From 1959 to 1961 the iconic American independent filmmaker John Cassavetes starred on television as Johnny Staccato. A private-eye by night and a jazz pianist…also by night, Staccato took cases and generally held court from “Waldo’s,” a Greenwich Village night club. Staccato was the epitome of cool. As he ventures out into the New York night, hot on a case he muses: “Why did I leave the Village that night? Because I put my musicians union card in mothballs five years ago when it dawned on me that my talent was an octave lower than my ambition”
Directors: John Cassavetes, Robert B. Sinclair, 10 others
Producers: Everett Chambers, William Frye
Writers: Richard Carr, 25 others
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: John Cassavetes, Eduardo Ciannelli, Frank London, Garry Walberg, Bert Freed, Pete Candoli, Elisha Cook Jr., J. Pat O’Malley
Runtime: 24m. (29 episodes)
Release: September 10, 1959
US Distributor: NBC
In the pilot episode, The Naked Truth, Johnny is hired by Michael Landon (a sort of Ricky Nelsonish pop singer) to retrieve documents from a blackmailing tabloid that would incriminate him for an offense committed many years ago.
The setup is silly, but Johnny Staccato hits all of the noir tropes hard. His cases take him to racetracks, boxing matches, Chinatown, and many nightclubs.
In the opening sequence, Johnny is pulled away from a piano.
Kisses a girl.
Lights a cigarette.
And retrieves his revolver from the hat check.
As the episode continues, we see a villain that fences.
Great Fifties New York street scenes.
A stabbing in a Turkish Bath.
And a shadowy finale.
Less obvious in all of this fun, are many of the techniques and tropes that would come to define Cassavetes as the leading independent director of his generation. Filmed during a period that overlapped with the production of his first two pictures, Shadows (1959) and Too Late Blues (1961), Johnny Staccato (especially in the episodes directed by Cassavetes) provides a revealing look at the development of his trademark style.
Cassavetes famously filmed Shadows between 1956 and 1959 on a nonexistent budget. According to actor and friend, Charles Durning:
The street scenes of Staccato catch many of the same verité notes of Shadows, with obviously guerilla shots of pedestrians and crowds.
In a 1970’s interview, Cassavetes talked about the influence of Italian Neo-Realism on his early work.
The Cassavetes-directed episodes of Staccato show this same interest in showing things how they “really are.”
In “Evil,” a charismatic mission preacher on the bowery convinces his parishioners to donate their life savings to further the work. Staccato exposes him as a huckster, but this is a small consolation for people desperate for meaning.
One woman cries, “I’ve never done anything with my life.”
In exchanges like this, Cassavetes nails a quiet humanism. His concern is the instant of small revelation or emotional expression, so often overlooked in major motion pictures. And, unsurprisingly, he finds these places with non-actors and improvised scenes. He looks to describe a world outside the fashion magazines.
In the Cassavetes-directed episode “A Piece of Paradise,” a maimed jockey is framed for murder.
Rather than dwell on plot, these episodes are strongest when the actors are allowed digression. Elisha Cook Jr. co-stars in two of them, contributing drunken rambling and a harsh, verité face.
It becomes clear that in his effort to “show us how we really are,” Cassavetes delights in craggy elderly faces, the sort of faces that convey frailty and vulnerability.
But this emphasis on such faces, far from reality, conveys a certain hyperbole. By showing again and again images like those of of skid row, he creates another kind of surreality. Because while the everyday has very little to do with Hollywood, people live their lives trying to imitate and recreate the imagery of Hollywood. So, far from realism, Cassavetes employs very exaggerated and deliberate artistic undermining of standard Hollywood imagery. Indeed, it’s hard to watch old biddies getting tipsy (Minnie and Moscowitz, 1970) without realizing the director is having a laugh. Far from saying, “All mission preachers crooks,” or “all husbands are profligate philanderers and abusers,” Cassavetes highlights extremes in emotion as both shock treatment and celebration. This is not cinema verité because everyday life trends mundane. Cassavetes employs techniques much more closely associated with avant-garde theater (Artaud and Brecht) to move people away from a passive film experience.
While Johnny Staccato is a silly show, it showcases some of the enormous talent that Cassavetes would express in the following decades. Alongside Elisha Cook Jr., a very young Cloris Leachman, a beatnik Dean Stockwell, and a charming Gena Rowlands all take hip turns in the show.
The music is a consistent jazz score, and musicians of the time (including the composer John Williams) show up at Waldo’s. Cassavetes is one of those rare American treasures, and Johnny Staccato gives a look at some of his formative years.