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.