The Morally Fuzzy Territory of Film Noir Lurks in the Shadows of 'Perry Mason

Season 5, Volume 2'

by Michael Barrett

18 November 2010

These stories are full of old fools, imperious matriarchs, women in love, and swindling business partners.
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Perry Mason: Season 5, Volume 2

US DVD: 16 Nov 2010

Perry’s usually saddled with clients who don’t tell him the whole truth about something, and that tradition continues in this batch of stories. In “The Case of the Counterfeit Crank”, his client is even pretending to be insane. That’s written by Robert Leslie Bellem, whose novels also have eccentric characters. Another eccentric novelist, Jonathan Latimer, contributes “The Case of the Borrowed Baby”, in which the “client” is an infant left in the office. Both stories are about rich old people and who gets to inherit their estate. In fact, all these stories are full of old fools, imperious matriarchs, women in love, and swindling business partners.

Some episodes reveal uncanny ways in which something can have two different realities, such as a gun that both is and isn’t the murder weapon (two guns have been pieced together), or a location that varies between being a cluttered crime scene and an ordinary place, so that a witness may be discredited.

Novelist Robb White, who scripted several of William Castle’s gimmicky horror films, gave Perry an unusual client in “The Case of the Melancholy Marksman”. The teaser shows the client planning to kill his wife with a rifle from the roof next door. He makes two attempts and concludes that he’s not really a killer, yet perhaps the reason he doesn’t succeed is that he’s woozy and befuddled from poison. The drug might also have affected his reasoning and could be partly responsible for his actions. Still, the almost-guilty client moves this episode a little closer to the morally fuzzy territory of film noir.

An important fact about swanky legal-beagle Perry Mason: At his most devious, he not only analyzes and deduces, he throws dust into the eyes of the police and district attorney by pulling shenanigans that put him continually at risk of getting arrested and/or disbarred. For example, there was a case where his client took a cab from the scene of the crime and was afraid she might be identified. Perry told her to wear a scarf and sunglasses and request the same cabbie at the same location to carry her and a friend who does all the talking, and get a receipt. Then Perry asked the cabbie if he was positive he’d seen the client on that day instead of the next day. When the cabbie answered with certainty, Perry produced the receipt, causing much confusion. At another time, he delivered a duplicate gun to the location of the murder weapon in order to throw off the investigation, but that plan backfired, as it were.

These tricks were more common in earlier seasons but they still show up. There’s an example in “The Case of the Mystified Miner”, a relatively unusual story based on one of Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels, The Case of the Spurious Spinster. It’s not structured like most of the episodes, with an obnoxious person making enemies throughout Act One until their decorous corpse is discovered and it’s eventually revealed that everyone in the cast showed up at the murder scene within five minutes of each other, and they were all concealing something in a web of convoluted cross-purposes, so that how Perry explains it all without getting dizzy is one of the show’s cool efficiencies. No, this is slightly different. It’s structured as a series of surprises that keep the viewer off guard, really a plot based on masquerades and double-bluffs that still makes a fresh plot today. Nobody dies until later than usual, and then it’s a decidedly minor character. Perry’s disreputable stunt involves messing up the fingerprints on a rental car.

This episode and “The Case of the Angry Astronaut”, with James Coburn as the kill-worthy victim, are directed by Oscar-winning editor Francis D. Lyon.

“The Case of the Absent Artist” is another puzzle about false or multiple identities, something about a comic-strip artist, a modern painter, and a corpse transported hundreds of miles. Several scenes are memorably stolen by character actors. Arlene Martel, who often played exotic or vaguely ethnic roles, makes a mark as the slinky beatnik babe Fiona. Heavy, drawling Victor Buono plays a scruffy sculptor whose favorite word is “repudiate.” Near the end of her long career, the fluttery, tic-happy Zasu Pitts plays the landlady of the den of artists. Another old-time comic actor, El Brendel, shows up with his Swedish accent in a similar role in “The Case of the Borrowed Baby”, but it’s an eyeblink part, not a scene-stealer.

Several cases are about artists, and two in a row are about actors. “The Case of the Ancient Romeo” has a down-at-heels repertory company staging Romeo and Juliet when, in a rewrite of Shakespeare, the aging Romeo dies in the duel with Paris. Perry convenes the hearing on the actual stage and re-enacts what happened, leading to a deliberately hammy confession as the culprit literally take center stage. The director cuts to a high longshot of the scene, as though from a balcony, so we can understand how courtroom theatrics, this series, and Shakespeare all drink from the same well. Scriptwriter True Boardman was an actor and the son of actors.

“The Case of the Promoter’s Pillbox” brings murder to the world of TV show pilots. An aspiring writer’s idea for a series called Mr. Nobody, which seems to be a variant of The Millionaire, has been stolen by a producer who’s stringing everyone along. His secretary declares him to be no worse than most in the business. Rod Serling’s name is dropped more than once; he’s supposedly a friend of Perry. This show seems to be the only credit anywhere for writer Peter Martin. Is he a pseudonym or, like the aspiring writer in the episode, was this his one big idea? We can’t help wondering if it’s in any way autobiographical. You’d think these actorly cases might have been penned by series writer Bellem, whose fiction specialized in Hollywood murders.

The season finalé, “The Case of the Lonely Eloper”, is also notable and slightly unusual. It opens almost as an old-dark-house story with its heroine sleepwalking. This turns out to have nothing to do with the rest of the plot. The accused heroine, an heiress just turned 21, seems backward and immature, verging on unhinged, and this makes her a curiously unnerving client. Her dissipated reprobate of an uncle lives next door. He’s played by John Dall, whose character was a kind of smirking, slightly effeminate fellow that Dall could do in his sleep. For example, that’s how he plays the villain in Atlantis the Lost Continent, though he should be best remembered for the classic Gun Crazy.

The cast remains Raymond Burr as phlegmatic and cagey Perry Mason; Barbara Hale as faithful and dapper secretary Della Street, with no more visible free time or private life than her boss; William Hopper as cigarette-smoking and sports-jacketed private detective Paul Drake; and William Talman as eternally wrong D.A. Hamilton Burger, who keeps thinking he’s got it in the bag just because Perry’s client had motive and opportunity, made public declarations of intent to kill, and left fingerprints all over the weapon.

Lt. Tragg (Ray Collins) appears infrequently now, often replaced by Lt. Andy Anderson (Wesley Lau) and once by Sgt. Ben Landro (Mort Mills). Law student David Gideon (Karl Held), seen in the first half of the season, is dropped after the initial episode here and never mentioned again. Either he graduated or flunked. At three cases each, Willis Bouchey, S. John Launer, and Kenneth MacDonald are the most frequently seen judges. Burt Reynolds, Jeanette Nolan, Everett Sloane, Allison Hayes, William Schallert, Jesse White, Connie Hines, John Marley, Hugh Marlowe, Otto Kruger, Jeff Morrow, Harry Von Zell, Geraldine Brooks, and Linden Chiles are among familar faces in guest roles.

There are no extras with this DVD.

Perry Mason: Season 5, Volume 2


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