Saturday, 18 December 2010


Although Blake Edwards' British obituaries mostly mentioned Peter Gunn, if only for the Henry Mancini music, his television crime work deserves more attention. I wrote about the Brian Keith Mike Hammer in Crime Time 2.6, the Mickey Spillane special issue, and about City Heat in my Pocket Essential Clint Eastwood. It's nice to bring it all together here, because Richard Diamond and Peter Gunn were among my favourites when I was a kid, and impressionable...

In 1999, the National Film Theatre's Crime Scene festival honoured Mickey Spillane, and showed the rare 1954 pilot for a Mike Hammer TV series, written and directed by Blake Edwards. Edwards' got the job because he had created the radio private eye Richard Diamond, played by Dick Powell, which had cashed in on the wise-cracking hard-boiled quality which made his Philip Marlowe so convincing. Edwards' Hammer, Brian Keith, played the part with what I called at the time 'the right mix of violence and affability', tapping into some of Spillane's often-overlooked humour, and though the show wasn't picked up, the pilot became the basis of the Darren McGavin more tongue-in-cheek series a few years later, whose tone prefigured the Stacy Keach Hammer from its many different incarnations.

In 1957, when television asked for a Richard Diamond series, Powell wasn't interested, so Edwards cast David Janssen in his first major role. Diamond was a cool presence moving through a shadowy world, to which he was linked by 'Sam' the operator at his answering service, whom he called from his car phone! Seen only from the waist down, her legs, and voice, belonged to an equally unknown Mary Tyler Moore. But the real star was Henry Mancini's music, which began his long association with Edwards. When reruns were syndicated, they emphasised Sam by retitling the show 'Call Mr. D.' Diamond moved from NBC to CBS, and from New York to a less noirish Los Angeles, but Edwards had already reprised the character in New York with Peter Gunn, played by Craig Stevens, every bit as smooth as Janssen but with a lighter touch closer to Powell's, or indeed a small-screen Cary Grant. That's Mancini, on the left with Stevens and Edwards, on the Gunn set in the photo on the right.

Mancini's Peter Gunn theme has become an icon of 1950s cool, and fit perfectly with Gunn's base of operations, a jazz club called Mother's where his girlfriend, played by the lovely Lola Albright (see photo left), sang. With Herschel Bernardi providing a tired cop foil to Gunn's super-hip detective (basically the same role Ed Begley had played with Powell on the radio Mr. Diamond), the show ran for 114 episodes over four years. Edwards tried to cash in on the formula once again with Mr. Lucky, (1959) based on the 1943 Cary Grant film, but John Vivyan wasn't a Craig Stevens, much less a Grant, and it lasted only one season.

Edwards revisited Gunn twice, first in an underrated 1967 film, whose gender confusions prefigured Victor/Victoria, and whose climax, as Max Allan Collins has pointed out, was borrowed from Spillane's Vengeance Is Mine. But only Stevens returned from the original cast, and its 50s style didn't translate to the Sixties setting. In 1989 he wrote and directed a disappointing TV movie starring Peter Strauss as Gunn alongside Jennifer Edwards, his daughter.

Edwards made one other venture into period crime, writing the script which became the Clint Eastwood/Burt Reynolds film City Heat, set in early 1930s Kansas City. He was originally supposed to direct, but he wanted to cast his wife, Julie Andrews, in the role finally played by the much better-suited Madeline Kahn. Reynolds had not enjoyed working with Andrews when Edwards directed them in The Man Who Loved Women, and when he objected Eastwood sided with his co-star. Eventually, Richard Benjamin directed, and Edwards' screenplay was credited to Sam O. Brown, whose initials reflect the title of his 1981 film SOB.

Though Edwards remains thought of as a comedy director, his comedies are often less than satisfying. That's partly because they so often depend on the despair of the main characters, and partly because the casting and characters often lack subtlety but fall short of farce. I do remember being enthralled by Operation Petticoat when I was eight or nine at summer camp. But they lack edginess, as if the characters are being softened, despite their obvious faults; it's one of the reasons James Garner and Jack Lemmon (and Grant, for that matter) worked so well with Edwards, because they are essentially likeable; Lemmon's may be the best Edwards' performance, in Days Of Wine And Roses. But when you look, Garner is far better with Julie Andrews in The Americanization of Emily, which itself far outshone What Did You Do In The War Daddy; and he's better in Robert Benton's Twilight than in Sunset, which itself isn't as good as Hearts Of The West. He is the best thing in Victor/Victoria, where I find Julie Andrews' arch in the extreme, less funny than Grant in I Was A Male War Bride but with no real sexual edge to her cross-dressing.

But when Edwards worked in TV crime, his characters' flaws were minimal, and subsumed by their outward cool. They could move through a flawed world as, if not heroes, men to whom small problems were not problems. These characters stopped interesting Edwards when he got to the big screen; the 1967 Gunn is far more vulnerable than his 50s prototype. But you might argue he didn't quite know what to do with his flawed characters and their despair; like the Edwards who hurt himself trying to slice his own wrists, they're caught somewhere between angst and joy, somewhere he often can't define. Gunn's relationship with Edie reflects that: he's often cool to the point of detached with her, often barely smiling in the face of her affection. It's a peculiar sort of 1950's attitude, a bit of understatement somewhere between Hugh Hefner's Playboy and Mike Hammer with Velda.

This article will also appear at Shots (


Max Allan Collins said...

I am so pleased to see you post a piece on Blake Edwards and his crime genre contributions. PETER GUNN initiated the TV private eye craze in the USA, giving the genre a new lease on life. You can't get from Mike Hammer to James Bond without Gunn inbetween.

I do think your memory, or perhaps it was your reaction at the time, to the Edward HAMMER pilot is a little off. That's a fairly grim, humorless piece whose violence kept it off the air. Brian Keith was somber throughout.

Also, it should be noted the (as you say) much underrated GUNN theatrical film borrowed its shocking conclusion from Spillane's VENGEANCE IS MINE!

Michael Carlson said...

I should have checked what I wrote at the time: that it had 'the right mix of violence and affability' and that 'McGavin's was played with more tongue in cheek' so maybe my memory was a little bit off. I may amend the current to reflect that...

And I should have thought of and mentioned the VIM connection...thanks for the reminder!
Youre now my conscience...