I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Miami Undercover and Early Sixties Club Noir

by Scott Tienken
Jan. 14, 2014

Right off the bat 1961’s short-lived Miami Undercover has a few good things going for it.

We have a nice smarm-smug turn by middle-aged character actor Lee Bowman as Private Investigator Jeff Thompson. Bowman nicely embodies a certain cocktail-and-white-hanky toughness: He’ll resort to gunplay and fisticuffs if called to do so, but mostly throws the verbal salvo with a knowing twinkle to either bully or charm his prey (criminal or woman).

We also have a laugh-out-loud-enjoyable performance from boxing legend Rocky Graziano (Nicknames: The Rock / Rocky / Rocky Bob / Thomas Rocky Graziano / Roco / Painter Rock) as a nightclub owner who happens to hang out an entirely different nightclub -- one from which Thompson takes his clients and essentially tells the boobs-out blondes to cool their heels for a while so he can take care of business and catch up with them somewhere down the line (Spoiler Alert: Note the smoke-ringed submissiveness of the Dame A. Also that of the blameless florist who unknowingly employs our shadowed bad guy as a delivery man. That's Dame B The Innocent. Dame A will be laying on Jeff’s bach pad sofa, presumably for almost the entirety of the episode while he tcb). Graziano, who was all over television in his post-fight career, did guest appearances and commercials, and even had his own comedy show with Henny Youngman (The Henny and Rocky Show). In this episode of M.U., “Wrong Pigeon,” he demonstrates a real ease and likeability. A straight shooter you kinda wish you could knock back a few “good drinks” with. There is also a moment at 15:22 of the episode where Rocky Bob turns around to join in with Thompson, and he shows a definite marauding-bear movement that must’ve muscle memoried in from the gym.

These things are enough to enjoy this episode.

But the absolute glue and joy of this program is the music of Johnny Green. Green, a member of The Songwriters Hall of Fame who famously wrote “Body and Soul,” ramps up a massive Cuban-jazz backbeat that propels the plot along and adds some ambience and class to a low-charisma cast and standard noir plotting. The volume is IN FRONT during much of the episode. Think of the way music is used in the famous one-take panning shot in Welles’ Touch of Evil, where we meander and dance and roll along with the car. Heston, and Leigh with big, echoey percussives and late-swing brasses at their backs the entire way. Green’s big band jazz makes you ever so slightly remember “Hey, we are actually supposed to be in Miami here.” Though we don’t get any location shots and the club even lack the palms and white-blasted walls that might lead us to think we are somewhere subtropical, THE MUSIC reminds you, and even makes the sweaty foreheads on all but the too-cool Thompson seem OF-A-PLACE. It plays like a sweat, sub-tropical noir ala Key Largo. There is an implicit humidity imparted by the intensity of the music and, say, Thompson’s cop-pal’s excitement over a couple of gifted pints of ice cream (melted). All the while we have Bowman’s Thompson and his cool white hanky reminding us of who is in charge. And because the murders are mafia-related in this episode, we can almost be swept into an associative milieu somewhere along the lines of: 1961, Mafia, Robert Kennedy as attorney general gunning for Mafia (or the Cuban Missile Crisis launching pad of a year later), Sam Giancana and his alleged involvement in a plot to murder Castro. The music sweeps us into such imagined clubs where secret dealing might have taken place (Though an opportunity is lost in the set design of the club Thompson works out of. It isn’t smoky or dark or full of anything but a nice little Chet Baker-ish number in the background). Green does a better job of reminding us of a particular era than the actual plot does. Miami Undercover may be best enjoyed by not watching but listening to it. You can better see the noir tropes and period costumes and tough guy poses (especially without their rather bland portrayals here) by listening to the music and re-imagining an era.





Scott Tienken's Mass Transportation (August, 2011) is the second book in The Portland Trilogy. He is co-founder of The Cartophile Imprint an on-line publisher, art repository, and music label. His Knocking on 1,000 Mysterious Doors Project and Pine Needles, a musical collective of instrumentalists and city-sounds can be followed at www.thecartophileimprint.comAlleys, the first installment of Libretto for Cities, a analytic epic prose poem about city space, will be released summer, 2012. He lives in Portland, Oregon.