Cool, hot and timeless. Same as lounge jazz. Seduce me, baby. That's the siren song of Peter Gunn.
And siren is the word, as police cars blare, guns blaze, fists fly, and the city is uber-noir at night, on the waterfront, on deserted streets, as if the only life post-9 p.m. belongs to these dashing/deadly men weaving their way among victimized/villainous women. Kill me, baby.
Peter Gunn wasn't just a network mainstay 1958-61. It's also been a pop culture touchstone — a kind of space-age bachelor-pad nightclub crime-case dreamscape that never seems to go out of style. Yet this tight little cocktail couldn't be more of-its-moment, thanks to ace producer-writer Blake Edwards, pre-Pink Panther, and composer Henry Mancini, pre-"Moon River," and implacably elegant star Craig Stevens and smoldering flame Lola Albright. (Even their names sound right.)
The epitome of that era's snappy half-hour "crime jazz" whodunits — and we'll wonder later why the genre hasn't been resurrected — Peter Gunn is out this week in complete-series form on DVD, 114 episodes on 12 discs boxed in three season-set cases. There's even a bonus CD of the iconic Mancini soundtrack that won Grammy's album of the year honors. Whether or not you know the show, you know the urgent trombone slide and finger-snapping bass line that conjure up an era all by themselves.
They set the aural scene for Stevens (above, right) to work debonair in his business suit, barely getting mussed as he slugs his way through thugs both high-class and low. It suits him as he chases each week's case through museums and fleabags and bistros and the 13th precinct, where he's always dropping in on Herschel Bernardi's hassled (and seemingly solitary) detective lieutenant Jacoby (above, left). The guy is sighing his way through another work day (at night), with only his telephone and Gunn for human companionship. It's a tired trope, yet it's fresh here, their byplay unusually well written, playful yet wise, two men who understand each other's place in the world, and respect it, a bit grudgingly. (Does Gunn ever call Jacoby anything other than "lieutenant"?)
So now they need a woman, and there she is, Lola Albright, slinking her way onto the screen, frequently in song, at the gritty club called Mother's (and later in her own more stylish place, Edie's). She's a sexy chanteuse, but she's more — Gunn's girlfriend, and his rock, and a frisky partner in play. That is very clear. He's forever asking (or she's forever offering) to meet him, after he finishes his case, at 3 a.m., at his place. With which she seems very familiar. If you get my drift. For the '50s — heck, for now —this is adult stuff. These two are cozy together in a way that make you feel as if you, too, will be getting lucky tonight.
That buzz infuses Peter Gunn all the way through — the clients who ring him up at Mother's after midnight, the hard cases who careen through the doors, the shadowy sidewalks and hallways, staking out their own iconographic territory. Everybody knows Gunn, he knows everybody. Dwarf character actor Billy Barty as a pool hustler/tipster. Old guys in labs, blind guys in cabs, anybody out there who's up to speed on what's down-and-dirty. Pretty much everything in the show could seem like cliché, if it didn't feel like this was the show that invented them all.
There's a newness beneath it all, with engagingly in-check energy fueling the cool. Yet all the participants in this nighttime netherworld seem to be grownups, mature, even world-weary, yet primed to go. Even the chicks who walk in and say I'm-20-and-just-off-the-bus seem to have lived eons already.
And their paths cross for all of half an hour — at a time when ad-supported TV's 30 minutes lasted a full 26 minutes, not today's 22 or less. There's just one driving story, the case of the week, no B story or C story or cute little side scenes to flesh out characters. No need. The plots are taut, the characters explain themselves by breathing, the studio lot is so much background. Peter Gunn makes sense because it's its own complete whole, even when "implausible" doesn't begin to describe the details. Who cares? Gunn faces death in every episode. Edie croons and coos. Jacoby sighs heavily. He wears a hat. Window frames cast shadows. Everybody's got guns. It's all we need to know.
And I wouldn't mind knowing Peter Gunn again, today, in some way. Not just these beat-vintage DVDs — I'm halfway through the set and already mourning it'll soon be over — but a new incarnation or two of the half-hour "crime jazz" genre. Why not? Enough with our era's network "procedurals." Just typing the word makes me feel jaded. And they last an hour long. Maybe they do okay for the network, or for cable siblings who later run 'em to death on the cheap. But hour shows aren't the kind of thing that draws big money in syndication or keeps viewers tuned in big numbers down the road.
The crime half-hour could be just the ticket — a quick, cool, clever viewing hit when you need it most. Too expensive, I hear the networks say. Twice as many shows, casts, crews. But perhaps, twice as efficient, if filmed on the lot, a la Peter Gunn (and his just-out-on-DVD contemporaries: Mr. Lucky, with John Vivyan as a sophisticated casino-boat owner and Ross Martin as his excitable sidekick (also with bonus soundtrack CD!), or the period sleuth Yancy Derringer, casting Jock Mahoney as a post-Civil War secret agent with a mute Native American associate).
Gunn is just as much fun as some "state of the art" high-tech whodunit, and more personal, more atmospheric, more urbane, more delectably adult. In place of fancy sets and technology, we get stark shadows, warehouses, dark docks. And cars with fins! (Will today's Hummer or Fiat 500 seem quite so cool 50 years from now?) The style is the setting. The filming technique is the texture. The cast is small. The guest stars change the frame weekly.
It's a welcoming world, too, hardly as offputting as all the nasty L&O/CSI/NCISenvironments into which we've recently been plunged. I wouldn't mind hanging at Mother's, or Edie's. Rubbing shoulders with Gunn's sleek suitjacket or Edie's bare arms. Hearing some vibes and piano, with tugboat toots in the background.
As for this new complete Peter Gunn on disc, it couldn't look any better. Video quality is much more crisp than A&E's scratchy prints a decade back during DVD's early days. That's the great thing about black-and-white. Just clean it up and let it loose, and there's a timeless sheen to everything it delivers. Especially when it's as precisely produced as this. No distracting colors, or trend tone palettes, just an almost abstract universe that's so palpable, you could almost taste it.
I'll have a daiquiri. And, please, sing it again, Edie.