October 21, 2023
Permalink | Tag: Old TV
One of my guilty pleasures is watching old episodes of Peter Gunn.
Maybe that guilty pleasure is driven in part by my affinity for black and white film photography. Each episode has that gritty film noir character that I absolutely love. As I take in each story, I often sit there admiring the shadowy, high contrast footage and wonder how I might reproduce that same look and feel myself.
Not terribly long ago, my wife and I watched the sixth episode of season two: “The Young Assassins,” which originally aired 64 years ago on October 26, 1959. It had all of the classic cinematography that I’ve come to expect from Peter Gunn.
With the same walking double bass riff that opens every episode, this particular story begins with a teenage boy and girl together in a park at night. She leads him to what eventually proves to be a trap. Clip, the leader of a gang of juvenile delinquents, produces a switchblade. The gang surrounds the mislead boy, and Clip murders him.
After a brief title sequence during which we are treated to Henri Mancini’s iconic theme song for Peter Gunn, we are taken to the prison cell of Charlie Mays, who is due to be executed at 10 pm that evening. Charlie asks private investigator Peter Gunn (Craig Stevens), to reach his son, who Charlie is afraid is going down the same path he did in life.
As Charlie and Peter Gunn talk, the camera switches back and forth between the two. The angle of lighting casts a dark shadow across both faces.
Eventually we see both of them in the same shot with a guard standing on the other side of the cell’s bars carefully monitoring the two.
Gunn agrees to take the case.
We then move to the apartment of Charlie’s son, Johnny Mays. He clearly knows what is about to happen at the prison. A clock shown close to us in the foreground is about to strike 10 pm, and a distraught Johnny sits slightly out of focus in the shot’s distant background.
Peter Gunn eventually appears at Johnny’s apartment in an attempt to put him on the straight and narrow path. In the middle of rejecting Gunn’s appeal, the clock’s alarm bell rings jarringly. It interrupts Johnny mid-sentence: “I don’t care about him!” His father has now been executed. But he clearly does care—why would he have set the alarm clock for 10 pm to begin with? If this were not obvious enough of a clue, we see Johnny visibly reacting as he turns off the alarm.
At that moment, a few of the same gang members we saw at the beginning of the episode appear. Both plot threads come together: Johnny is a member of that gang.
Clip, the gang’s leader, brandishes brass knuckles in a clear threat to Gunn. After a bit of tough-guy back and forth between Gunn and Clip, Johnny rebukes Gunn and sticks with the gang. Gunn goes on his way.
In the next scene, Peter Gunn consults with Tallulah, one of his many contacts in the seedy underlife of the unnamed Gotham where the series takes place. Waving a five or ten dollar bill as enticement—five or ten dollars must have bought a lot back in the late 1950s—he asks Tallulah where he might be able to find the gang’s den. Tallulah resists.
Without us seeing her actually do so, it’s obvious to us that Tallulah eventually spilled the beans. In the following scene, we see Peter Gunn appear in the gang’s sewer drain hideout. Gunn makes still another appeal to Johnny, but instead of reaching him, the gang taunts and eventually roughs up Gunn—everyone, that is, except Johnny, who holds back in clear hesitation.
The gang carries the now half-unconscious Gunn to a place where they’ll soon finish him off when Lt. Jacoby (Herschel Bernardi) and his men on the police force swoop in to save him and arrest the entire gang. The scene’s lighting adds to the drama.
We then move to Jacoby’s office, where the badly disheveled Peter Gunn (whose hair manages to remain perfect) has a dialog with his close friend.
At this point, Gunn learns from Jacoby that the gang had killed someone and that Jacoby finally succeeded in finding the gang’s den. Jacoby plans on holding the gang for 48 hours on suspicion of murder in an attempt to extract a confession.
“Look, Pete,” Jacoby says as the camera moves close in to him, “they think like an adult, they kill like an adult... let’s see if they can sweat like one.”
With that bit of film noir toughness uttered, we then move to an interrogation scene. Clip, who is indeed sweating in front of a hot and bright light, is being questioned. Eventually, Jacoby turns off the light, and we see what is perhaps the best shot of the entire episode.
In the background, Gunn appears in silhouette and in profile. A backlit Jacoby and another questioner sit closer to the foreground. Clip, who is closest to us, is now in darkness.
As we sat there watching the episode, my wife said, “What a great shot,” echoing the very same thing I was thinking.
Gunn is hunched over, and the two cops sit on either side. Everyone is smoking, of course. They’re not getting anywhere with this guy, and everyone knows it.
After the unnamed cop takes Clip back to the cell where the rest of the gang is being held, Peter Gunn then proposes something to Jacoby. The cell has a view of the street below. Gunn suggests that Jacoby release Johnny Mays, who would walk out of the police precinct and onto the street in plain sight of the rest of the gang still being held, thereby creating suspicion among the gang and particularly in Clip’s mind that Johnny snitched. Jacoby does so, and the plan works.
We then move to Peter Gunn’s sweet pad in all of its late 1950s glory. Johnny appears at the door. While Gunn sips a cup of coffee—as always, it’s very late at night, the perfect time for a cup of coffee—the two talk. Johnny asks Gunn why he was released and the others held. Gunn coyly explains the situation. The rest of the gang will have been released by that point, Gunn says to Johnny, and they are going to wonder why he went free early.
Johnny realizes he’s been set up, and he walks off disgusted and scared. But before he leaves, Gunn makes his case again: that gang is no good.
Next, we move back to the gang’s den. Johnny arrives, and Clip immediately puts the heat on him.
We see both sides talking. Clip and his gang are now pointing guns at Johnny.
Accusations fly. As the tension rises, the camera gets closer to Johnny and Clip.
Clip pressures Johnny into drawing Gunn back to the den so that Johnny can kill him as proof of his loyalty to the gang.
With the presumed passage of a bit of time, Gunn eventually appears in the next scene. The gang surrounds Gunn, Johnny holds the gun that Clip handed him earlier, and now Johnny has a choice to make.
He chooses. Rather than shoot Gunn, he starts fighting with Clip and eventually neutralizes him. Johnny starts to walk off with Gunn, looking back to the others as a gesture to join him. They start doing so one by one, and the episode ends.
Peter Gunn is not sophisticated television. Its story lines are simple. They have to be: each episode is only about 25 minutes long. There’s often filler, too. In most episodes, we see scenes featuring Peter Gunn’s girlfriend Edie Hart (Lola Albright) singing in front of a jazz ensemble at Mother’s, a night club that doubles as Gunn’s “office.” But that filler is part of the draw for me. Along with the show’s title track, Henri Mancini wrote the first-rate toe-tapping late 1950s/early 1960s jazz band music that accompanies and enhances the action in each episode.
Everything happens late at night. Everyone smokes. Everyone drives huge cars with tail fins. Everyone’s a tough guy. Everyone’s got attitude. And Peter Gunn always gets his man. The show is total escapism, but it’s escapism that’s fun to watch.