TV Noir With A Mancini Soundtrack

Peter Gunn 1

I can’t keep track of all the oddball cable channels I can access. FETV? Never heard of it, but apparently it’s one of far too many syndicated rerun channels cluttering the cable landscape, and definitely wasn’t marked as a favorite. That is, until I discovered that FETV was running three back-to-back episodes of Peter Gunn, the 1958 – 1961 ABC detective series created by Blake Edwards and starring Craig Stevens as the titular private eye with Lola Albright as his jazz chanteuse girlfriend, Edie Hart.

Peter Gunn 2

Set in an unnamed waterfront city that could hug either coast (but is actually far-too-familiar Universal and later MGM backlot streets), suave and perpetually cool Peter Gunn uses quirky jazz club Mother’s as his unofficial office, drives a car-phone equipped big-finned two-tone ’58 DeSoto and typically gets a cool grand for his jobs. Always nattily attired, Gunn’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, and is good with his fists in a tussle with thugs and, in keeping with his name, ready with his gun when needed. Creator Blake Edwards aimed for a cool, hip tone with this series. The look is visibly ‘noir-ish’, most scenes set at night, the redundantly re-used sets kept dark and shadowy, often filmed in jarring camera angles, and all enhanced by Henry Mancini’s jazzy score. In fact, the “Peter Gunn Theme”, which you’d recognize right away if you heard it, was nominated for an Emmy and two Grammys.

Peter Gunn 4

Not to overpraise. This is still crank-em-out late ‘50’s-early 60’s era TV, and there are some genuinely silly episodes, either formulaic whodunits or misguided attempts at lighthearted humor. The urbane P.I. in a wild west ghost town? Peter Gunn babysitting a seal? Well, skip those and focus on the good ones, and there are a bunch, at least from those I’ve seen so far. Dark, moody and then suddenly erupting with unexpected violence, the best episodes of Peter Gunn are as good as many film noirs and neo-noirs, just compressed into a half hour time slot.

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Blake Edwards also wrote and directed a number of the episodes, and several years later took another whack at his Peter Gunn creation, directing a feature film (co-written with William Peter Blatty of The Exorcist fame) released by paramount and starring TV’s Craig Stevens. There’ve been further attempts to revive the character in 1989, 2001 and as recently as 2013 by TNT, but nothing’s come of them. A DVD boxed set exists, and if I stumble across it at a reasonable price, I’d go for it.

Peter Gunn 3

3 thoughts on “TV Noir With A Mancini Soundtrack

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    1. The show’s been a delight to watch, though at 3-4 episodes back-to-back when aired, I’ve only seen portions of Season One so far. Hopefully the subsequent season’s shows maintain the same look and tone. And as stated, I’m not claiming that these are on a par with classic noir films. But for a retro half hour TV show, they’re pretty darn good. I suspect I’ll be hunting up a reasonably priced DVD set to have them all handy, not trusting my cable provider, which seems to be embarking on a wave of switch-and-delete with channels right now.

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  1. I can happily confirm that the boxed set is of excellent quality and value. I’d posit that the harshest, darkest episode is without doubt season 2’s The Young Assassins. Heavy!
    If I may say so, my household’s favourite aspects of the show are, depending on the episode, the Gunn/Jacoby banter or Gunn’s eccentric stable of informants, a marvellous parade of character actors having a ball.

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