"Evil attacks you through your television sets."
This is the suitably ballsy first line of this television episode, and it's delivered by this man:
Brother Max (Alexander Scourby) is addressing the congregation of an inner-city mission on the dangers of Evil, and the threat it poses to us in our daily lives. His spiel is caught in a bracing, uncut 2-minute take:
"You say 'Hallelujah', you say 'Amen'...but what you say and what you do, my friends, they can be very different." And Brother Max should know, as we find someone special waiting for him after the service...
Our hero saunters into the frame, captured, unsurprisingly, in a stolen shot from a handheld camera, in the true Cassavetes manner:
In VO, Johnny tells him that he's been asked to check out a mission to which the girlfriend of a pal has given all her savings. Johnny asks around, eventually winds up in the orbit of the VERY drunk Brother Conrad (Elisha Cook):
Johnny is taken to the congregation of Brother Max, seen holding forth against Evil:
Brother Conrad stands to testify, but finds his repeated drunkenness too many lapses into Evil, and he is cruelly ejected by Brother Max:
Johnny takes the stage to do some testifying of his own, insisting that "nobody was ever that far gone that he couldn't be forgiven." And when he directly charges Brother Max with lying to and exploiting his flock, the faithful descend upon him, knock him unconscious, and leave him in the alley outside:
Brother Max briefly steps outside and cheerfully comes clean to Johnny: he is, indeed, a fraud, who has taken these good people for every penny he could get.
Ironically, this hipster detective's moral compass is more functional than that of the false man of God, and Johnny knows Max is right when he says that to expose him would be to shatter the faith of the parishioners. At the moment, only Johnny and we see Brother Max for who he is.
But their conversation has been observed:
This is Brother Thomas (Lloyd Corrigan), the original founder of this modest church. After 20 years of little success in attracting much of a parish, Thomas found his ministry taken over by Max. And though Max has filled the pews with the devout in a way that Thomas never could, Thomas has always suspected that Max wasn't completely on the level. The shame of these new revelations shatter him.
Johnny knows that if Max is going to be exposed, and if the faith of the parish is to be preserved, Brother Thomas is going to have to be the man to do it. Max is too weak, too ashamed to fight. "You don't have the faith in those people that you expect them to give to you," chides Johnny. "All we can do is try."
Brother Thomas takes the stage to make a last, desperate plea for the souls of his flock...
...and the last we see of Johnny before this final conflict makes us wonder if even he's saying a little prayer:
The seventh episode of Johnny Staccato, starring John Cassavetes in the title role, might as well have been filmed last week. It's a powerful piece of filmmaking, and its portrait of religion abused and faith exploited for the benefit of charlatans is, sadly, as timely as ever. And it's an insanely well-crafted episode, completely jettisoning Johnny's jazz milieu (which had framed the series thus far) to enter some downright Rod Serling territory. Richard Carr's script stays safely off the side of polemic, letting the episode's two main characters remain human even as they embody Good and Evil.
I'd been bothered by the tendency of the show to background its leading man, a tendency that Cassavetes himself seems to acknowledge with the funny framing of this shot:
Johnny emerges here as a conscience, observing the conflict (like us) from the sidelines but still wholly invested. And there's a downright utopian confluence in this episode, as Johnny's moral hipster and Corrigan's meek but resolute man of God find common ground. It's a powerful moment that resonates in these fractious times, and though greed hides behind a number of faces (including a few of those who were debating last night), there's more than one kind of faith, too.
Take a bow, Johnny. And tag it: