4 July 2003 | bmacv
A game try at reviving a TV classic, but a little bit late
Blake Edwards, creator of this particular franchise, risked going to the well once too often with the late entry Peter Gunn, but he damn near pulls it off. The hyper-cool L.A. private eye debuted on television in 1958 and lasted until the dawn of Camelot; he was revived in 1967 for a theatrical release and yet again for this pilot for another television series (which was not to be). The original series was noteworthy in preserving for the small screen some of the look and the sensibility of the dying noir cycle as well as for its memorably raucous jazz theme by Henry Mancini.
Craig Stevens portrayed Gunn in the first two outings, but by 1989 it was time for a change; Peter Strauss donned the tuxedo and the amused detachment. He takes surprisingly well to Edwards' blend of murky atmospherics, fast, brutal action, and quirky humor (if he could sling a British accent, he might have made a good Bond the look is right).
Gunn finds himself hired by a mob boss (Charles Cioffi) to find out who killed the brother of a rival mob boss (Richard Portnow). Along the way he deals, wearily if competently, with the two women in his life: his ditzy new secretary (Jennifer Edwards) and his nightclub-singer girlfriend (Barbara Williams). The case puts him on loggerheads with his old partner police lieutenant (Peter Jurasik), even though it turns out the police may be implicated....
Though the movie looks good and holds together, it's scant surprise that the series wasn't picked up. The world had turned a few times too many to freshen Gunn's conventions. Edwards nudges the time-frame to the mid-1960s, but, except for the false eyelashes under bouffant hairdos, and the odd radio broadcast about Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War, the era bears no relation to the plot. (And chanteuses in jazz boites were pretty passé by the time of the Beatles and Janis Joplin, anyway.)
The jazz boite's owner, however, was a minor if signature character, played by a royal line of grande-dames. The formidable Hope Emerson originated the part, to be replaced by Minerva Urecal when Emerson died; in 1967, Edwards enlisted the great American Wagnerian soprano Helen Traubel. This time around, it's Pearl Bailey. But by 1987, maybe even she was starting to look passé, at least a little around the edges.