Monday, June 7, 2010

THE SOUND OF MYSTERY

Radio producer Himan Brown died last Friday at the age of 99. He was famous for producing such hits as "The Adventures of the Thin Man," "Dick Tracey," "Grand Central Station," and perhaps most memorably, "Inner Sanctum Mysteries," which opened with the sound of a creaking door. That sound became, as noted in the New York Times obituary, a signature not just of the show, but of the heyday of radio itself. (Right up there, I'm sure, with the ominous opening tones of that other radio classic, "Suspense.") I can only imagine that that creaking door was so instantly recognizable in its day that it was the very sound of excitement and mystery. (Just as the musical theme of the TV show "Lost" inspires a certain anticipation in its fans, or how the sound of a Mac or PC computer turning on inspires its own feelings -- a sense of possibility, or perhaps a dread at having to start work!) As cited in the New York Times obituary, Mr. Brown said in a 2003 interview, "I am firmly convinced that nothing visual can touch audio. I don't need 200 orchestra players doing the 'Ride of the Valkyries.' I don't need car chases. I don't need mayhem. All I need to do is creak the door open, and visually your head begins to go. The magic word is imagination." While I'm personally not so inclined to dismiss film and other visual forms, I respect what he's saying: audio cues -- such as the sound of a creaking door, fog horns to set the story in London, or a steam train to signal that you've arrived at "Grand Central Station" -- allow listeners to fill in the blanks, and create their own haunted house, their own London, their own train depot. One other such aural ellipsis occurred in Brown's series "The Thin Man" -- the sound of a lamp chain being pulled as detectives Nick and Nora Charles went to bed. Again, as reported in the NYT, Brown said, "It was as sexy as I could get." The same principle applies when providing visual cues in a film, or narrative cues in any kind of story -- what's not heard or shown or told is at least as important as what is. 

Here are a couple episodes of "Inner Sanctum Mysteries," from the Internet Archive, a fantastic resource featuring all kinds of free movies, audio, photos, and books. First, a 1941 episode of Boris Karloff reading Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Tell-Tale Heart." And here's a neat little mystery from 1945 concerning a writer, called "The Last Story." R.I.P. Hi Brown!

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