Paramount // 1958 // 1043 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // January 31st, 2007
In light of the overwhelming evidence that has apparently fingered an accused murderer seated in the courtroom, conviction seems a mere formality. However, if you have Perry Mason defending you, rest assured he'll uncover the tiniest shred of truth that ensures the wrongfully accused is spared while revealing the identity of the real murderer.
Perry Mason was and still is the premier courtroom drama of the television age. Helmed by the stout and steely Raymond Burr, the show was among the finest of its kind during the 1950s. With plenty of colorful characters and wily criminals at every turn, each episode delivered compelling tales of legal proceeding and surprise revelations that captivated home viewers for nine years not to mention a continuous stream of made-for-TV movies that would follow well into the 1990s.
Crime and courtroom drama has always been a draw for viewers, and Perry Mason emerged early to blaze a path to truth, justice, and ingenious due process.
Perry Mason (Burr) is a busy defense attorney with a practice in Los Angeles. Flanked by his "Girl Friday," Della Street (Barbara Hale, The Oklahoman) and the reliable private investigator, Paul Drake (William Hopper, Slim Carter), Mason and his crew regularly found themselves seated adjacent to the overzealous duo of Lieutenant Arthur Tragg (Ray Collins, Touch of Evil) and D.A. Hamilton Burger (William Talman, Hell on Devil's Island). Even when the prosecution's evidence and witness testimony painted the accused "guilty as charged," Mason maintains his cool every time, affording him the insight to present a surprise witness or crucial piece of evidence that would prove there's no such thing as an open and shut case.
Well, this particular proceeding isn't yet complete as we look deeper into the much celebrated Perry Mason, an anchor program in the CBS Network's broadcast history.
The show, now five decades old, is remarkably entertaining without existing simply as a nostalgic novelty. Quite the contrary, it still packs a punch as it works through its meticulous three-act methodology: 1) the stage is set, characters are introduced, and a crime is committed, 2) Perry Mason is called into action to defend the key suspect even though all evidence points to his client's guilt, and 3) Mason engages in a gripping legal joust as he, piece-by-piece, deconstructs the D.A.'s case and ultimately extracts an in-court confession from the real killer. It's great drama, both then and now.
To look at the show today, it's interesting to re-discover how tightly the scripts were written even as they progressed at an unquestionably rapid pace. There's little time wasted in each episode as viewers are introduced to several "guest" characters who are actively consummating their crimes and cover-ups. Viewers are allowed to stumble into the plan in progress, offering that desirable "fly on the wall" vantage point that is difficult to resist. As the plot is revealed, so too are the elements of deceit, distrust, and the impending double-cross that the criminals will wage upon one another. Often, something misfires and the plan goes awry, sending those involved and those seemingly victimized scrambling for alibis and legal representation. Tragg and Burger are quick to follow the trail of circumstantial evidence and press for a speedy trial and conviction, while Mason is inclined to employ delaying tactics to unravel the real motivations behind the plot and the subsequent miscarriage of the illicit deed. In his detection and discovery process, Mason leaves no one off the suspect list and pursues all with equal aggressive and determined style. By the time the actual hearing commences, Mason has all but made a mockery of the prosecution's conclusions through his personal intercessions at crime scenes, with evidence, and with the accusing witnesses themselves (this guy tampers among the best of them, by the way). He waves off the numerous red herrings until he finds that kernel of truth, then proceeds to dig incessantly to uncover motives of envy, jealousy, and old scores left unsettled. The climax, then, is dramatic and typically unexpected. By the end of the show's 52-minute running time, you've been taken for a swift and swirling human drama.
Beyond the undeniable potboiler plotlines and the inherent play-at-home appeal of trying to guess whodunit, the show succeeds thanks to the celebrated Raymond Burr. Having shed considerable weight since his previous work in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, he appears more fit and formidable, his furrowed brow and piercing eyes maintaining a hint of the sort of relentless pursuer he had typically portrayed prior to this role of Mason. He maintains his usual dour expression as Mason is constantly sifting through the facts of a case both before and during the courtroom standoffs. But Burr manages to impart a bit of jocularity in the role (yes, really) through the exchanges with his cohorts, Della and Drake. Barbara Hale as Della is tireless and devoted to her boss' work, yet also provides many of the breakthrough observations he seeks thanks to her objective viewpoint with a dash of female intuition thrown in for flavor. William Hopper as Drake is likewise determined to help Mason crack the case and is frequently relentless in his examinations of suspects and accusers. As a trio, the three actors work well with one another, perfecting their roles and repartee as the first season progressed. By the final episode, the three are well within the rhythm that would carry the show for seasons to come.
Following the previous boxed set of Season One, Volume One, this second boxed set wraps up the show's infectious first season across five discs that contain the following 20 episodes:
* "The Case of the Lonely Heiress"
* "The Case of the Green-Eyed Sister"
* "The Case of the Fugitive Nurse"
* "The Case of the One-Eyed Witness"
* "The Case of the Deadly Double"
* "The Case of the Empty Tin"
* "The Case of the Half-Wakened Wife"
* "The Case of the Desperate Daughter"
* "The Case of the Daring Decoy"
* "The Case of the Hesitant Hostess"
* "The Case of the Screaming Woman"
* "The Case of the Fiery Fingers"
* "The Case of the Substitute Face"
* "The Case of the Long-Legged Models"
* "The Case of the Gilded Lily"
* "The Case of the Lazy Lover"
* "The Case of the Prodigal Parent"
* "The Case of the Black-Eyed Blonde"
* "The Case of the Terrified Typist"
* "The Case of the Rolling Bones"
As you can see, the episode names are playful in their largely liberal laying on of alluring alliteration. Given this is what viewers see immediately at the close of the show's opening credits, these work well to set the stage and stimulate the curiosity regarding promises of "deadly doubles" and "long-legged models."
Each episode is presented in the expected original 1.33:1 full frame format, complete and uncut, even including closing sponsor blurbs and the classic CBS "eye" animation. The image quality is excellent here, crisp, clear, and clean. It seems doubtful that significant restoration work has been done here and, if that is the case, then the team at Paramount was absolutely blessed with near-pristine source material. The black and white image is 99-percent free of dirt or damage and the gray scale on display is smooth and practically silky. The detail levels are striking, really, in that we can see plenty of texture in each frame, from the woolen suit coats to the beads of perspiration on the brow of the cross-examined witnesses. As for the audio, that's offered in a contained yet complimentary Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix that's clean, well balanced, and free of any significant distortion. Sadly, there are no extras on this set, just as with the preceding volume. As the show has been the obvious inspiration to many of the crime dramas that have followed (right up to today's prevalent CSI fare), it's criminal that no supporting evidence is being presented to prove the production's high value and enticing style. For this reason, this fine release is burdened with a low overall rating that belies the excellent feature content within.
Is Perry Mason a bit hackneyed, hammy, and outright old-fashioned? Well, to a degree, sure it is, largely due to the time of its production. Television was still emerging and television standards were extremely restrictive. Nonetheless, the show found a way to break through the moralistic impositions of its nervous network thanks to sharp writing and subtle performances (at times). Watch closely and you'll see Mason regularly push the limits of procedural and even personal ethics in order to win his clients' cases. He's more attentive, inventive, and adaptive than the network censors, through the writers' efforts, and winds up appearing dapper upstart in his own era. The late 1950s settings and sensibilities lend nostalgic charm to the proceedings but this still-engaging show is not to be mocked as being of the Leave It to Beaver naïveté.
If you're a fan of television crime drama and are curious to learn about the lineage of your favorite sleuth show, give Perry Mason a good look (and I recommend you look at both volumes of the Season One collection). Raymond Burr became an icon in this most defining role, and it's a worthwhile endeavor to see him in action as the unflappable L.A. defense attorney. All those that follow, you'll find, could only imitate his work.
There has been no crime committed here and that's no surprise with Perry Mason on the case.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 1043 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated