz scene in the 50’s, but I’ll have to check. When Pete is out fighting crime in the rough part if the city, and then finishes his night with a drink at Mother’s, it’s off-putting to have  the house band be the gang from Lawrence Welk’s orchestra.

But I will continue to watch the series, and if any of this sounds fun, I’d encourage you to do the same.  Here’s “Vicious Dog,” one of my favorites so far.

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