The other night, an acquaintance of mine suggested I was a walking contraction of taste and values when he pointed out that I referred to both filmmaker Sally Potter and the late 50's, early 60's Peter Gunn episodic, as "great". Granted, this praise was referenced during two separate conversations over the course of a couple cups of coffee, but I suppose he's right. I am a product of many influences. I read kitsch like vintage pulp fiction and more thought provoking books like The Feminine Mystique. Obviously some of those influences don't look like they go together, but I'd like to think it's human to have conflicting sides. Therefore, I am justifying my taste for film noir, even though it doesn't necessarily compliment many of my feminist values.
So it is the conversation here mentioned, that brings me to look at a beloved series I think is "great". Despite the fact most film noir style television and cinema is absurdly sexist and is loaded with both male and female gender generalizations, I can’t help but be in love with the genre.
In September of last year, the television series, Peter Gunn, that began in 1958 turned 50. Back in its day the show was only televised for a few years, but as a kid, I grew up with the reruns and never noticed the repeat cycles were short. When Peter Gunn’s golden anniversary approached just recently, I celebrated with a dirty gin martini and a handful episodes from the A&E Home Video release of Peter Gunn DVDs.
This particular detective show was unique for a number of reasons. Blake Edwards developed and wrote the teleplay and Henry Mancini gave us the now famous score. Lola Albright, who played Edie Hart, sang jazz numbers from works by Johnny Mercer,Rodgers & Hart to Rob Russell and Duke Ellington, back when most television relied on generic production music. The cinematography is often typical television of its day and contains common film noir touches, but is mixed with interesting perspectives and angles. Sets are mostly minimal which, I think, works with it’s mood, but is no doubt also a result of budget.
Craig Stevens, in the title role, is a cool dressed hipster, with plenty of cooler one-liners, cracks cases left and right with foresight, ease and tons of style. Edie is his beautifully demure, gal-songstress who more or less waits for her guy at waterfront jazz club, Mother’s, where she sings her throaty, sultry numbers. In between her jazz vocals, her scenes are reduced to pouty whines to Peter about his absence, out on the clubs back porch that overlooks the water (we know this only because we hear the water and see it’s reflections on the wall). Peter’s got a lot on his shoulders though, so he can never hang long for silly stuff like romance. The scenes between the two leads are sweet and they definitely share chemistry, which for me, makes up a little for the lack of female character development somehow. Okay, I'm making excuses. I know.
The supporting characters such as Herschel Bernardi, played Lieutenant Jacoby, a police detective andactress Hope Emerson played Mother, the owner and managers of the club Mother’s (Peter’s home base), are terrific. The guest stars are often hilarious nutty professors, beat-nicks, vixens and damsels in distress. The writing is also great fun and for television, during this time period, it is a notch or two above a lot of its contemporaries. The dialogue is frequently over-the-top but feels like the audience is getting a wink too. It seems as though are in on what's almost like parody. Coming from Blake Edwards, I wouldn't be surprised if that was intended.
In short, if you are a fan of film noir and old style jazz that really swings, this show is for you. If the blatant generalizations of women, pretty much categorized into two slots – the virgin or the vixen – irritates you, rather than humors you, this is not the show for you (maybe next time I'll rhapsodize about Sally Potter or Betty Friedan). For me it’s a little of both, but mostly I can just smile and enjoy the high style, the sexy music and snicker at the absurd.