Perry Mason (Raymond Burr) continues his activities as the world’s greatest criminal defense lawyer, someone who gets his clients cleared in pre-trial hearings as the real killers cry out their culpability (no one advising them to keep their mouth shut), to the eternal humiliation of District Attorney Hamilton Burger (William Talman).
PopMatters has been following the whole series on DVD, and by now it’s a well-oiled machine at peak output. Many episodes have been dogged by farfetched complications that don’t make much sense when unraveled, but the sixth season is marked by clear stories and ingenious bafflements. In more than one episode, we seem to witness the murder, which throws off the normal convention of the innocent client who just happened to be at the wrong place with motive and opportunity. Also, previous seasons often had Perry stepping into the proceedings after the murder has finally occurred, while now the show usually makes a point of involving him much earlier.
The season premiere, “The Case of the Bogus Books”, is an above-average locked-room tale written with literary erudition and a few witty lines by cult crime novelist Jonathan Latimer (also responsible for scripting one of the greatest suspense films, The Big Clock). The suspects in this used-bookstore setting include Adam West (later TV’s Batman) and Allison Hayes (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman).
Now hitting his stride as one of the show’s best writers, Latimer also scripted the unusual “The Case of the Lurid Letter”, one of Perry’s out-of-town jaunts. Unaccompanied by any of his supporting cast except detective Paul Drake (William Hopper), Perry attends a public hearing to defend a teacher victimized by small-town gossip in what adds up to quite a sour depiction of a cancerous little town, happy ending or not.
Although there’s a murder, it occurs near the end of the episode and Perry’s client is never a suspect. Normally likeable country coot Edgar Buchanan plays the suspiciously-behaving judge and Ann Doran (James Dean’s mom in Rebel Without a Cause) is the chief gossip. The anomalous nature of this case can be explained by the fact that it’s a rare episode adapted from an outside source, Hugh Pentecost’s non-Mason story “The Man with Half a Face”.
Latimer’s recurring interest in animals comes up in “The Case of the Golden Oranges”, which begins with Perry defending a dog in court.
A title like “The Case of the Weary Watchdog” sounds like it should have been Latimer, but it’s from series stalwart Samuel Newman. Another unusual episode, this one stars Chinese-American actors Keye Luke, James Hong and Beulah Quo. That’s not the unusual aspect, nor is this one of the cases where we seem to witness the killing (the slimy, effete victim is John Dall of Gun Crazy and Rope). Perry loses the verdict in the hearing.
We never find out for sure, because in the middle of the case, Perry makes a detour into a parallel hearing as a friend of the court, participating in two cases at once while trying to avoid a conflict of interest. It’s a remarkable stunt. Also unusual is that Perry’s secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale) faces charges of being an accomplice to murder.
Also unusual, ironically, is one of the few episodes directly based on one of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels. (Most episodes are original stories.) “The Case of the Velvet Claws” features a client so untrustworthy that everybody, including Perry and the viewer and the client herself, thinks she might really be guilty. Perry must clear this one up without stepping into a courtroom. This is scripted by associate producer Jackson Gillis, a prolific contributor who later made a mark on Columbo.
“The Case of the Greek Goddess” is one of the ever-interesting episodes about the wacky lives of artists (at one point a sculptor “kills” his statue), though its greatest appreciation will come from fans of “B” cult goddesses, who won’t resist the vibe generated by Faith Domergue and Marianna Hill as Greek women who are allegedly mother and daughter.
Domergue’s career was jinxed by being a “discovery” of Howard Hughes, about whom she wrote a book. She endeared herself to sci-fi fans with This Island Earth and It Came from Beneath the Sea, where she plays plucky lady scientists. Hill, best known as Deanna Corleone in The Godfather Part 2, made her mark in ‘70s obscurities like The Traveling Executioner, The Baby and Messiah of Evil. Perhaps their careers have an air of frustration about them, but their alternate paths have been more memorable than many actress’ mainstream projects.
Another outing on creative types is “The Case of the Prankish Professor”, in which an unpleasant English prof secretly publishes a scandalous bestseller and pulls a memorable classroom stunt. The story by tireless crime-show vet Robert C. Dennis can be perceived as a joke on the standard topics of literary pretension and academia, but it’s more interesting as a study of how trashy Peyton-Place-type novels reveal hidden experiences. There’s a surprisingly unsavory unwed-pregnancy backstory. Then almost the same ground is covered in “The Case of the Skeleton’s Closet” with a book of suburban scandals and another tragic unwed pregnancy.
Other adventures feature a man who returns from the dead, and a man who fails to do so. However, the oddest cases this season are the ones without Perry Mason. While Burr recuperated from a medical issue, it was explained that Mason was in the hospital (no reason given) and for four episodes he was sidelined to a few brief scenes where he’s usually talking on the phone in his pajamas. In these tales, the lead is taken by guest attorneys played by Bette Davis, posing and furrowing her brow as a widow in a small-town firm, Michael Rennie as a college law professor, Hugh O’Brian as a playboy lawyer whom we see commit murder (or do we?), and Walter Pidgeon as a grandfatherly corporate lawyer. In at least three of these cases, the attorney has a glaring conflict of interest, but this is television.
The spree of big-name mouthpieces (and surely there was no bigger mouthpiece than Bette Davis) was clearly unusual. Most guests are a mix of naggingly familiar faces and up-and-comers who’d land bigger roles later. The list includes Gary Lockwood, Dick Davalos, Jeanette Nolan, Ellen Burstyn, Barbara Parkins, Harvey Korman, Jim Davis, Strother Martin, Jesse White, Margaret O’Brien, Leonard Nimoy, Peter Breck, Kent Smith, Constance Towers, Joyce Van Patten, Michael Parks, Werner Klemperor, Joyce Bulifant, Arthur Hunnicutt, Lee Van Cleef, Julie Adams, Gloria Talbott, George Kennedy, and Jackie Coogan.
As in the previous season, the wry Lt. Tragg (Ray Collins) only makes a handful of appearances, though he’s regularly credited, while most of the police legwork is now done by the more stolid Lt. Anderson (Wesley Lau) and normally silent Sgt. Brice (Lee Miller) of the sleepy eyes and heavy jowls. Brice had been hovering at the edges since the series began, hulking behind Tragg like Frankenstein behind Igor, but only starts receiving regular credit now.
In “The Case of the Potted Planter”, Jamie Forster makes one of his rare appearances as the show’s African-American judge. (He generally appears in the same episodes where Paul Fix plays District Attorney Hale.) For the most part, interchangeable character actors Kenneth MacDonald, Willis Bouchey, John Gallaudet, S. John Launer, Grandon Rhodes, Morris Ankrum, and Charles Irving rotate as the anonymous judges who are positively avuncular in their tolerance of Perry’s digressions. They never have so much fun as when he’s in the room, and we can see why.