ZigZag (1970) was a mystery-thriller brimming with enough plot twists to justify its title. Character actor George Kennedy played the lead role of Paul Cameron, an insurance adjuster who learns he has a brain tumor. Seeking to provide for his family after he is gone, Cameron launches an elaborate plan to frame himself for the kidnapping and murder of a businessman, so that his wife can receive the reward money. Cameron succeeds too well— after he is convicted of the crime he did not commit, he is cured of the brain tumor and has to go on the lam to find the actual perpetrator and clear his name.

Zigzag’s supporting cast included the basso profundo William Marshall, as Cameron’s underworld ally, and the husband-and-wife acting team of Eli Wallach (as Cameron’s defense attorney) and Anne Jackson (as Cameron’s wife). Legendary big band singer Anita O’Day played a dramatic role in the film, and also performed the standard “On Green Dolphin Street.” The film was originally titled False Witness and was the first feature greenlighted by M-G-M’s then-VP Herb Solow, who had arrived from Paramount Television (before that, Desilu) where he oversaw Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. Solow’s experience in television was likely the reason for the hiring of director Richard Colla, then only 33, and otherwise a proficient helmer for the small screen. John T. Kelley wrote the screenplay, from a story by co-producer Robert Enders.

Zigzag survived three administrations at M-G-M: it was developed by Solow’s predecessor, then released by his successor. The film received positive reviews, with critics admiring Kennedy’s solid performance, the numerous locations in and around Los Angeles, and the ambitious camerawork by Colla and cinematographer James A. Crabe, which managed to be dynamic without being gimmicky. The film was a successful pop thriller, but is seldom seen today.

Zigzag benefited from a pulsing, propulsive score by composer Oliver Nelson. Known primarily as a saxophonist and sought-after arranger for other musicians, Nelson had not been in Hollywood long when he scored this film.

Born in St. Louis on June 4, 1932, Nelson was something of a child prodigy, studying piano at age six and completely mastering alto and tenor sax and flute by his early teens. His musical career got its start in Louis Jordan’s big band during the early 1950s before military service took him off the scene completely.

After the military, Nelson went on to study theory and composition at Washington University in St. Louis in 1957 and he received his master’s degree in music from Lincoln University. By the time he returned to New York City, Nelson had become an established composer — having written the jazz standard “Stolen Moments” early in his career—and a highly desired arranger for musicians as diverse as Jimmy Smith, Johnny Hodges, Wes Montgomery, Nancy Wilson, Ray Charles and The Temptations. He cut his teeth in the visual medium by orchestrating and conducting for Dave Brubeck on the 1964 TV series Mr. Broadway. (He had earlier played on such soundtracks as Paris Blues, Satan in High Heels and The Pawnbroker.)

Nelson moved to Hollywood in 1966, shortly after friends Quincy Jones and J.J. Johnson (in whose bands Nelson had worked). He arrived at the behest of fellow jazz musician Benny Carter, who recommended that Universal Studios music supervisor Stanley Wilson hire Nelson to score a project (probably the TV film Istanbul Express).

While in Hollywood, Nelson spent much of his time doing TV work—like Zigzag director Richard

Colla—on such shows as Ironside (at composer Quincy Jones’s personal request) and The Name of the Game. He was, following Carter and Jones, one of the first African-American composers to establish a career in mainstream Hollywood projects.

Zigzag displays an expert combination of the classical forms Nelson was well versed at constructing and the jazz he so loved to play. The score was also one of the few theatrical films ever scored by Nelson and, unfortunately, his only score to see release as a soundtrack album (on MGM Records)—despite credits for arranging such film scores as Sonny Rollins’s Alfie (1966), Gato Barbieri’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Lady Sings the Blues (1972).

Nelson went on to score other TV series (Matt Lincoln, Longstreet), TV episodes (Columbo, Banacek) and TV films (Money to Burn, The Alpha Caper), but he became best known for his rousing theme to The Six Million Dollar Man (1973–1978), a series he would score until his death from a heart attack during the third season.

Zigzag is in the style of Nelson’s television work, marked by precise orchestration that blends big band jazz with symphonic strings and an emphasis on melody. He wrote two long-lined themes for the story: one for the film as a whole, and another for Cameron’s relationship with his wife. Nelson’s work was noted for its lyrical nature and indeed each theme was given lyrics and sung on the Zigzag LP (disc 1, tracks 11 and 20). While the percussion that dominates the score was not unusual for the genre (for example, Pete Rugolo’s theme for The Fugitive), it was for Nelson, and may have been influenced by his 1969 U.S. State Department tour of French West Africa with a small group of jazz musicians.

The score as a whole is emblematic of Nelson’s unusually introspective and intellectual style: the main theme is strangely beautiful in its depiction of Cameron’s internal psychology—from his desire to help his family to his perpetual fear and flight — while the pulsating orchestral arrangements evoke the tension and action of the story. The “tug of war” between the melody and its rhythmic accompaniments was a hallmark of Nelson’s concert music. Nelson’s vivid orchestrations and naturally evocative style of melodic arrangement—his ability to make melodies glow, without becoming cluttered—rendered him an ideal composer for film and television, and it is sad that he had so few opportunities to exercise his art for the big screen. Tracks 1–10 of disc 1 feature the complete original soundtrack to Zigzag, never before released, remixed from the 35mm three-track masters.

1. Main Title Zigzag opens with a documentary-style sequence in which Paul Cameron

(George Kennedy) is arrested and incarcerated. Oliver Nelson’s score enters with aggressive bongos as Cameron is placed in his cell; the music segues to a jazzy, upbeat rendition of the main theme as the opening credits continue over a flashback of Cameron arriving at an abandoned building.

2. This Is A Brain Tumor A flashback-within-the-flashback shows Cameron receiving bad news from his doctor: he has a brain tumor. An unused cue features queasy synthesizer and dissonant strings.

YC-30 Another flashback shows Cameron meeting nightclub owner Morris Bronson (William Marshall). Nelson’s brief, mysterious cue was likely named for the Yamaha YC-30 organ.

Insurance Office The main theme plays calmly in a relaxed setting as Cameron arrives at the insurance office where he works.

Insurance Books Cameron pores over research material to plan an intricate scheme: framing himself for a recent high-profile kidnapping and murder so that his wife can collect a reward. Nelson’s light, hypnotic orchestration—like a waltz on tiptoes—is enhanced by two overlays of piano and strings (from 1:17 to 1:38) called “Title Record Books” and “Title Record Books (Second Version).”

3. Cartridge Having planted evidence, Cameron drives away from the building he visited in the main title sequence (disc 1, track 1); he pops in an eight-track tape, which plays a muscular, jazzy arrangement of the main theme.

Earphones This cue is in two parts, the first being another source cue done in the style of the underscore: Cameron listens to a new theme on headphones as he sits at his drum set at home. After a pause the second part appears: gentle, soothing flute and strings playing as underscore for Cameron’s relationship with his wife, Jean (Anne Jackson).

Holding Letter Cameron mails a letter implicating himself as the murderer; the main theme plays in Nelson’s inimitable style: beautifully harmonized strings over acoustic bass and percussion.

4. This Robe Is Shot Cameron savors a late-night conversation with his wife, knowing his freedom will soon be gone; Nelson introduces the beautiful love theme. The next day, Cameron’s daughter (Elizabeth Colla, daughter of the director) sees him off to work, accompanied by a warm, pastoral moment—interrupted by dissonant brass (an overlay) for Cameron being watched by the police. 

Out Of Focus The main theme resumes for strings, acoustic bass, percussion and jazzy flute as Cameron drives away from his house.

5. The Walk To Court Defense attorney Mario Gambretti (Eli Wallach) makes his way to court for the start of Cameron’s murder trial, accompanied by the main theme.

My Maiden Name Gambretti receives a mysterious phone call identifying “J. Walters” (Jean Cameron’s maiden name) as the author of the confession— this information could implicate Jean, so Cameron pleads with her not to explain it. Nelson’s cue features dissonant piano (for Gambretti receiving the call), the love theme (for Cameron talking to Jean), and the main theme (for Gambretti visiting Cameron in jail).

6. Yes, Your Honor Cameron—perspiring heavily—is summoned by the bailiff for the jury verdict. The main theme plays softly.

Guilty, Your Honor The jury pronounces Cameron guilty. The main theme starts slowly and builds to a frenetic climax as Cameron collapses outside the courthouse.

7. Breakout Cameron is cured of his brain tumor—but as a convicted murderer he must now find the actual perpetrator in order to clear his name. “Breakout” is heard in two parts: austere strings and dissonant piano as Cameron breaks out of his room in the hospital (altered in the film by tracked bongos from the main title); then the jazzy main theme (for acoustic bass, percussion, flute and strings) as he rides downstairs in a service elevator.

8. Did You Call A Cab? Cameron takes a cab home to change into an old Marine uniform. Nelson’s ferocious, mixed-meter opening bars (perhaps recalling Jerry Goldsmith) were not used in the finished film; the remainder of the cue, however, was used.

Pier And Surf Cameron meets on a pier with nightclub singer Sheila Mangan (Anita O’Day) and her friend Muriel (Abigail Shelton), who was having an affair with Raymond—the man Cameron was convicted of murdering. A snaking piano line and flute appears over undulating strings.

Effects/Marimba Select Two short “shock” cues accompany flashbacks of Muriel recalling the night of Raymond’s abduction.

Two MP’s Cameron meets with Gambretti but is spotted by the military police and flees. Nelson’s exciting cue features multiple percussion along with muscular brass chords, low-end piano, and strings playing the main theme—an exciting symphonic jazz piece foreshadowing the composer’s action music for The Six Million Dollar Man. 

9. The Other Car Cameron baits young Elaine Mercer (Pamela Murphy) into meeting with him—she is the daughter of one of Raymond’s business associates, and was also having an affair with Raymond. Nelson’s jazzy treatment of the main theme follows the movement of cars leading to the film’s climax.

Nite Scene A menacing tag concludes the scene as Adam Mercer (Walter Brooke), Elaine’s father—and the actual killer, who was avenging his daughter’s virtue—watches from his car.

10. Shotgun Blast Cameron tries to wring a confession out of Elaine, but Adam Mercer bursts onto the scene and shoots Cameron dead. Nelson’s swirling, tragic cue underscores Cameron’s fate—a pyrrhic victory in which he solves the mystery necessary to gain his freedom, then loses his life.

End Title A slower but still jazzy rendition of the main theme concludes the film.

—Lukas Kendall & Douglas Payne