This reviewer never watched Perry Mason in reruns though it has been a ubiquitous presence on Superstation TBS and elsewhere. On DVD however, catching up with the series has been an absolute delight. Normally I try to savor the show by limiting myself to one show per week, just as the series originally ran, and because of its impressively varied storylines, the (for television) superb production values and great regular and guest casts, and especially the chemistry among the five regulars, it's a day I eagerly look forward to. Perry Mason - Season 2, Volume 2 finds the long-running (1957-1966) show generally even better than both its first season and the first-half of season two: the characterizations are richer than ever, and several of the show's directors have infused it with a more interesting visual style that, more than ever, make each episode play like a mini-movie rather than the usual prime-time drama. As with previous releases, the transfers are exceptionally good.
For the uninitiated, the show revolves around Los Angeles-based celebrity attorney Perry Mason (Raymond Burr), his loyal assistant Della Street (Barbara Hale), and their pal Paul Drake (William Hopper), a breezy private detective steadily in Mason's employ. Each week Perry comes to the rescue of a defendant (usually) accused of murder. In most of these cases, Perry is up against wily police Lt. Tragg (Ray Collins) and District Attorney Hamilton Burger (William Talman).
Though the show's format would seem pretty restrictive - Perry's clients are always innocent, hapless and exasperated Burger always loses the case, and Perry always exposes the real murderer - the writers manage to come up with a wide and engaging variety of storylines. Despite these restrictions the show so far never feels likes it's slipping into a tired routine.
Essentially a mystery show with a courtroom setting for its climax, Perry Mason's single flaw is that as a mystery it doesn't really play fair with its audience, though the same could be said for B-movie mysteries of the 1930s and '40s, radio mystery shows, and virtually all other TV whodunits. Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot (to name two examples) faced seemingly irresolvable cases with bizarre, inexplicable clues - yet the solutions were always quite simple and logical. The great literary detectives simply had powers of observation lost on us mere mortals, even though we're armed with the same information as those protagonists.
On the other hand, Perry Mason, the Charlie Chan movies, Murder, She Wrote, etc. operate under a different set of rules. The resolutions to the mysteries don't always make sense and audiences often don't have access to the same clues the protagonists do, and they often leap to conclusions and solve crimes in ways that don't hold up to scrutiny. Instead, these kinds of movies, TV and radio shows rely heavily on atmosphere, characterization and star power to entertain their audiences. One might guess who the real murderer is, but in most cases you won't be able to solve the mystery on your own.
Fortunately Burr, Hale, and Hopper are just wonderful in their roles. Apparently they became close friends in real life, and this camaraderie very much extends to their scenes together on the show. About the middle of season two, Talman's Hamilton Burger started getting more shading, a welcome addition. Often regarded as television's most thankless role, Hamilton Burger this season still is Perry's weekly nemesis, but now he's more affable outside the courtroom and flexible in, especially when new evidence casts a shadow of a doubt over the guilt of Perry's client.
The show's growing popularity seems to have had a positive impact on its budget. Some shows incorporate a surprisingly lavish number of extras and sets, though the larger almost cavernous ones presumably were standing and left-over sets from other productions being shot on the 20th Century-Fox lot. (I could be wrong, but I think I recognized a few from Ten North Frederick.) Its success was also starting to attract bigger guests stars along with familiar TV character actors. Admittedly, these were usually B-list stars of the 1950s, or faded A-list names from '30s and '40s Hollywood, but the line-up is still impressive: Hugh Marlowe, Frankie Laine (shockingly good as a Sid Caesar-esque comedian made up to resemble Steve Allen), Bobby Troup, John Agar, Jerome Cowan, Dick Foran, Ann Rutherford, Mala Powers, Neil Hamilton, as well as Herbert Anderson, (a very young) Marion Ross, Mary LaRoche, Walter Burke, Raymond Bailey, Richard Crane, Benson Fong, Michael Fox, Jon Lormer, Richard Erdman, Vito Scotti, Gregory Walcott, John Anderson, R.G. Armstrong, Myron Healey, Robert Strauss, Barry Atwater, Ellen Corby, Nancy Culp, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Thomas Browne Henry, Robert Nichols. Actors like Richard Gaines, Kenneth MacDonald and Morris Ankrum make welcome recurring appearances as judges.
Adding to the show's flavor are some new directors bringing a moodier atmosphere to the crime scenes while refusing to shoot the courtroom from the same, static and familiar angles. Gerd Oswald was an unexceptional feature director but on TV he brought much imagination to shows like The Outer Limits and, oddly enough, Perry Mason. Buzz Kulik (A Big Hand for the Little Lady) contributes one episode in this set.
Video & Audio
Perry Mason: Season 2, Volume 2 (February - June 1959) is presented in its original full frame format in excellent black and white transfers that are uncut (running about 52 minutes apiece) and which are not time-compressed. There are no alternate audio or subtitle options, though the show is closed-captioned. The 15 shows are spread over four single-sided, dual-layered DVDs packaged in two slim cases (down from Season 1, which packed 20 shows over five discs). The Dolby Digital mono is adequate.
At least one show, "The Case of the Caretaker's Cat," uses opening titles that seem to come from either later seasons or which perhaps was used when the show went into syndication. Otherwise, that show's looks as good as the others. There are no Extra Features, alas.
If you've been buying these sets all along, then you won't be disappointed with Perry Mason: Season 2, Volume 2. If you're new to the show, you really ought to start with season one, but in any case if you enjoy mysteries and great classic television, you'll likely be hooked. Highly Recommended.
Note: This reviewer is indebted to The Perry Mason TV Show Book, an informative website devoted to all things Perry.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Japanese Cinema. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.