Monday 22 June 2015

Perry Mason, season one (1957)

In 1956 the author of the Perry Mason novels, Erle Stanley Gardner, managed to negotiate the kind of deal with CBS that most writers can only dream about. It gave him an unprecedented degree of creative control of the Perry Mason television series which debuted in 1957.

The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink, shot in 1956 and directed by Ted Post, was the pilot episode although it eventually went to air as episode 13 of the first season. What makes this pilot episode particularly interesting is that it has a rather different feel compared to the subsequent episodes. It has a definite gritty almost film noir B-movie feel to it, both visually and content-wise.

The first episode proper, The Case of the Restless Redhead, establishes the tone of the series rather well. Perry Mason’s methods are unconventional to say the least. He’s not actually unethical but he certainly sails close to the wind at times. He conceals evidence and even goes close to tampering with evidence. Anyone familiar with the novels knows that Perry Mason believes the odds are stacked against the individuals so if the individual is to have a chance of justice a defence counsel has to be prepared to use every possible means at his disposal to protect his client’s rights. While this is never explicitly stated in the TV series it’s certainly implied, and in the books it’s explicit. 

The Case of the Restless Redhead has all the elements we would come to expect from this series - Mason pulls off daring courtroom coups with surprise evidence, DA Hamilton Burger disapproves of Mason’s tactics but we know he’ll never win a case against him, Mason’s secretary Della Street plays a more active role than a secretary would play (although not quite as active a role as she plays in the books). The formula is clearly established. Perry always seems to get involved in a case before an actual murder takes place, he’s always at the crime scene before the police, he is always convinced of his client’s innocence no matter how damning the evidence against him, he doesn’t function merely as a defence attorney but actively pursues investigations, the big reveal always takes place in the courtroom. This is the formula Gardner perfected in his novels and he demonstrated extraordinary skill in sticking to this formula while still managing to add enough variations to keep the reader guessing every time. The TV series employs the same formula to the letter, and it works.

The Case of the Silent Partner is great fun - it involves murder inspired by gambling and orchids. The Case of the Angry Mourner is slightly unusual - it takes place in the country while Perry is on holiday. So this time Perry’s adversaries are the local sheriff rather than lieutenant Tragg, and a wily local prosecutor rather than Hamilton Burger. The plot is an outrageous but dazzling exercise in misdirection. The Case of the Crimson Kiss revolves around lip prints rather than finger prints. This one also relies perhaps just a little too heavily on Mason pulling a rabbit out of the hat in the final courtroom scene.

It was something of a tradition in golden age detective stories for the police to be depicted as being hopelessly inferior in detection skills to a talented amateur. Perry Mason is slightly different. The police are usually portrayed as being conscientious, honest, decent and fairly competent. Lieutenant Tragg is a dogged and remorseless homicide cop although he is fundamentally fair-minded. He’s the kind of cop who wants to make an arrest, but he wants to arrest the right person. He wants to see justice done, even if he does get frustrated at being outwitted by Mason. The DA, Hamilton Burger, is not quite so sympathetically portrayed. He’s ambitious, ruthless and zealous, sometimes over-zealous, sometimes even with a streak of vindictiveness. He’s also obsessed with the idea of getting the better of Mason and he can be quite heavy-handed and also quite petty. It’s a credit to William Talman as an actor that the character doesn’t become a mere stereotype of the ambitious politically motivated public official. In fact Talman can almost makes us feel sorry for Burger at times.

American television programs of the 50s are often dismissed, usually be people who haven’t watched any, as hopelessly bland and conformist and reflecting an unthinking faith in authority. This really isn’t true of many of the better cop shows (Dragnet for instance could be quite dark and quite confronting) and it isn’t true of Perry Mason. The overriding theme of the series is that people who think they have nothing to fear from the criminal justice system just because they’re innocent are hopelessly naïve. Trust in your innocence by all means - but get a good lawyer and don’t even dream of saying anything to the police  before you talk to your lawyer. It’s not that the series suggests that the police are corrupt or incompetent but they can and do make mistakes and they can be over-anxious to make an arrest, and as a result people can certainly be convicted of crimes of which they are entirely innocent. And district attorneys can be over-zealous and blinded by political ambitions. The criminal justice system is stacked against the ordinary person so don’t put your faith in it unless you have a very good lawyer.

Raymond Burr, with a reputation for playing villains and heavies, was perhaps not an obvious choice for the title role. I personally feel that Warren William, who played Mason in several 1930s movies, was a better fit for the part and closer to the way I imagined the character from the novels (although the movies suffer from being played much too much for comedy). Burr however settled into the part quickly and did a fine job, and (rather unexpectedly) managed to bring both toughness and warmth to his performance. Della Street is more of a tough cookie in the novels but Barbara Hale is likeable and she and Burr have the right chemistry. William Hooper as PI Paul Drake, William Talman as FDA Hamilton Burger and Ray Collins as Lieutenant Tragg all provide good support. Most importantly the regular cast members work together seamlessly, an essential element for any series.

Erle Stanley Gardner started his career as a writer of hardboiled crime for the pulp magazines such as Black Mask. The early Perry Mason novels (such as The Case of the Counterfeit Eye) still show strong traces of the hardboiled style. This is much less evident in the TV series although it still has some hardboiled moments and there are still some subtle hints of film noir.

Perry Mason ran for no less than nine seasons making it one of the most successful of all TV crime series. And deservedly so - it still stands up remarkably well and its slightly ambivalent attitude towards the criminal justice system gives it a surprisingly modern feel. Wonderfully entertaining stuff. Highly recommended.

Available on DVD just about everywhere.

Sunday 14 June 2015

Mr Rose (1967), season one

Detective Chief Inspector Charles Rose, played by William Mervyn, had featured in two early 60s British crime drama TV series, The Odd Man and It’s Dark Outside. In 1967 the character was given his own series, Mr Rose, created by Philip Mackie (one of the best British television writers of that period when it came to offbeat crime dramas).

Chief Inspector Rose has now retired but it seems unlikely to be a quiet retirement. His interest in crime is still keen as ever and now he is free to pursue crime-solving as a hobby rather than a profession. 

He is also keen to write his memoirs, something that should prove to pleasingly lucrative. He has hopes that his book will be serialised in one of the quality newspapers, or if he is particularly fortunate in one of the more disreputable papers which tend to be pay even better. In the opening episode, The Bright Bomber, he finds that someone is taking a very keen interest indeed in his literary endeavours. In fact someone is prepared to pay a great deal of money to induce him to reveal certain facts about one of his most famous cases, that of Bomber Bolt. And someone else is prepared to take literary criticism to even greater extremes - they are prepared to kill over it. The Bright Bomber was written by Philip Mackie and it has a delightfully twisted plot which hinges on the contrasting moral frameworks of policemen and criminals.

The writing of Rose’s memoirs is a thread that runs through season one. Or it might be more accurate to say - the non-writing of Rose’s memoirs. Mr Rose likes the idea of writing this book. He also likes the idea of being paid handsomely for it - he has already accepted a generous advance from a Sunday newspaper for the serialisation rights. The idea of actually sitting down and writing the book is however rather less appealing. It might turn out to involve work. Mr Rose is not overly fond of work. And having inherited a considerable sum of money from some elderly and wealthy aunts he is very comfortably provided for and thus has little incentive to apply nose to the grindstone. Despite the best efforts of his keen and efficient personal secretary Miss Drusilla Lamb (Gillian Lewis), whom he has employed specifically to assist him in his literary endeavours, it seems increasingly unlikely that his memoirs will ever see the light of day.

The memoirs do however serve an important purpose for both Mr Rose and for the series. The fact that it is known that the famous detective is writing them proves to be the factor that sets the plots in motion, most of the plots having to do with famous cases that turn out not to be closed after all.

The episode The Naked Emperor plunges Mr Rose into a mystery involving the owner and publisher of The Sunday World, the very newspaper in which the memoirs are to be serialised. In The Noble Roman the prospect of the intended publication of the book prompts a figure from the past, a man who had played a central role in an unsolved case,  to contact Mr Rose.  

The stories are generally murder mysteries but not always conventional examples of the breed. Murder is not always straightforward. 

The Jolly Swagman has a classic traditional English detective story plot which could have come straight out of the 1930s. It’s a story of robbery on the high seas and it’s a delight. The Unquiet Ghost sees Mr Rose arrested for murder, and once again it’s those memoirs that land him in trouble.

The Bad Halfpenny shows that Mr Rose is quite capable of fighting dirty, albeit in a good cause.

The Tin God is especially good. Another old case returns to haunt Mr Rose, a scandal involving a television personality and the death of a young woman. It’s all a matter of accepting responsibility and choosing to do one’s duty, concepts that might seem old-fashioned to modern audiences but in fact as this story makes clear such things always do matter. Both the TV personality and Mr Rose find themselves in situations where such things matter very much indeed, but which of them will be equal to the challenge? This episode is notable for a guest appearance by a very young Judy Geeson, later to become a significant star of some excellent 1970s cult movies.

In this first season Mr Rose has two invaluable assistants, John Halifax (Donald Webster) and Drusilla Lamb (Gillian Lewis). John Halifax is an ex-burglar. Chief Inspector Rose was the man who sent him to prison. Halifax is now his butler, chauffeur, cook and right-hand man and a most useful, resourceful and fiercely loyal assistant in Rose’s amateur crime-fighting activities. Drusilla Lamb is his private secretary although she also joins in Rose’s amateur detective adventures.

The scripts are witty and clever. These were the days when British television series were shot almost entirely in the studio, more or less live, and with minimal location shooting. This could produce a very claustrophobic feel but that’s not the case, possibly because the overall tone is light and breezy but the expansive performances also help.

The larger-than-life performances of the three principals make no concessions to realism. In fact the series as a whole makes no such concessions. The late 1960s would mark the beginnings of British television’s obsession with gritty realism but there are no signs of any such qualities here. This is pure light-hearted fun with outrageously outlandish storylines. The various guest performers take their cues from the three leads, giving over-the-top and deliciously overripe performances.

Network’s season one DVD set offers transfers that are as good as can be expected given the condition of the source materials. We’re lucky the series survived at all. Both picture and quality are quite acceptable.

Mr Rose is superb sparkling television viewing, intelligent and amusing and always entertaining. It’s like eating chocolate cake washed down with champagne - it might not be good for you but it’s hugely enjoyable. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday 10 June 2015

books that inspired cult TV series

Some of the best cult TV series of the 60s and 70s were based on literary sources. Since I also have a book blog, Vintage Pop Fictions, specialising in popular literature of the past (what could be described as Cult Literature), I thought a post on some of these literary sources might be in order (with links to my reviews).

The best-known example undoubtedly is The Saint, based on Leslie Charteris’s phenomenally successful novels and short stories chronicling the adventures of the daring rogue Simon Templar. The Simon Templar of the early Saint books is very different from the character familiar to us from the TV series - he’s both more whimsical and more ruthless and at the same time more cocky and self-confident. And while he’s unquestionably on the side of the angels it’s also much more clear that he has not always been on the right side of the law. These early Saint books like The Saint Meets his Match (originally published in 1931 as She Was a Lady), The Saint Closes the Case (AKA The Last Hero) and The Avenging Saint (originally published in 1930 under the title Knight Templar) are enormous fun.

In the late 1940s the character went through a metamorphosis. The Saint of the later stories is a bit older, a bit wiser and a bit sadder. He still feels the lure of adventure and he’s still the scourge of the ungodly but one gets the feeling that he is just a little lonely. The tone of the 60s television series is very much derived from these later story collections such as The Saint on the Spanish Main. Roger Moore captures the spirit of late-period Simon Templar remarkably well. One gets the feeling in these stories that Simon Templar is not quite at home in the new post-war world, which makes the 1960s setting of the television show even more interesting since Templar is definitely not a man of the 60s. 

The Baron was a series with obvious similarities to The Saint and the books (by the incredibly prolific John Creasey) which inspired this series were also somewhat close to the spirit of the Saint books. Judging by the first of the books, Meet the Baron, the TV series seems to have had little in common with its literary source!

Ellery Queen was another notable writer to have a television series based on his work (although Ellery Queen was of course two people, Frederic Dannay and his cousin Manfred Bennington Lee). In fact there were several Ellery Queen TV series but it's probably the 1975-76 Ellery Queen series that will be best remembered by most people. It's set in the late 1940s (actually 1947) but seems fairly close in tone to the early Ellery Queen novels of the 1930s, which happen to be some of the best detective stories of their era. Of the novels The French Powder Mystery and The Dutch Shoe Mystery are particularly good and The Greek Coffin Mystery is even better. The slightly later The Siamese Twin Mystery saw the authors moving into more bizarre territory but still with the same breath-taking mastery of plotting. The Egyptian Cross Mystery goes even further, being at times positively macabre.

Back in the late 50s Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (the one with Darren McGavin as Hammer) was a surprisingly successful attempt to bring the works of this most controversial of crime writers to the small screen. Spillane created a sensation with his first novel I, the Jury in 1947. My Gun is Quick, Vengeance Is Mine! and Kiss Me, Deadly are all worth reading. Be warned though - they are much more violent than the series and very politically incorrect. 

These are of course only a small proportion of the many novels that made it to TV in this era. There are countless other examples. Several of Dorothy L. Sayers' stories such as The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club were adapted very successfully for the 1970s Lord Peter Wimsey series.

It's intriguing to note the sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, differences between the original books and their TV incarnations. In some cases the changes are for the better (I personally think Lord Peter Wimsey works better on TV). In other cases the changes are not so successful (The Baron being the obvious example). 

Wednesday 3 June 2015

Sherlock Holmes (1954)

The 1954 Sherlock Holmes television series was made for the American market but filmed in France. Producer Sheldon Reynolds (who also wrote many of the episodes) wanted to present a slightly different view of the great detective - Holmes as a young man, more human, more fallible, already egotistical and eccentric but a warmer more affable kind of character.

He was fortunate enough to find exactly the right actor. Ronald Howard, the son of the great English actor Leslie Howard, was enthusiastic. Like his more famous father Ronald Howard was inclined to underplay, an unusual approach for an actor playing Sherlock Holmes but one that worked quite successfully. Howard also has the necessary twinkle in his eye - his Holmes regards the world with a kind of benevolent amusement.

Reynolds was just as lucky with his choice of actor for the role of Dr Watson. Howard Marion Crawford was a wonderful character actor and was very keen to play Watson. He plays him as a bluff hearty cheerful type, less of a fool than Nigel Bruce’s Watson in the Universal movies but still providing a certain amount of comic relief.

The other regular cast member was Archie Duncan as Inspector Lestrade. He plays him as a conscientious but unimaginative policeman - a man who does his best within his limitations. He also provides some humour but without being a mere figure of fun.

The series is, not surprisingly given the era in which it was made, very studio-bound. That really doesn’t matter too much - I’ve always thought of the Sherlock Holmes stories as taking place in a London of the imagination anyway. The sets and the costumes are very good. Sheldon Reynolds got hold of Michael Weight, who had been responsible for the construction of the Sherlock Holmes exhibit at the Festival of Britain, to supervise the construction of the Baker Street sets at the Epinay-sur-Seine studio and to ensure that the set decoration was as authentic as possible. As a result this series looks quite impressive and quite expensive (which it was).

A few episodes were based on Conan Doyle stories but most were original tales (although often inspired by events from the stories in the Conan Doyle canon). The aim was to try to give these original stories an authentically Holmesian touch and for the most part they succeed. The crimes are mostly solved using the methods you’d expect Sherlock Holmes to employ. The half hour format was a bit limiting but most of the episodes are thoroughly enjoyable.

The Case of the Shy Ballerina is fairly typical. The main clue is a handwritten note. A man like Holmes can tell a great deal about a person from their handwriting but in this instance what it tells him puzzles him a great deal. It just doesn’t fit.

The Case of the Winthrop Legend is in the style of the various Conan Doyle stories dealing with apparently supernatural events. A family curse seems destined to claim yet another victim. Holmes is however more than a little sceptical about family curses.

There are a few episodes that are mainly for laughs, such as The Case of Harry Crocker. Fortunately it really is quite amusing, a tale of a music hall escape artist accused of murder, who naturally keeps on escaping ever time Inspector Lestrade arrests him. And it does have a decent enough detection plot as well. It also illustrates one of the series’ odd endearing features. Since it was filmed in France they used a lot of French actors in guest roles. Eugene Deckers, who appears in this episode and several others, was a fine actor but his accent is priceless - a bizarre mix of a Cockney and a French accent. 

The Case of the Shoeless Engineer is unusual in including some actual location shooting, and it’s a fun episode involving counterfeiters, a beautiful mute girl and a hapless engineer who loses a shoe and can consider him very fortunate that that’s all he lost. The Case of the Split Ticket provides an amusing instance of the over-confidence and inexperience of the younger Holmes - his demonstrations of sleight-of-hand very nearly land him in prison. Luckily his skills improve sufficiently to allow him to solve the mystery of a missing sweepstakes ticket.   

The Case of the Red Headed League is a rare episode based directly on a Conan Doyle story, in fact one of the most celebrated of his Sherlock Holmes stories. It works quite well.

Ronald Howard not only enjoyed playing Holmes, he also thoroughly enjoyed the relaxed working practices of a French television studio - starting work at noon proved to be a very agreeable experience.

The series was very well received, both by critics and the public.

Unfortunately this series has passed into the public domain. The prints are in acceptable condition but far from pristine. That’s a pity because the producers went to a lot of trouble to get the look of the show right and it really deserves a decent restoration. Mill Creek’s three-disc set includes all thirty-nine episodes. It’s inexpensive and quite watchable. It also includes a very brief introduction by Sir Christopher Lee, a very keen Sherlock Holmes fan. There are various other public domain DVD releases of the series.

It’s the two leads who make this series so enjoyable. Their performances mesh perfectly while at the same time they bring something quite distinctive to the characters.

A very entertaining series that manages to capture the Sherlock Holmes spirit while also presenting the great detective in a fresh and original manner. Highly recommended.