Tuesday, March 11, 2008

NBC Sunday Mystery Movie

What luck!

For years I had a tune embedded in my memory, something vaguely western and yet kind of modern in a seventies-sort of way, something almost frightening. I knew some of the tune but had no context upon which to fix my recollection. A year or so ago I came across a website that promises to name any song that you can hum or sing into your microphone. Not any song, but more and more songs as people add to the database. I tried it but got no answer.

It's like an itch you can't scratch, remembering a song but not knowing what it is or why you remember it.

Then this past Sunday, Jenny and I watched The Simpsons, a fairly good episode (though not comparable to earlier seasons, so goes the typical lament) featuring two "mysteries," with neighborhood bully Nelson Muntz playing the unlikely role of Inspector Columbo. The episode ended and what did I hear instead of the show's usual outro-music?

The song!

Sure enough the show writers decided to pay homage to the old NBC Sunday Mystery Movie (1972-1977), a "wheel" show that cycled through detective titles like Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan (sans wife), and even the little remembered Hec Ramsey (produced by my favorite television flatfoot, Jack Webb). Based on a couple of cues from The Simpsons version I was able to find the original intro and its unforgettable music on YouTube within seconds.

Ah, that song.

It's cheesy, but in a good way. Listening to it, I get the sense that Henry Mancini didn't really get the mystery drama concept, that he preferred something more western, something that reminds me of a roadtrip through Monument Valley on Highway 163 - maybe with some flying saucers in the background, thanks to the synthesizer arcs. It's the most non-noir mystery-detective music you can imagine.

That's OK, the producers said, we'll bolster the idea with a creepy looking guy advancing toward the audience, cutting through the night with a flashlight. Brilliant! And just to ensure that no one could mistake this intro as being for anything other than a television show, they agreed on a grand flourish of horns at the song's beginning and end that is the signature sound of middlebrow culture, a symphony without subtitles suitable for a Saturday morning cartoon.

Reviewing some of the YouTube commentary about the video that some kind soul posted, I found a couple of common themes. For some folks, this song marked the end of the weekend, time to get into P.J.s while the adults watched their un-kid-friendly shows. For others, the video conjured up scary memories of that sometimes disembodied searchlight coming for yoo-ooo-ou! Me, I just dug the tune - so much that I've added "Mystery Movie Theme" to my night driving list. Even now, it sounds unearthly enough to contribute to my post-2 a.m. soundtrack.

Learn More: Check out the entry on The NBC Mystery Movie from the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

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