Part 6: The Black Mask Brotherhood

   The chances are that the 1957 to 1961 TV phase of the American Private Eye will be remembered as the most slickest in the TV genre. (“Slick,” as in the sense of smooth and efficient, streamlined.) There had been nothing else like before and nothing since has managed to equal the quintessence of its visual style.

   In short, it was a curious phenomenon seemingly belonging to time, by way of inspiration, aided and abetted by style. This unique time period ranges from, say, Richard Diamond, Private Detective (CBS, 1957-59; NBC, 1959-60) to Michael Shayne (NBC, 1960-61). Fortunately, the phase didn’t last long enough to become a parody of itself (unlike the later TV Spy cycle) and remains therefore a largely unblemished sub-genre.

   Hollywood films of the 1940s such as the obvious contenders The Maltese Falcon (1941), the 20th Fox “Michael Shayne” films with Lloyd Nolan (1940 to 1942), Murder My Sweet (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), featuring private detectives, and fashionably now termed as film noir, had as their inspiration the modern literary genre: from early hard-boiled works by Hammett and Carroll John Daly to more contemporary authors such as Jonathan Latimer, Brett Halliday [Davis Dresser] and Chandler. All except Latimer had been contributors to the pulp magazines (Black Mask, Dime Detective, Spicy Mystery, Thrilling Detective, etc.).

   This Hollywood studio period embodied the on-screen noir tough guy, epitomized by a Humphrey Bogart or by an unlikely Dick Powell (Cornered, 1945). They were tense and tight-lipped, yet agile. Men of a cynical disbelief that slipped easily into bemused irony. Their film world was often corpse-littered and bafflingly plotted.

   The early period of TV Private Eyes (around 1949 to 1954) tended to stem from radio or were under the executive thumb of proprietorial sponsors. One of the earliest series was Martin Kane, Private Eye (NBC, 1949-54), which seemed to change its leading actor with each season. Charlie Wild, Private Detective (CBS, 1950-51; ABC, 1951-52; DuMont, 1952) was an extension of sponsor Wildroot Cream’s The Adventures of Sam Spade, Detective radio series (Howard Duff).

   The Cases of Eddie Drake (DuMont, 1952) was followed by The Files of Jeffrey Jones (syndicated 1954-55); Don Haggerty played the featured PI in each. Disappointingly, these on-screen characters and their milieu belonged strictly to 1940s Hollywood.

   The TV Private Eye phase of the late 1950s, on the other hand, appeared to be the result of several exciting events. Primarily, the advent of paperback priginals led by Fawcett’s line of Gold Medal books in 1950 (previously, paperback books had been reprints of hard cover editions). Genre authors published by Gold Medal in the 1950s or its companion imprint, Crest, included Richard S. Prather (with the Shell Scott novels), William Campbell Gault (Joe Puma novels), Stephen Marlowe (Chester Drum novels), Curt Cannon [Evan Hunter] (Cannon/Matt Cordell stories).

   Additionally, Henry Kane for Avon & Signet Signet & Avon (Peter Chambers), Thomas B. Dewey for Dell (Pete Scofield) and Frank Kane also for Dell (Johnny Liddell). Reprinted from hardcover were Mickey Spillane for Dutton then Signet (Mike Hammer, of course), a publishing phenomenon, and Brett Halliday for Dodd Mead and Dell (Mike Shayne). Hard-boiled private eye stories seemed to be flavor of the month (or should I say, decade?).

   Another strong influence appeared to be the increasing sophistication of jazz music and the contemporary jazz musicians’ sartorial inclination toward what was known as the Ivy League Look (think jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan or Craig Stevens in the 1958-61 Peter Gunn or even Dick Van Dyke in the 1961-66 sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show).

   Collegiate, soft-shouldered suits with button-down shirts and slim ties. Rather timely, for four albums which are now considered seminal jazz records (Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come) were all released in 1959.

   I remember reading somewhere that the tough-as-nails TV Western hero evolved from his place on the prairie to the mean streets of the TV Private Eye. Interestingly, the Private Eye phase was active during the time of the TV Western stampede (where kiddie actioners like The Lone Ranger and The Gene Autry Show gave way to “adult” Westerns like Cheyenne, Rawhide and Gunsmoke in the mid-1950s).

   For me, Scott Brady’s Shotgun Slade (syndicated 1959-61) may have been enjoyable for its account of a gun-toting investigator in the Old West — complete with jazz score! — but I am not at all sure about the theory that Jim Hardie (Tales of Wells Fargo), for instance, might have become someone like Stuart Bailey (77 Sunset Strip).

   A listing of relevant TV Private Eye series during this period would include The Investigator (NBC, 1958), Markham (CBS, 1959-60), 21 Beacon Street (NBC, 1959; ABC, 1959-60), Coronado 9 (syndicated 1960-61), Bourbon Street Beat (ABC, 1959-60), Hawaiian Eye (ABC, 1959-63), Philip Marlowe (ABC, 1959-60), Johnny Midnight (syndicated 1960), Surfside 6 (ABC, 1960-62), The Brothers Brannagan (sic) (syndicated 1960-61) and Michael Shayne (NBC, 1960-61).

   Some interesting-sounding pilot shows from the decade include “The Girl from Kansas” (1952) with Barry Sullivan as sleuth Nemo Grey (I can’t tell if the would-be series, to be called Nemo Grey, would be about a police or private detective); “Death the Hard Way” (1954) had William Gargan as PI Barry Craig (directed by Blake Edwards); “Mike Hammer” (1954) was an early try-out starring Brian Keith (written and directed by Blake Edwards); “The Bigger They Come” (1955) from A.A. Fair/Erle Stanley Gardner’s first Cool and Lam novel; “Man On a Raft” (1958) had Mark Stevens as Michael Shayne in an early attempt for a series; “The Silent Kill” (1959) was based on author William Campbell Gault’s Brock Callahan p.i. character.

   I left my personal favorites until last. The phase included also the bloodthirsty Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (syndicated 1958-59) with a suitably brutal, street-fighting, crew-cutted Darren McGavin (and yes, the author’s and character’s names together is the full title). The enterprising (answering service/car phone) Richard Diamond, Private Detective (CBS, 1957-59; NBC, 1959-60) with the always-watchable David Janssen (his first series) and an outstanding jazz score by Pete Rugolo.

   Perhaps the best of the Warner Brothers TV private eye shows of the time, 77 Sunset Strip (ABC, 1958-64) was the first to offer an agency-based ensemble private detective team as well as a snappy signature tune. Blake Edwards’ Peter Gunn (NBC, 1958-60; ABC, 1960-61) stands as the epitome of late 1950s TV Private Eyes for me, dealing out action and sophistication in equal doses, along with Henry Mancini’s entirely jazz-based score.

   The latter presentation went on to influence many other TV shows, most notably Staccato (aka Johnny Staccato; NBC, 1959-60; ABC, 1960), John Cassavetes’ gift to the small-screen as jazz pianist/private eye working out of a small Greenwich Village jazz club, often accompanying house band musicians Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne, Red Norvo and Red Mitchell.

   They were all were taut crime dramas which if anything improved as they went on. The writing and direction was efficient, being vigorous and well-staged despite some unavoidable weaknesses in plotting and performance. The 1950s private eyes were indeed masterful but mannered heroes. By contrast, later makers of TV Private Eye series seemed to suffer from that garish and nervous over-sophistication which bedevilled so many producers in the age of color television.

   A significant TV phase of the past that was sadly brought to a halt by two unrelated forces — the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the 1960s TV Spy craze — was the TV Gangster period, led by Quinn Martin’s The Untouchables (ABC, 1959-63). It’ll be my next project.

Note:   The introduction to this series of columns by Tise Vahimagi on TV mysteries and crime shows may be found here, followed by:

Part 1: Basic Characteristics (A Swift Overview)
Part 2.0: Evolution of the TV Genre (UK)
Part 2.1: Evolution of the TV Genre (US)
Part 3.0: Cold War Adventurers (The First Spy Cycle)
Part 3.1: Adventurers (Sleuths Without Portfolio).
Part 4.0: Themes and Strands (1950s Police Dramas).
Part 4.1: Themes and Strands (Durbridge Cliffhangers)
Part 5.0: Theatre of Crime (US).
Part 5.1: Theatre of Crime (Hours of Suspense Revisited).
Part 5.2: Theatre of Crime (UK)