RARA-AVIS: Peter Gunn

From: Mark R. Harris (brokerharris@gmail.com)
Date: 21 Oct 2010

  • Next message: Kevin Burton Smith: "RARA-AVIS: Re: Thrilling Detective"

    I quite agree about the refreshingly adult quality of the relationship between Peter Gunn and Edie Hart. I wrote a post comparing "Peter Gunn" with one of its contemporary television rivals, "Michael Shayne," for the film noir discussion forum The Blackboard and my own blog Patrick Murtha's Diary earlier this year.


    I decided to approach this week’s TV Noir of the Week in a different manner than usual. Instead of looking in depth at one episode of a show or one installment of an anthology, I will compare the general qualities of two similar shows that were broadcast in the same time-frame. Despite their similarities on many points, Peter Gunn (1958-1961) strikes me as more noir than Michael Shayne (1960-1961), and I would like to explore why in a non-scientific, impressionistic way (I’m not licensed to use the Noir-o-meter!).

    Peter Gunn was the more popular and longer-lasting show. Created by Blake Edwards and famous for its Henry Mancini theme music, Peter Gunn was a half-hour series that ran for three seasons, with a total of 114 episodes produced. I have seen the first 32 of the first season’s 38 episodes, which are available on DVD in the United States; the first two seasons complete have been available on DVD in Great Britain.

    Played by Craig Stevens, who was 40 when the show premiered, Peter Gunn is a very lone private eye in an unnamed but San-Francisco-like city with a waterfront. He has no secretary, no assistants, no operatives, and, crucially, not even an office; at least, in the episodes that I have seen, none is shown, none is even referred to. His home base is a bar called Mother’s, presided over by Hope Emerson. The bar features excellent West coast-style jazz of the era, as do other clubs that Gunn visits in the course of his work; music is a very prominent feature of this series (and rightly contributes to its cult status today). Peter Gunn’s girlfriend Edie Hart, played by the amazingly good actress Lola Albright, is the sultry regular singer at Mother’s. The other series regular is Gunn’s contact on the police force, Lieutenant Jacoby, also played very well by Herschel Bernardi. Gunn and Jacoby have the typical push-pull, grudging-mutual-admiration relationship that is typical of private eyes and cops in this sort of narrative set-up. Jacoby tolerates far more from Gunn than he would from another independent.

    Peter Gunn is a very suave guy, impeccably well-dressed (wardrobe coordinator Sydney LaVine – love the name! – gets a prominent end credit). He’s really Dapper Hall of Fame material. He is quite deliberate in his speech and movements, not remotely a hothead. His only vulnerability is that, operating alone as he does, he can be outmanned, and is sometimes conked on the head or otherwise roughed up. (I’ve never understood why fictional private detectives don’t operate in pairs, with one out of sight but ready to swoop in. It would save a lot of trouble!) Gunn’s relationship with Edie Hart is very bold for the television of its day; they are unquestionably sexually involved, very happy in their arrangement, and don’t talk of marriage. The many close shots of the two are erotically charged and satisfying in a way that doesn’t even call for any historical allowances; they come off as equal in intelligence and equals in their relationship.

    At 25 minutes in length, the episodes are very brisk in their set-ups, even more so in their denouements, and frequently rely on a sort of genre shorthand because there simply isn’t time to spell much out. One early episode, “The Chinese Hangman,” is an unofficial abbreviated remake of Out of the Past that is positively whirlwind in its effect. A standard feature of the episodes is an opening teaser that cuts to the credits from a
    “shocker” – a body being discovered, say. (This technique was used many years later for comic and ironic as well as melodramatic effects on Hill Street Blues.)

    The world that Peter Gunn operates in is decidedly nocturnal – day-lit scenes are rare, and there is no sense of 9-5 normalcy at all, even around the show’s edges. Peter, Edie, the cops, the crooks – all come out at night. The show is hermetic in that particular sense that soundstage shooting and night lighting can conspire to create.

    Michael Shayne premiered two years after Peter Gunn, and might have been catching its tailwind. It only lasted one season, for a total of 32 hour-long episodes. I have seen three of these in a “TV Detectives” DVD package. Like Peter Gunn, Michael Shayne was shot in black-and-white, standard for television at that time.

    Shayne, of course, was already a popular character – in the many novels and short stories by Brett Halliday (and, after 1958, his ghost-writers), on radio, in film adaptations starring Lloyd Nolan and Hugh Beaumont. The Shayne I’ll be describing is the Shayne of the television show only; there are inevitable variations when you’re dealing with a character incarnated in so many media. Played by Richard Denning, who was 46 when the show premiered, Michael Shayne is a Miami-based detective with far more
    “apparatus” at his disposal than Peter Gunn. He has an office; he has a secretary, Lucy Hamilton (played first by Patricia Donahue and then replaced mid-season by Margie Regan); he has a buddy on the local paper, Tim Rourke
    (Jerry Paris) –their trading of information and favors seems pretty unethical from the journalistic side! Lucy’s bongo-playing brother Dick
    (Gary Clarke, in for the youth appeal) also hangs out and does some operative work. Shayne has about the same relationship with the local gendarme Lieutenant Gentry (Herbert Rudley, of Decoy fame) as Peter Gunn has with Lieutenant Jacoby.

    Like Gunn, Shayne is tall, self-possessed, quite well-dressed – both these guys are charter members of the cufflinks-and-pocket-squares brigade. Shayne wears lighter-colored suits sometimes, in keeping with the Miami locale. He’s got a quicker smile than Gunn, and his manner is less ironic. He, too, is prone to being conked on the head; also, undesirables are frequently waiting in his apartment when he opens the door – he ought to get on the building management about that. There is a strong hint that Shayne is carrying on with his secretary Lucy, but they never make out on screen and the show is not remotely as titillating as Peter Gunn. Again in keeping with the locale, the well-built Denning gets to take his shirt off fairly often, something we never see Gunn do (although I imagine Stevens would have looked fine). Michael Shayne is not the heavy smoker that Peter Gunn is (Craig Stevens’s handling of the cigarette as masculine prop was expert), but he loves his cognac – put some in his coffee, please! There are fairly frequent jazz club scenes in Michael Shayne, but they are not as flavorful as the corresponding Peter Gunn scenes, and seem to be there mainly so Gary Clarke can annoyingly trot out his bongos.

    Since Michael Shayne is an hour show, the plotting can be and is far more elaborate than in Peter Gunn. Only about half the scenes are set at night. There appears to have been more actual outdoor shooting (probably with Los Angeles doubling for Miami, since I don’t believe this was a location-produced show; that became the norm later, with Hawaii Five-O and The Streets of San Francisco). There is definitely a normal 9-5 world on display in Michael Shayne, and Shayne knows very well how to operate in it
    (although his secretary won’t make appointments for him before 10:00 AM; he does put in some late nights).

    Why does Peter Gunn impress me as more noir than Michael Shayne? They pair up well enough in most aspects so that there really shouldn’t be much to choose between them in that way. But a few significant differences tell the tale. As a half-hour show, Peter Gunn is less explicit in its narrative style. It is darker, more nocturnal. It is moodier. It is sexier. It is lonelier, since Gunn has fewer live relationships than Shayne. It is unlinked to quotidian reality. The city is unnamed. Add it all up, and the show is just more “mysterious” than Michael Shayne. Also more classic – both series are enjoyable, but only Gunn is iconic. Michael Shayne adheres to a TV formula in which all tensions are resolved by episode’s end; but Peter Gunn, even when it appears to do the same thing, stays edgy. Since an uneasy emotional residue seems to me to be basic to the appeal of noir, Peter Gunn qualifies as a noir detective series. Michael Shayne is a breezy detective show out of a slightly distinct tradition.

    Patrick Murtha

    On Thu, Oct 21, 2010 at 3:47 AM, Kevin Burton Smith < kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com> wrote:

    > Dick wrote:
    > > I realize I'm probably on the minority side of this discussion, but,
    > except
    > > for the soundtrack and a look at a lot of good New York actors, including
    > > Cassavetes, the show was a bit over the top. Overly sentimental.
    > > Melodramatic. Sort of East Coast frantic jazz as opposed to Peter Gunn's
    > > West Coast cool.
    > You're not totally alone. I agree -- many of the shows were so completely
    > over the top they were laughable. All style, very little substance. And
    > while Cassavetes would become a great actor, too often he just chewed
    > ripping big hunks of scenery in this show. And some of the shows he directed
    > -- his first directing gigs, I believe -- were even funnier.
    > One particularly memorable episode had Johnny theoretically talking down a
    > suicide jumper off a rooftop, but Cassavetes' performance was so strident
    > and overblown that I can't imagine anyone -- even someone not previously
    > suicidal --- not being inspired to consider taking a running leap.
    > A very erratic show, swinging from one extreme to another, too
    > self-conscious, staggering too often under the weight of its pretensions at
    > the expense of the story it was trying to tell. But other episodes could be
    > quite good. The use of New York location shots was well done, and the
    > grittiness (when it wasn't overdone) was quite effective.
    > Not that PETER GUNN didn't have its clunkers as well, but overall it was
    > far more consistently entertaining and certainly better written (Blake
    > Edwards also created radio's Richard Diamond). And every bit as hard-boiled
    > as the self-conscious STACCATO. The violence in PETER GUNN could be
    > startling, and the relationship between the unmarried Peter and Edie, while
    > occasionally a trifle too cute (think Nick and Nora in the movies or latter
    > day Spenser and Susan), was nonetheless decidedly adult -- a brave move for
    > TV in that era.
    > Kevin Burton Smith
    > Editor/Founder
    > The Thrilling Detective Web Site
    > "Back from the dead... sorta"
    > [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]

    Mark R. Harris
    BCM Language Center
    7F Jungwoo B/D
    73-62 Yongho-dong
    Changwon, Kyungnam
    Republic of Korea 641-748

    [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]


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