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By ADAM LIPTAK
Published: December 31, 2006
IN memory the old “Perry Mason” was campy and obvious. At the end of each hour Raymond Burr would rise commandingly from his courtroom chair and, with just a question or two and perhaps a peeved glare, elicit a detailed and tearful confession from a witness with more aptitude for murder than for perjury.
Those Perry Mason moments are as awkward and unrewarding today as they were in 1957, when CBS began broadcasting the series. But almost everything else about the show is splendid, and the 39 episodes from the first season recently released on DVD are a box of L.A. noir chocolates, well constructed and satisfyingly dark.
They start with that swaggering theme music, by Fred Steiner, and some irresistible episode titles (“The Case of the Cautious Coquette,” “The Case of the Restless Redhead,” “The Case of the Vagabond Vixen,” “The Case of the Lazy Lover”). The setups are brisk and racy, usually involving an attractive young woman, the suggestion of ill-considered intimacy and, in short order, a corpse.
Beautifully filmed in black and white, the shows have become period dramas over time, stuffed with relentless smoking, skinny ties, hard-to-get divorces, propeller planes and the threat of the gas chamber. All this was just scenery at the time, but it has now imbued the show with a real sense of place, of a California draped in shadows and suffused with gaudy ambition and sexual jealousy.
“Perry Mason” was also, week in and week out, a well-made television show, the work of professionals. It moves a little slowly for modern tastes, but it was precisely constructed, sophisticated and intricate enough to reward careful attention.
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Owing to various hospital stays over the past five years, I logged a lot of hours watching the Perry Masons referred to here. This Litvak review is excellent. And I certainly agree with it. Most of the hokum came at the end when the light bulb appeared above Perry's head.
What struck me most about the shows was how adult and seedy they were.. A lot of the seediness is between the lines but boy is it there. As I mentioned here last week writing about the early Mason novels (those still influenced by Black Mask), the stories are packed with sex and the villains are frequently business men. You could be forgiven for thinking you're reading Upton Sinclair or Sinclair Lewis in sections of the early Masons. He sure didn't trust trust big business and he he had an almost socialistic scorn for the greed success inspires (I watched Treasure of Sierra Madre earlier today--a pure straight shot of B. Traven's rage was something Gardner would likely have understood).
Litvak's best point is that the early Mason TVs have become historical dramas. They are one of the most accurate depicitions of the Fifties I've ever seen. Man, the fetishes we made of our clothes, cars, home furnishings. And the way we looked at poor people--rarely to be trusted, rarely able to speak with any clarity, lost in booze or self-pity or just plain despicable laziness. The Lonely crowd, The Man in The Grey Flannel Suit, The Status Seekers--some of the observations in the Masons are as acute as these bestsellers of the Fifties. There's a whole book waiting to be read on the sociology of the first three or four Mason years--not that I'd read it, you understand. But it's mildly interesting to think about up there on my Unread shelf.