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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

PERRY MASON: SEASON 4, VOLUME 1 -- DVD review by porfle

A lot of people seem to have the same childhood memory of the "Perry Mason" TV show--the music used to scare them. I myself recall hearing it from the other room and being afraid to go in there. It sounds so ominous and threatening, like horrible things must happen on the show that would give you nightmares. Anyway, Fred Steiner's "Park Avenue Beat" is one of the coolest TV themes ever. I have a Tubes live album where they do a really good cover of it, but nothing beats the original version.

Now that I'm officially a grown-up and neither the music nor the show itself actually scare me anymore, I've been enjoying a Perry Mason marathon with the 4-disc DVD set PERRY MASON: SEASON 4, VOLUME 1. In fact, I think this is the first time I've ever watched episodes of it all the way through. It's still a pretty serious show--there isn't a whole lot of comedy relief when every episode is about someone getting murdered and someone else being wrongfully accused of it.

The fact that the show was so damn serious was another thing that made me steer clear of it as a kid, in addition to my never being able to follow the story. Too much talk, too much information to process and plot to keep up with. But now, I find the show just complicated enough to engage my curiosity and keep me guessing. Sometimes I'm able to figure out who the real killer is in advance, and other times it's a complete surprise.

Funny thing is, Perry himself is usually the most easygoing character on the show. This is mainly because he's so smart. Whatever happens, no matter how messed-up, Perry can rely on his brilliant intellect and infallible instincts to help him weave his way slowly but surely toward the solution of any mystery. So he can afford to be cool as a cucumber at all times. Sometimes during a trial, he'll allow himself a subtle smirk at the hopeless attempts of the D.A. to trip him up and prove his client guilty. (Although there are times when some unexpected development or revelation makes him visibly apprehensive.) Perry has such an incredible record of success that by now, the judge should simply save the taxpayers' money and automatically dismiss the case against anyone who hires him as their attorney, because everything after that is just a formality.

As Erle Stanley Gardner's literary legal eagle, Raymond Burr always struck me as a mountain of beef in a gigantic black suit. If you're a kid, he can be pretty scary-looking with those impossibly broad shoulders and those big black circles under his eyes. As an adult, I see him and think: "This is the guy I want on my side." Each episode begins with someone getting themselves into a situation in which there's a murder, and all evidence points to them as the killer. Then, as soon as we see them sitting in Perry's office, we breathe a sigh of relief and know that everything will eventually work out okay. Unlike real-life defendants, Perry's clients are never actually guilty--their innocence is established in our eyes as soon as he takes the case--so he never has to resort to legal sleight-of-hand or shady technicalities in order to get them off the hook. That way, his character can always remain a purehearted crusader for justice with his integrity firmly intact and his conscience clear.

I like Burr better as the irascible IRONSIDE in his later series, in which he got to be more animated and action-oriented even though he was confined to a wheelchair. But his Perry Mason character is still fascinating to watch. Barbara Hale as his efficient secretary Della Street and William Hopper as private detective Paul Drake, who does all of Perry's legwork, lend solid support and a comfortable comradery. Distinguished character actor Ray Collins is always fine as crotchety old homicide detective Lt. Tragg, whose dogged efforts to nail a suspect for murder are constantly being thwarted by Mason's superior deductive skills.

Each episode spends about half an hour setting up the situation, establishing a murder and an innocent suspect, and showing us what a seemingly airtight case Lt. Tragg has against the unfortunate chump. The second half of the episode covers the tense courtroom drama, with the hapless D.A. doing his best to outwit Mason, Lt. Tragg confidently testifying against the accused, and Mason methodically putting together a defense that will invariably blow the case right out of the water at the last minute and reveal the identity of the real killer.

More often than not, this results in one of those frantic witness-stand confessions that lawyers say never happen in real life, but which are an integral part of shows like this. There's a lot of verbal cat-and-mouse stuff going on here, which I find engrossing and mentally stimulating when I'm in the mood for that sort of thing. If you're looking for explosions, car chases, and fistfights, this show won't do much for you. But if you're the kind who likes to curl up with a good whodunnit, this is wonderful stuff.

As is the norm for shows of this era (circa 1960), the guest cast is often filled with familiar faces. Morris Ankrum, Frank Wilcox, and Bryan Morrow are some of the actors who show up as judges. The revolving line-up of prosecutors includes Christopher Dark, 50s genre favorite Kenneth Tobey, and, most effectively, H.M. Wynant as a hotshot young deputy D.A. who's just aching to prove himself by getting one over on Mason. As for regular castmember William Talman, who is well-known as Perry Mason's usual nemesis Hamilton Burger, he only appears in three episodes in this set--numbers 1, 2, and 15--since this is the season during which Talman was fired after being arrested (in the nude) during the raid of a Beverly Hills party in which marijuana use was suspected. Charges against him were later dismissed, and with the support of Burr, along with the rest of the show's cast and many of its fans, he was rehired.

Other notable guests in this set include Robert Redford, James Coburn, a very young Louise Fletcher, Sue Randall (Beaver Cleaver's teacher in "Leave It to Beaver"), Stephen Talbot (Beaver's friend Gilbert), Whit Bissell, Ken Curtis, Bert Freed, Virginia Christine, Hal Smith, William Campbell, Dabbs Greer, Harry Townes, Casey Adams, Coleen Gray, Robert Cornthwaite, Robert Clarke, Kathie Browne, Robert Lowery, Francis X. Bushman, Jeanette Nolan, John "Sgt. Schultz" Banner, Regis Toomey, Bruce Gordon, Corey Allen ("Buzz" in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE), Richard Deacon, Robert Brown, Arthur Franz, Philip Abbott, Dave Willock, James Westerfield, Vaughn Taylor, John Hoyt, John Lupton, Barry Atwater, and Tony Travis of THE BEATNIKS' fame.

The show is filmed in lush, atmospheric black-and-white and the image quality on these digitally remastered DVDs is very good. Each of the four discs contains four episodes. No bonus features.

PERRY MASON is one of the genuine milestones of classic television, very evocative of its era, and each episode is like a well-produced mini-movie. With sixteen of Perry Mason's most baffling and exciting cases, PERRY MASON: SEASON 4, VOLUME 1 is solid entertainment all the way.

Buy it at Amazon.com
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