Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Peter Gunn

Being locked down since March I’ve watched or binged most everything.  Now I’m hunting around, looking for anything offbeat.  

On ME-TV I discovered that in the middle of the night on weekends (not exactly primetime), they run episodes of PETER GUNN.  I suspect most of you are saying, “Who?”

PETER GUNN was a private detective show that aired from 1958-61 on two networks (NBC for the first two years, ABC on the third).  114 episodes were made.   (Today, over three years series would be lucky to make 39.)  

Craig Stevens played a PI but not your Raymond Chandler hard-boiled detective.  He was polished, well-dressed, sophisticated — more James Bond than Sam Spade.  

It was created by Blake Edwards, who later went on to write and direct such film classics as THE PINK PANTHER series, THE GREAT RACE, and VICTOR/VICTORIA.  

But the real stars of the show were Henry Mancini, Philip Lathrop and William Spencer.    Who? Who? Who?

Okay, you might’ve heard of Henry Mancini.  He did the music including the iconic theme.   The other two gentlemen were the cinematographers.  

PETER GUNN was the most stylish detective show on the air.  Shot in black-and-white, but the cinematography was eye-popping.  The use of light and shadows would make Orson Welles stand and applaud.  Camera angles are sometimes unusual or from the ceiling.  They really created a cool mood.  And the music was modern jazz.   

The price for all this, of course, is that the show really looks like a time-piece, in the same way that MIAMI VICE does.  But it’s a fun time-piece to watch.  

Also notable is that PETER GUNN is only a half-hour.  And you know what?  You don’t need a full hour to tell detective stories.  So many of them are padded or cluttered with subplots and red herrings.   A half-hour is more than enough time to set up the problem, go through four or five steps and resolve it.   There’s always a fight scene, Gunn is held at gunpoint, and Lola Albright is making out with him.  The scripts are high on banter and Noir.  Double entendres fly.  But what would you expect when your lead character is named two euphemisms for penis?   

Another refreshing change is his relationship with the police lieutenant played by Herschel Bernardi.  They actually get along.  Bernardi never says, “Stay out of it, Gunn!  This is my territory!”   By doing that alone they’re able to cut a half-hour out of each story.  

What struck me most about PETER GUNN was that it had a clear vision.  The look, music, dialogue were distinctive.  I’m guessing Blake Edwards didn’t get a slew of network and studio notes.   I’m betting he didn’t have to get network approval for every writer and director.  Edwards was able to give a directing assignment to a young nobody named Robert Altman.  

If you’re up at 4 in the morning some weekend, check it out.  If nothing else, that theme song will be an earworm that will last for days. 

57 comments :

Dave Creek said...

I'd love to see the return of the half-hour drama. You're right about how well a story can be told in such a short period. You can see the difference in the several attempts to make THE TWILIGHT ZONE an hour-long show. It never works.

There are so many single-camera comedies now, that I assume a half-hour drama could be produced in the same manner, for a similar budget.

Brian said...

On the musical side:

The soundtrack album spent 10 weeks at #1.
The theme won an Emmy.
The Henry Mancini version of the theme's sax solo was played by Ted Nash.
The Ray Anthony version (which charted first) had a sax solo by Plas Johnson. You may have already heard Johnson's work, because that is his saxophone playing the Pink Panther theme.

As a side note, here is a typically cool Pink Panther cartoon. Stay for the ending.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xiA6qe5S2wU

Daniel said...

I'm a Gen-Xer so I watched a lot of old reruns from the '50s and '60s, but I never saw Peter Gunn (love the theme song, though). I did, however, watch another Blake Edwards series, Mr. Lucky, on Amazon Prime Video last year and thought it was surprisingly good, especially the first episode which was very cinematic and quite modern.

Michael Hagerty said...

Ken, I could have gotten you here so much quicker. PETER GUNN has been streaming on Amazon Prime for years Like, at least six years. It's a favorite of ours. Great show, great music---everything you said.

Anthony Strand said...

In general, I find that the half-hour dramas of the late 50s hold up so much better than the hourlong shows of the next few decades. I'd much rather watch, say, Have Gun Will Travel or a half-hour Gunsmoke than Bonanza or an hourlong Gunsmoke.

Wm. Adams said...

I was in band way back in high school and the Peter Gunn theme song was one of our favorite songs to play in the stands at football games. It got everyone dancing. As a tuba player, that bass line was a mood all in itself.

I think I saw the show buried on Amazon Prime. I'll be sure to move it to My Stuff.

Jim Grey said...

This series is available on Amazon Prime Video. I watch a couple episodes here and there from time to time. They're a little formulaic but everything else you said about this show is true and it makes them a pleasure to watch.

johnachziger said...

If you have Roku, it's free on the Roku channel. I recently saw the movie also, somewhere.

Anonymous said...

ALL episodes are also available on AMAZON PRIME. HOPE EMERSON ran the nightclub, MOTHER'S in the first season, later replaced by MINERVA URECAL when Emerson jumped to a larger role in the Single Season Sitcom THE DENNIS O'KEEFE SHOW. Very binge-worthy.

japanjohnny said...

Loved this show as a kid in syndication. Saw 1.1 the other night and the heavy is/was Gavin MacLeod. In one scene, he is playing squash. Throw in the stylish clothing, hip speak and the music from Mother's and other clubs he frequented it was quite sophisticated for that time. I always wonder if it came off as corn to the actual hipsters of that era like The Mod Squad did in the late 60's.

Anonymous said...

If th Peter Gunn theme isn't the greatest in television history, it's certainly in the front row of the class photo.

Detective shows and Westerns of that era had great theme music - I'm sorry but far better than today.

The theme for M Squad, Lee Marvin's vehicle, was written and performed by Count Basie.
Without even delving into the Westerns, the other great theme song of a detective show, although they weren't really detectives, is, if either of those two isn't the greatest, Route 66. Nelson Riddle

Think about it - Henry Mancini, Count Basie, and Nelson Riddle all working in TV.

And by the way Ken, how do you write a piece on Peter Gunn and not. mention Lola Albright? Quite easy on the eyes.

James said...

I believe Peter Gunn is on Amazon Prime's streaming service.

One of the things I enjoyed about the show was that they were in something like Greenwich Village--Gunn was often meeting up with odd and colorful characters who made the show interesting. So many detective shows had the same villains or third-party characters who were just types, and they were largely interchangeable and dull.

Edwards made a Peter Gunn movie in the 60s, but I haven't been able to find it.

maxk1947 said...

Season 1 (38 episodes!) is streaming (for free!) on Tubi.

Paul Blake said...

Terrific show, I've been enjoying it for the last six months or so. Craig Stevens had a little Cary Grant type style going, and was a perfect fit for this role. Love the guest stars, from well known to little known, all play roles very well. Enjoyed seeing Howard McNear, Floyd the barber on Andy Griffith show, playing an unhinged nut job. Well worth your time to catch this very stylish noir type show!

Unknown said...

eddie offers:

I feel like I must mention a personal favorite -- Elmer Bernsteins music for John Cassavettes 1959 TV series (!) JOHNNY STACCATO (and is there a better name). Staccato was the unlikely hypenate of detective-jazz pianist who hung at club not unlike Gunn's Mother's. Many jazz touches - including the band - Vibes player Red Norvo who had an early inter-racial trio with with a young CHarles Mingus and Tal Farlow, Shelley Manne -the go-to drummer of west-coast cool who played with everyone from Chet Baker to SOnnny Rollins to Tom Waits, Barney Kessel on guitar - the only only white guy in Lester Young's legendary JAMMIN' The BLUES short shot by Gjon Mili; his image had to be futzed with because a mixed band would've limtied distribution at the time. Cinte Condoli's equally well known brother Pete on trumpet and a very young John Williams (yes, John Williams) on piano -- here's three version of the theme -- you never heard of the show and they did three title sequences. Also some in show footage of the band playing with Cassavettes miming for Williams.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=laHRBNLcovw

Lemuel said...

It's on MeTV Sunday nights.

Dobby said...

I gotta say, the idea of a detective procedural only lasting 30min blows my mind. Did they really wrap up the story in each episode? I'm so used to the "60min=drama; 30min=comedy" convention that I can't think of too many counterexamples (except MASH or other dramedies). When I was a kid I watched Eight is Enough, which I think was an hourlong drama, but I could have sworn it had a laugh track so I guess it was a comedy?

benson said...

With most people's attention spans all shorter now (thanks smartphone and internet), yes, this is the perfect time to bring back the half hour drama...Two others not mentioned but that ran for years are Dragnet, and it's spawn Adam-12. And while it's not a drama but was a spoof of M Squad...Leslie Nielsen's short lived Police Squad worked brilliantly in the half hour format.

E. Yarber said...

By the time he did GUNN, Edwards had spent years developing his mystery bones on radio shows like YOURS TRULY JOHNNY DOLLAR and RICHARD DIAMOND, PRIVATE DETECTIVE.

The former began as a rather generic program, but blossomed when CBS turned it into a fifteen-minute show that serialized a single story from Monday to Friday, giving the writers plenty of room to focus on quirky character interaction. In 1962, Edwards tried to bring the series to television just as it ended its run that year as one of the last dramatic shows of the radio era. While at CBS, Bob & Ray would sometime fill time by pulling Johnny Dollar scripts from the studio library and warping the stories.

Edwards created Richard Diamond himself, which eventually became David Janssen's first TV series. (And when Ronald Reagan left the presidency, someone offered him a chance to star in a remake, which never happened).

In television, Edwards previously worked on THE LINEUP, a CBS imitation of DRAGNET. PETER GUNN is definitely his strongest TV work, but it didn't come out of nowhere, and there are plenty of other shows to explore once you reach the end of its run.

Jeff Boice said...

It is a fun show- best part is that from open to close the shows got that late Eisenhower era Space Age vibe going for it- that vibe that culminates with the Seattle Worlds Fair, featuring the Space Needle and Bubbleator ("Move to the rear of the sphere").

Sonny said...

Another couple of bits of trivia:

Craig Stevens and Alexis Smith, a siren of the 40s, 50s and into the 60s, were married for almost 50 years.

Herschel Bernardi was once the voice of Charlie the Tuna and the Jolly Green Giant, ho-ho-ho. And he played Tevye in Fiddler/Roof on Broadway. Was blacklisted by the McCarthy twits in the 50s.

Kaleberg said...

Peter Gunn episodes are also on archive.org, so I'm guessing it is out of copyright.

Troy McClure said...

Mitch McConnell will now have lots of free time to binge watch Walker Texas Ranger and that Christian drama movie War Room in which a battered wife is told to stay with her abusive husband and just pray that he stops beating the shit out of her.

Anonymous said...

the half hour format was really simple.
Used in Batman as well.
1. Set up the bad guys and their crime
2. Put the hero is some kind of danger from the bad guys
3. Have the hero win the day in a fistfight or gunfight.

22 minutes.
QED

estiv said...

Ken, your mention of the cinematography in Peter Gunn reminded me of something, and it might make a Friday question. I've noticed the same thing with early seasons of Gunsmoke: the camera angles, framing, and composition are often first-class. But eventually that disappeared, and later seasons were much more ordinary visually. I know that Gunsmoke was sort of John Ford's baby, and considering his reputation for great cinematography in his films, it's not surprising that we see the same in Gunsmoke. So the question is why it disappeared, and I have a guess. Basically, it was a lot of work, took more time to set up (and time=money), and after TV established its dominance over movies as a show biz moneymaker, served no purpose aside from the purely aesthetic. And we know what executives like Lew Wasserman thought of aesthetics. What do you think?

CarolMR said...

"Peter Gunn" is also available, free, on tubi.

Andrew said...

Off the subject, but I'd love to read a similar post about Columbo, and what you liked about it, since William Link just passed away.

David Simpson said...

For those interested in the jazzy music in many of the shows mentioned here, there's a box set called Crime Jazz, which you can see the contents of at https://www.discogs.com/Various-Crime-Jazz-/release/7362317

Cheryl Marks said...

That theme song ....
Every "cool" kid learned that bass run

VP81955 said...

I'm watching CNN and C-Span, as the Trumpsters have put the U.S. Capitol on lockdown as this sedition coup goes into overdrive. It's sickening.

Getting back to the topic at hand, I've really gotten into "The Untouchables" and the Raymond Burr "Perry Mason." Both are well written and ideal for the hour format, with many top-tier guest stars. An "Untouchables" episode featured Barbara Stanwyck, Ed Asner and Sheree North (Ed's old flame on a few eps of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show").

Someone noted half-hour dramas and asked about hour-long comedies. The TV version of "Honey I Shrunk The Kids" lasted for a few years from Disney and was pretty clever (and it wasn't all shrinking-related).

Troy McClure said...

Oh look. Trump supporters have stormed the Capitol building and it's now in lockdown.

Not even Nixon incited sedition.

What a proud day for the Repuglican party.

Barry Traylor said...

I loved Peter Gunn back when it was first on. My mother and and I both watched it.

By Ken Levine said...

How many times do I have to tell you guys to stop attacking each other? I've had to delete one. And if it keeps happening I'm banning anyone who does it. STOP IT! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Richard Diamond, Private Detective
Where you saw a certain pair of legs, but nothing else,every week.

Caleb Martin said...

Count me among those who knew the theme from high school marching band, but nothing of the show.

Anonymous said...

For those of you who always wondered who one of the people who inspired Weird Al was, here's the Spike Jones take on the genre:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZ-6G4kKbPo

Jim.

Bill O said...

Blake Edwards tried to turn Craig Stevens, David Janssen, John Vivyan (Mr. Lucky) into Cary Grant clones. The last even looked like a Mort Drucker Cart Grant. His show based on a Grant movie.

Cowboy Surfer said...

I stumbled across DRAGNET 1968 last week on ME.

Let's just say Joe Friday is not a fan of the wake and bake.

Ere I Saw Elba said...

The iconic theme songs for shows from the 50s-60s are before my time, but I still appreciate them. The one that is sacrosanct is of course MASH. Can't watch an episode without listening to the entire intro.

Bill K said...

The problem is that it's hard for those single-camera comedies to tell a coherent story sometimes given that a third of that 30 minutes is commercials. I think we are more likely to see a return to shorter form drama on streaming. The Mandalorian has had some episodes close to a half hour and hopefully more series will follow suit and let the story dictate episode length rather than vice versa.

DyHrdMET said...

I had a teacher in high school whose name is Peter Gunn.

Jeffrey Graebner said...

Young John Williams was also the piano player on the Peter Gunn Theme.

Craig Gustafson said...

Binge watch: "Slings and Arrows." A Canadian series. Three seasons. Behind the scenes at a thinly disguised Stratford Shakespeare Festival. If you've ever been involved with any aspect of putting a show together, you will love this series. In this clip, two full-of-themselves directors get into a sword fight at a cast party. Notable for the drunken rant of the stage manager.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yBOI7U3FDJA

blinky said...

No issue finding something to watch on TV today...

Anonymous said...

So I'm looking for Peter Gunn and what do I find? Cybill!! Janice B.

DEJ said...

Hello Ken. Long time lurker but first time asker of a question.

Your comment:
"Also notable is that PETER GUNN is only a half-hour. And you know what? You don’t need a full hour to tell detective stories."

My Friday question:
How long would it take you to write a half hour show if you were doing it on your own? You will probably answer, "how long is a piece of string"? but a ball park figure would be of great interest.

Brian said...

Jeffrey Graebner, in a chess move, invokes the name of John(ny) Williams. Brian Phillips did not know this. He pushes his King over.

Checkmate!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zav1rxe-YWc

MSOLDN said...

Ken, if you hadn’t haven’t seen the 4-season Scandinavian crime series THE BRIDGE, it is some of the most engrossing and suspenseful TV ever. I watched the entire 40 or so hour-long episodes in one month recently. The series star and lead detective, Swedish actress Sofia Henin, is amazing. Great ready for subtitles, but they’re in a large font.

By Ken Levine said...

I loved THE BRIDGE. US version wasn't nearly as good. I was excited flying into Copenhagen to actually see the Bridge.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Ken, as you have described about the extended length of the MASH finale, it's difficult to sustain an extended episode without unnecessary padding. Early television had many half hour dramas and anthologies, almost like short stories and playlets, and worked quite well.

The networks learned that it saved money to make the same program an hour longer instead of broadcasting two different shows by simple arithmetic. The Twilight Zone was expanded to an hour for one season and only a handful of episodes were as good as the half-hour ones. Even the better hours still felt overlong.

This happened more recently with game shows. Almost all of them are full hours now, but it works better if the game are structured into segments so that are virtually mini-episodes within the hour, the most successful example being The Price is Right.

Al in PDX said...

A few years ago, one of the cable networks ran a Peter Gunn marathon. One episode was almost completely without dialogue -- just brilliant black-and-white cinematography and an extended chase scene. It was fascinating to watch ... although the bad guy keeping his sunglasses on while he and Gunn chased each other in and out of a vacant mine seemed a bit odd.

John in NW Ohio said...

Amazing that Lola Albright was not a bigger star. Incredibly beautiful, and she could sing!

MSOLDN said...

Ken, have you checked the cool Australian outback crime series MYSTERY ROAD? Not as fast-paced or gripping as THE BRIDGE, but there are some good acting and great settings. THE BRIDGE’s Sofia Helin (correcting my spelling above) features in the second season of MYSTERY ROAD as an eccentric Swedish archaeologist on a remote dig in the outback. Also of interest is the Aussie crime film GOLDSTONE, starring the excellent Aaron Pedersen as the same ass-kicking aboriginal police detective Jay Swan he plays in MYSTERY ROAD....intriguing
corruption plot of young prostitutes from rural China being sex-trafficked into mining camps in the outback.

Viscount Manzeppi said...

Thank you. Peter Gunn is a truly underappreiciated (and under-remembered) gem (particularly the two NBC seasons). In terms of writing, acting, guest stars, and cinematography.

Daniel said...

Sadly, I’m just the right age to remember the Mancini song as the theme music for a video game called Spy Hunter.

Pat Reeder said...

Funny you should bring this show up. I've been watching it recently on Amazon Prime and really enjoying it, especially the music. The first episode, "The Kill," is surprisingly brutal for TV of the time, and features a great cast, including Jack Weston as a weasely fink and Gavin MacLeod of all people as a crime boss.

Sitting on top of a pile of CDs on my desk right now is the CD, "Lola Albright's Soft Sounds," a compilation of her two LPs, "Lola Wants You" and "Dreamsville." I recommend it. "Dreamsville" was arranged by Henry Mancini and features his orchestra, a rarity because he seldom arranged anything for a particular singer, other than his own movie soundtrack songs.

SummitCityScribe said...

I didn't discover Peter Gunn until long after its initial run, but I had a crush on Lola Albright (Edie Hart) from the moment I saw her guest spot on the Dick Van Dyke show.