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Filmed in a film noir atmosphere and featuring Henry Mancini music that could tell you the action with your eyes closed, Peter Gunn worked in style. Known as Pete to his friends and simply as Gunn to his enemies, he did his job in a calm cool way. He got his tips and cautions from Lieutenant Jacoby, a coffee drinking pal from the police. Also providing tips was "Mother" of her self-titled nightclub. Working at the nightclub as a singer was Edie Hart, his girlfriend. Written by
Mathias Banner <email@example.com>
Television from the mid '50's to the mid '60's, probably due to its roots in the theater, was far more stylized than today's fare. Most of us who watched it then, certainly as kids growing up, were probably not really aware of this aspect. We just watched and enjoyed. But in retrospect, or through seeing various classic shows on disc or tape, this stylistic aspect becomes very clear. Also lacking then was today's bottomless well of technological possibility, giving most productions of the time a rather cut-and-dried feel that might seem hopelessly lacking in dimensionality to the young viewer of this time. But there were true gems lying about in this older, rougher ground. It was this era, lest we forget, that spawned the peerless, original Twilight Zone, a series that perfectly sampled the over and undercurrents of its time as no other ever has, and which owed much of its power to the stark realities of low-tech TV. Also produced in this era was the superb Have Gun Will Travel with its perfect blend of psychological and physical intensity, one of several excellent western series that aired then.
But in terms of pure style, no TV series of that time, of any genre, could match the half-hour crime drama Peter Gunn, a production so stylized and stylistically detailed, and so measured, that it almost resembled Japanese Kabuki. Every aspect of this Blake Edwards-produced series was meticulously detailed and managed, from the near-blank style of its acting to even the visuals that preceded and terminated breaks for commercials. In fact, it was the pre-commercial segue that became my favorite. In the sequence, a musical G-clef unwound itself and morphed into a Giacommeti-like human figure, all against a slowly-arpeggiated, extremely cool jazz guitar chord. This very slick sequence got past me the first time around, when the show was in its network run and I was too young to really appreciate it. But years later, when the series was in local syndication and airing at midnight, I stayed up just to watch and listen to it. It was that cool.
Most Peter Gunn episodes were cut from a similar template: the caper to be addressed transpired in a pre-credit sequence (Peter Gunn was one of the first shows to jump directly to story before rolling opening creds.) Then Craig Steven's almost impossibly urbane private eye, Peter Gunn, would step onto the case, always bending the law just enough to keep Herschel Bernardi's way dour NYPD detective, Lt. Jacobi, unsure of whom to arrest first: Gunn or the perps in question. The often-repeated sight of Jacobi arriving on the scene, snub .38 drawn, ready to arrest the suspect, only to find Gunn already there and in control, never failed to amuse. When Gunn was not effortlessly staying two steps ahead of Jacobi, he was lizarding at Mother's, a waterfront jazz club, and getting his flirt on with its sultry headlining singer, blonde neutron bombshell Edie Hart, played by Lola Albright, a type of lady that might be defined as Marilyn Monroe's far more experienced sister. The show's sense of cool was almost too much, but not quite, a fact that made it eminently watchable then, and has allowed it to live on even now in syndication.
Underpinning and significantly defining the series was Henry Mancini's superb music. Mancini passed away in the mid 90's and is just now getting his due, including a postage stamp in his memory. His Peter Gunn theme is still being covered today but it was his incidental music for the series that I loved best, especially the stuff that played as the pre-credit story opened. Mancini took the then-popular West Coast, cool jazz sound and further iced it down, doing things like blending flute and tremoloed vibraphones to sustain a menacing, ever-darkening cloud behind the plot. Mancini was a master of all moods, which he crafted with lush harmonies and gliding melodies (The ageless Days of Wine and Roses and Moon River are his; lyrics by Johnny Mercer.) Mancini was very prolific and did many great things that sort of slid by while no one was really looking, probably because he never tried to acquire the spotlight himself, as himself. He mainly let his work do the walking and talking. His soundtrack to the movie Hatari (an intermittently very entertaining action flick with John Wayne as an African big game capture expert) remains worthy and remarkable to this day. As a freshman at the University of Idaho, I watched Mancini guest-conduct the university orchestra; the Maestro forbearing graciously as his `Baby Elephant Walk', an incidental piece from the Hatari soundtrack that became an international hit, was butchered by the inept flute section. It was heart-rending. Mancini also did the music for another similar but unsuccessful TV series, Mr. Lucky, based on the Cary Grant movie character from the mid-forties. Mr. Lucky died fairly quickly, but its theme music, featuring the squishiest, most liquid Hammond organ voice ever recorded, lives on, in my memory at least.
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