Mancini liked to call his theme tunes question marks—pieces of music that made the audience ask “what’s going on here, and what’s going to happen?” They worked by wrong-footing the listener, by fooling you into thinking they were going to go one way when all the time they were sneaking over somewhere different. To be sure, the Beatles could work the same tricks, but that is because Paul McCartney was a genius able to instinctively decipher what generations of musicians before him had to have drummed—and beaten—into them at the coalface of the keyboard. Henry Mancini was one of the last of them—a properly apprenticed craftsman who, in the right circumstances and with the right partner, could occasionally nudge at greatness himself. If a man of such enormous talent couldn’t sustain the traditions that sustained him, then aren’t we, like the Julie Andrews of Darling Lili, “whistling in the dark,” like the Audrey Hepburn of Breakfast at Tiffany’s “after the same rainbow’s end”—the one that isn’t coming any time soon?
Christopher Bray is the author of Sean Connery (Pegasus). He is at work on a cultural history of Britain in the 1960s.