TV’s Coolest Detective on DVD
“Peter Gunn” must have been the coolest thing on prime time during its 1958-1961 run. The newly released “Peter Gunn: The Complete Series” crams it all onto 12 DVDs. The level of writing varied from episode to episode but the overall production was kept consistently high by series creator Blake Edwards—who had already directed the post-World War II classic The Best Years of Our Lives (1947) and went on to mastermind Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and The Pink Panther (1964)—brought style and panache to the well worn private detective genre. “Peter Gunn” was a weekly, half-hour dose of film noir, in black and white with sharply angled shadows, leavened with a touch of humor and a shot of sexiness.
In fact, the titular private eye (played by Craig Stevens) and his girl Edie Hart (Lola Albright) looked like the only couple on television in those days that were having sex—and they weren’t even married. “If I’m not back by 3 o’clock, the key’s under the mat,” Gunn often told Edie. He’d return to his bachelor pad with its modern art collection to find her curled up on the sofa. Words were actually unnecessary; their body language clicked so well that it’s easy to imagine the two of them together when the cameras were off.
Gunn set new standards for his profession. Unlike the gumshoes played by Humphrey Bogart, Gunn was neither world-weary nor working class. Confident and a bit detached, he suggested a hip corporate executive familiar with every jazz joint and Beat coffeehouse, trumpet player and con artist in town. And yet he was no dilettante. His name was Gunn and he knew how to use one.
His favorite dive was an unpretentious corner tavern with a neon sign called Mother’s, where Edie sang lively ballads and torch songs every night with a West Coast-style jazz combo. Jazz was not an after thought but integral to the show. Henry Mancini’s theme song, which pushed noir horns onto a driving rhythm, is the number everyone remembers because it became a staple cover for rock bands, but the whole series was cut to Mancini’s cool rhythms.
In the earliest episodes, Gunn kept the police at arm’s length but soon enough, the plots became a little more conventional as private detective and detective lieutenant helped solve each others cases. Even if some of the scores were contrived to fit the snug, half-hour format, the look and sound of “Peter Gunn” were undiminished.