I saw John Cassavetes’ GLORIA when I was a teenager, at the school film society (a formative influence — do such things exist anymore?) and didn’t know if I liked it or not. And then I didn’t really see any Cassavetes until… now, basically, when a job came up that required me to become instantly expert, at least in the early phase of his career. So I plunged in, optimistically.
One of the fascinating things about JC is the split between SHADOWS (consciously disjointed improv that retroactively explains all the bits in MEAN STREETS that don’t quite work — in SHADOWS, the freeform stuff knows what it’s doing) and his TV work, notably Johnny Staccato, in which the reptilian demiurge plays a kind of jazz detective, pianist turned P.I.
Staccato tackles the cases too cool for the ordinary police.
The first episode we ran was enjoyably ludicrous: Elmer Bernstein’s bombastic score turned everything into a Big Moment, even if it’s just JC loping across a lounge or standing on the subway. Nick Cravat played the heavy (only opposite a lead as short as Cassavetes — sure, he looks lanky, but he’s basically a tall man scaled down to one-third size — could the pint-sized tumbler serve as suitable menace) and there’s a moment when J-Cass turns on the charm at a sexy secretary which is simply indescribable — a cringe-inducing irruption of hepcat suavity less likely to make the poor girl swoon with desire than to carry out an instant pre-emptive hysterectomy on herself using her eyelash crimper.
The whole thing basically made me suddenly understand how accurate a parody of TV tropes Police Squad! was. It’s just that they were mocking TV shows before my time. (Seems like nobody has yet done a spot-on pastiche of the likes of Petrocelli or Quincy, probably because it would be too dull.)
BUT — when Cassavetes slides into the director’s chair, there’s an upsurge in quality and, dare I say it, conviction — there are guest stars such as Charles McGraw (OK, improbably cast as a crooner — I can picture albums entitled McGraw Snarls The Blues, With A Mellow Growl, and Songs for Gravelly Lovers) and Elisha Cook Jnr — as a hapless victim signally ignored in the obligatory happy ending. And we get members of what would soon be the Cassavetes stock company — indeed, the show’s producer is Everett Chambers, who played a loathsome agent in TOO LATE BLUES.
It’s still ridiculous in places, but very entertaining, and the noir approach gives vent to J.C.’s expressionist tendencies, which found unexpected outlets in his movies. The most overwhelming moment came when J-Cass played a scene with a nubile Martin Landau.
Me: “This is too much! You can’t have two Picasso lizards in one scene!”
Fiona: “The world won’t come to an end just because Cassavetes and Landau appear onscreen together.”
Yet, twenty seconds later ~
Fiona: “The world is coming to an end!”