Wednesday 26 August 2020

Perry Mason season 2 part one (1958-59)

By the time the second season of the Perry Mason TV series began its run in 1958 the series was already a major hit and well on its way to being a television classic.

Most season one episodes were based on Erle Stanley Gardner novels but in season two there a lot of original teleplays.

Perry Mason not only established the hour-long television drama format (and made superb use of its possibilities) it also raised the bar when it come to production values and general slickness. There were other very good American television crime dramas in the 50s but Perry Mason looked a lot more polished. It’s very professionally made and the professionalism shows.

If there’s a weakness in this series it involves the D.A., Hamilton Burger, and Lieutenant Tragg. It’s actually an unavoidable weakness. Every week we see poor old Tragg very pleased with himself after making an arrest only to have his case collapse in court, and every week we see Burger defeated in court by Perry. Which gives the viewer the impression that they’re both a bit on the incompetent side. But it’s also obvious that Mason doesn’t think they’re incompetent at all. He may think they’re inclined to be overzealous but clearly he considers both men to be very good at their jobs. There’s not much that could have been done about this. It’s an obvious advantage in a TV series (or a series of novels for that matter) for the prosecuting counsel and the arresting police officer to be regular characters appearing in every story, but they always have to lose. We just have to imagine that when Perry Mason is not defending they probably win pretty often.

It’s also necessary for dramatic purposes to have the courtroom confrontations between Mason and Burger seem tense and even acrimonious so every so often a scene has to be thrown in to show that they actually have considerable mutual professional respect and are on very friendly terms. Interestingly enough in the books the relationship between them actually is rather strained.

Perry Mason has been released on DVD in half-season sets, which in the case of season two means fifteen episodes in each set. This reviews covers the first half-season.

The Episodes

The Case of the Corresponding Corpse is an original teleplay. George Hartley Beaumont is supposed to be dead but he isn’t and that fact has been discovered by a sleazy insurance investigator. It leads to blackmail and murder. A good episode.

The Case of the Lucky Loser is based on a 1957 Erle Stanley Gardner novel. Amateur archaeologist Lawrence Balfour (Bruce Bennett) is off to the Sierra Madres. His wife Harriet kisses him goodbye and heads off home. Except that he isn’t going to the Sierra Madres and she isn’t going home. He follows her, she meets a man named George Egan and Lawrence Balfour shoots Egan. But Lawrence Balfour isn’t charged with the murder of Egan. His nephew Led Balfour is charged with killing Egan in a hit-run driving incident.

This is an interesting one because we know the explanation for all these events. That explanation is relatively straightforward. But this is a Perry Mason story based on an Erle Stanley Gardner novel so we need to remind ourselves that anything that seems to be straightforward almost certainly isn’t. And this case turns out to be a long long way from straightforward. There are finish plot twists, fascinating points of law and surprise items of evidence. When we finally think we’re starting to see what it all means we discover that there are even more plot twists to come. An excellent episode.

In The Case of the Pint-Sized Client a 14-year-old boy asks Perry for some legal advice. It seems he’s found something and wants to know if he can legally keep it, but he’s not prepared to say what it is he’s found. The answer becomes obvious when the boy’s grandfather is charged with armed robbery and murder. The boy had found the proceeds of a robbery in an abandoned house, and the police found the money hidden in the house in which the boy and his grandfather live. The big problem is that one of the employees of the finance company that was robbed has made a positive ID of the old man, even though all the robbers wore masks.

The Case of the Sardonic Sergeant is a tale of money to burn, or rather money that should have been burnt. When American forces on Corregidor in the Philippines surrendered to the Japanese in 1942 they burnt several million dollars worth of currency to prevent it from falling into the hands of the enemy. Sixteen years later some of that money has started to turn up. It appears likely that someone in the finance and accounting section at a large military base is passing these bills. And Major Lessing, the Finance Officer, has been murdered. Or so it appears, although there is the matter of the suicide note. Master-Sergeant Dexter is accused of the murder and Lessing’s widow persuades Perry Mason to defend him at the court-martial.

What happened on the night that Major Lessing died is important, but maybe not as important as finding out exactly what happened on Corregidor in 1942. Maybe this one stretches plausibility a little but it’s clever and very entertaining.

In The Case of the Married Moonlighter a young man named Danny who works nights in a diner to put food on the table for his family is charged with murder. He certainly has a motive - a guy went in to the diner ostentatiously flashing a huge bankroll and Danny could sure use that money, especially give that his wife wants to divorce his because he can’t provide for her and the kids. Perry as usual bends the rules quite a bit, there are some nice red herrings and it’s all pretty satisfactory.

The Case of the Jilted Jockey is obviously a racetrack story and they can be rather fun. Jockey Tic Barton has had some bad breaks and a year ago he had a serious fall. But now things are looking up. He’s riding a great horse in a major race and a win will cement his comeback. The owners have confidence in him, the trainer has confidence in him, plus he has a wonderful wife. Then his wonderful wife drops a bombshell. She wants him to throw the race, for $10,000. If he doesn’t she’ll divorce him. He suspects the offer originates with a smooth-talking gambler named Johnny Starr. What he doesn’t know is that his wife intends to run off with Starr anyway.

Tic’s problems are only just getting started. Pretty soon he’s wanted for murder. It’s a typical Perry Mason setup - Perry’s client has not merely a motive but a genuine desire to commit murder but what happens if you’re going to commit a murder and someone beats you to it? And there are several other very good suspects. This is a story in which timing is important - there are in fact several events the timings of which are crucial but that doesn’t become apparent until close to the end. Perry has no idea of the identity of the actual killer until very very late in the day but when he does figure it out he zeroes in on the guilty party with devastating efficiency. Throughout the trials scenes Perry does some very nifty cross-examining, leaving the witnesses and poor old Hamilton Burger equally bewildered. It’s classic Perry Mason.

The Case of the Purple Woman involves an art collector, an art dealer, the art dealer’s wife, his secretary and a painter. It also involves a painting. The Purple Woman is a painting by a famous 19th century artist but it’s an obvious forgery. The puzzle is how the collector, a bit of an expert in this artist’s work, could have been taken in by a clumsy forgery. It’s an important puzzle because it’s the key to a murder. A solid episode notable for the ending which sees Perry and Hamilton Burger being very chummy, showing that their fierce courtroom rivalries are simply all part of the job.

The Case of the Fancy Figures starts with a case of embezzlement. Martin Ellis is serving a prison term for the embezzlement from the firm of Hyett, Brewster and Hyett. Now evidence has come to light that proves his innocence and the the guilty party was Charles Brewster, a partner in the firm and the son-in-law of the firm’s founder Jonathan Hyett. Brewster is arrested, recessed on bail and then murdered. Martin Ellis’s guilt in this instance seems obvious. Of course the truth is much more complicated.

The clever bit in this story is the revelation of the real murderer, which has Paul Drake kicking himself. It’s an average Perry Mason episode, which means it’s still pretty good.

The Case of the Perjured Parrot is based on one of Gardner’s early Perry Mason novels. It happens to be an excellent novel and I posted a very brief review here a long while ago. This case takes Perry into small town America where a woman has been accused of murder. At the coroner’s inquest the District Attorney (not Hamilton Burger but a local) produces his star witness, a parrot. The parrot was an eyewitness. Perry tells the coroner he doesn’t mind the parrot being introduced as a witness but he does insist on being allowed to cross-examine the bird. Of course a parrot can't commit perjury. Or can he?

While the parrot naturally provides some amusing moments there’s a typical and reasonably effective Perry Mason plot here as well, which centres on the question of identity but not in the way we’re led to believe it will. Not quite as good as the book but there’s still plenty here to enjoy.

The dream that gets shattered in The Case of the Shattered Dream is a diamond, the Pundit Dream. It belongs to the girlfriend of a diamond merchant and prize sleazebag. He needs the diamond to pay off gambling debts. At the heart of the plot is an elaborate con. But this guy is as dishonest in his relationships with women as he is with money, in spite of which women seem to adore him. Perry does his usual magic in the courtroom. The plot works satisfactorily. It’s not one of the best episodes but it’s very solid and very enjoyable.

There are many possible motives for murder. Including goldfish, as we will discover in The Case of the Glittering Goldfish. Actually in this case it’s not so much goldfish per se, but a miracle cure for sick goldfish. It cures an ailment that is very common and invariably fatal so the treatment is something that everybody who keeps fish is going to want. Which means there’s likely to be a tidy sum of money in it. Enough to provide a motive for murder. The complication is that lots of people had lots of other motives for wanting Jack Huxley dead.

This is one episode that can definitely be said to play fair with the viewer - the clue that leads Perry to the solution is out there in plain sight and it really does lead to only one possible conclusion. If, like me, you manage to miss it you’ll kick yourself. A very neat and enjoyable episode.

The Case of the Foot-Loose Doll begins in a nicely convoluted way. A young woman, Mildred Crest, picks up a hitch-hiker, another young woman named Fern Driscoll. The car crashes and one of the women is killed. But which one? And why is a private detective named Davis trying to retrieve certain letters which he believes are in Miss Driscoll’s possession? It seems that both these young women were on the run. And then there’s the  corpse, killed by an ice-pick. The woman who isn’t dead is facing a murder charge but luckily she has legal representation - Perry Mason has accepted a retainer from her, to the amount of thirty-eight cents.

Mason’s client is actually facing quite a few charges, including possibly another murder charge. Of course Mason is confident she’s innocent on all counts but D.A. Hamilton Burger has pretty strong evidence pointing in her direction on every one of those charges.

This one has a surprise ending that might seem to come out of nowhere but in fact the vital clues that lead Mason to the solution are there, you just have to be watching attentively to spot their significance. So it’s once again an episode that can fairly be described as fair-play. And it’s another very very good episode.

Final Thoughts

The first half of the second season is every bit as strong as the first season, which means it’s very very good indeed. It sticks to a rigid formula but the scripts and the performances  are terrific. This is superbly crafted television.

And the DVD transfers cannot be faulted. Very highly recommended.

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