Sunday, June 14, 2009
Cat on a Hot Tin New York Roof
John Cassavettes is one of those guys; you are either there or you are not. I always dug him as an actor: a Brandoesque bantam rooster, jumpy and world weary, capable of both straightforward masculine charm and a weirdly internal venom, sharp, angular and little-guy tough, a fast yapper and wheel-spinning guy-on-the perpetual-make possessed with a high degree of self-consciousness, always on the prowl for that 1950's something-something that went beyond chicks, dough, or immediate self-gratification. Greek-American, Long Islander, method actor, cool daddy, filmmaking visionary, American independent, scotch drinker, serial- smoker, hipster, Marty Scorsese/Spike Lee/Jim Jarmusch bellwether, fascinatingly contradictory real life character, and a darn memorable player in features like Crime In the Streets (Don Siegel, 1956), The Killers (Don Siegel, 1964) The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967),Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), Husbands (his own, 1970), “Etude in Black” (one of the finest Columbo episodes, 1972), The Temptest (Paul Mazursky, 1982) and even the absolutely wooly The Fury (Brian DePalma, 1978).
For one year, he was a TV spotlighter, starring in the title role of Johnny Staccacto, jazz pianist/ Greenwhich Village dweller/ and reluctant private eye, on ABC for 27 episodes in 1959-60. While not available as a standard DVD or Netflicker, the series can be had on the internet, and it’s fairly strong in its conception and delivery, despite its relative obscurity. An all-out nourish half hour, Cassavetes as Staccato solves the crimes, upholds the code, boils over with youthful vigor and bravado method posturing while maintaining a thoroughly convincing aura as the coolest of cats and one of the most existential TV dicks, right alongside Harry O and The Rockford Files. Mostly set in a jazz club called Waldos, with beats, bongo players, coppers. gangsters, squares, and searchers aplenty in the take-it-as-it-comes landscape, Cassavetes smokes (literally and figuratively) with the electrifying aplomb of a TV mashed-up James Dean/Humphrey Bogart, and even mixes it up with guns, fisticuffs, and a Korean-war based judo, all the while narrating every episode with a bleak, bleary-eyed, matter-of-fact voice-over that is permeated by shamus-meets-hipster observations and post-40’s self-observant doomier and gloomier revelations. Yeah, the action goes down, the chicks display their captivating make-up, hairdos, and take-a-deep-breath legs, the oh-so-Napoleonic Cassavetes broods, simmers, and continually explodes, with a weirdly expansive id—he gets drunk, lashes out, bats his laser-like southern-European eyelids and utilizes the series as method-acting test case-in yer face and up yer ass, restless and relentless, lonely and unfulfilled, perpetually itchy and irritated; a TV lead with nowhere to go but down the hazy, dazy Nieztchean line. Elmer Bernstein’s soundtrack pounds the jazzy-jazz home while guest stars and Cassavetes buds like Seymour Cassel, Harry Guardino, Cloris Leachman, Rupert Crosse, Val Avery, Martin Landau, John Marley, Lelia Goldoni Paul Stewart, and real life wifey Gena Rowlands (to die for) bring it home, alongside jazzbos like Shelly Manne, Pete Candoli and Red Norvo.
(And a bonus for you art-for-arts-sakes film mavens—he supposedly had a hand in rewriting many of the show, and even directs five episodes. Plus, for true blue cultists, the one-and-only SCTV actually parodied the little-seen series with Joe Flaherty as "Vic Arpeggio.")