Sunday, August 9, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Television: Bourbon Street Beat

Bourbon Street Beat, which only ran during the 1959-1960 television season, was the least successful of the four linked Warner Brothers detective series produced around that time. The other three are 77 Sunset Strip (6 seasons, 1958-1964), Hawaiian Eye (4 seasons, 1959-1963), and Surfside 6 (2 seasons, 1960-1962). Despite the supposed geographic diversity of the shows – New Orleans, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Miami – all were actually shot on the same California back lot. This made “cross-overs” a snap, and they were frequent! A few years later, this sort of everywhere-nowhere studio shooting would have seemed dated, as detective shows branched out (to their benefit, I think) on location: Hawaii Five-O, The Streets of San Francisco, Kojak.

All of the Warner Brothers quartet initially featured pairs or trios of handsome detectives, as well as glamour chick female employees; “colorful” sidekicks appeared on a couple of the shows, most famously Edd “Kookie” Byrnes of 77 Sunset Strip. When Bourbon Street sounded its last Beat, its lead character, Richard Long’s Rex Randolph, moved over to 77 Sunset Strip, while Van Williams’s Kenny Madison joined the youthful brigade on the new Surfside 6. (Later, after Surfside 6 met its own demise, its star Troy Donahue, in a different character, joined the cast of 77 Sunset Strip.)

Left behind in New Orleans was Andrew Duggan’s Cal Calhoun, who rejoined the regular police force from whence he came and was later featured in a 1962 77 Sunset Strip episode in which Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s Stu Bailey visits New Orleans. Duggan also guested five other times on 77 Sunset Strip in five different roles; watching a heavy dose of these series is absolutely guaranteed to provoke déjà vu! (Plots are also recycled between the shows.)

The episode “Wall of Silence” starts in “Luzon Village” in Louisiana Bayou Country where, improbably, a sizable group of refugees from an unspecified Communist country in the Balkans have been relocated. They talk in anxious whispers because they are being collectively blackmailed by someone who knows their dark secret! – the secret is just as improbable, although I won’t spoil your pleasure by revealing it. One brave soul played by the ubiquitous character actor Jay Novello takes a journey to the Big Easy to hire a private detective to get them out of this mess. He pays Rex Randolph’s secretary a retainer, but immediately gets cold feet and takes off because Rex can get back to the office from a nearby joint (the Absinthe House!) where he’s romancing one of his no-doubt many gals. This particular sweetie is talking marriage a little aggressively, which makes Rex happy for the interruption.

By the bye, all the Warner P.I. shows, and many similar series of the era such as Checkmate, Follow the Sun, and The Brothers Brannagan, are united in their espousal of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy lifestyle, clearly demonstrating, although not saying in so many words, that marriage is for squares and losers. Our heroes may seem gallant, but when it comes to women, they subscribe to the old “4F” philosophy – find ‘em, feel ‘em…you know.

Back to our story: Naturally a curious Rex goes nosing around Luzon Village, and naturally he runs into the “wall of silence,” getting told to hoof it out of town if he knows what’s good for him – a familiar drill. For this, the local color portion of our program, the bayou set is actually not bad. (Luzon Village is supposed to be on Barataria Bay, which is about 40 miles due south of New Orleans on the Gulf Coast.)

Soon the plot thickens with a murder-made-to-look-like-a-suicide (chance for a noir visual) and the deaf-mute boy who discovers the body (and who turns out to be a significant little chap in several ways). To resolve the mystery, Rex has to rely on the rest of the manpower in his office and, in a clever bit of sleuthing by partner Cal Calhoun (this must be the Alliterative Detective Agency!), the almighty reach of the United States Postal Service.

Louisiana-based swamp noir inevitably plays off the “alien” quality of the Cajun subculture – rural, non-terrestrial, closed off, presumably inbred, and not even linguistically English. Walter Hill’s tense, underrated film Southern Comfort is a key example. (Of course, as with any dramatic use of stereotyping, this runs a considerable risk of insensitivity.) In this episode, that trope is slightly underplayed – although the chief villain still turns out to be a Cajun, his opposite number, the village hero, is also Cajun, and neither is too exaggeratedly ethnic. Instead, the ethnic strangeness is largely displaced onto the transplanted Balkans (who might have been more at home in terrain like Minnesota’s or Maine’s, perhaps?).

All in all, an entertaining hour of television. For me, one of the chief appeals of this particular era of the private investigator is the Playboy swankiness I mentioned – in Bourbon Street Beat, Richard Long’s Rex Randolph is smart, suave, dapper, has a fab bachelor pad, and an office next door to a jazz club. I mean what could be better, right? My favorite scene here has Rex comparing the merits of slivovitz, raki, ouzo, and absinthe –it’s a tough job but someone has to do it. Forties P.I.s often lived pretty ascetically, but from the mid-Fifties through the late Sixties, their lifestyle turned consumerist, and frankly looks a lot more fun. I take Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer to be a pivot point with that, as in other ways. The TV detectives of the time kept Hammer’s cool stuff, but forewent the atom bombs. They are without desperation either internally or externally provoked – therefore, I would say that they have moved beyond noir.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review. A few years ago, my cable line-up briefly included a channel that re-ran these shows. You nailed the tone just right. The MAD MEN would have wanted their commercials on 77 SUNSET STRIP.