In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, "It's like déjà vu all over again." If you're thinking to yourself, "Wait! Didn't he just review Perry Mason a few weeks ago?" you would be correct. Just three weeks ago, in fact, and for me barely ten reviews back, I reviewed Perry Mason - Season 7, Volume 2. As noted then, beginning with the release of Perry Mason - Season 7, Volume 1, CBS DVD and Paramount have apparently decided to race to the finish line with this and other classic television releases. Perry Mason - Season 8, Volume 2, is already scheduled for release next month, and though not yet announced I wouldn't be surprised to see both volumes of Season 9, the series' last, out by next spring, with possibly the later Perry Mason TV-movies after that.
Perry Mason - Season 8, Volume 1, includes the first 15 episodes of the 1964-65 season, with "The Case of the Wooden Nickels," "The Case of the Nautical Knot," and other cases involving Sleepy Slayers, Bullied Bowlers, Reckless Rockhounds, Blonde Bonanzas, and Frustrated Folk Singers, among others. (All Season 8 shows are new to DVD. None appeared on the compilation set from a few years back, Perry Mason - 50th Anniversary Edition.) As before, there are few surprises but a lot of entertainment. Burr later singled out Season 8 as "a bad year" because of the overly complicated plots, stories so byzantine even he couldn't follow them. But the truth is Perry Mason's stories were pretty much always unsolvable puzzles to begin with and never key to its appeal. I still find the series enormous fun, and to its credit Perry Mason is still the same fine if rarely-unwavering show it's always been. The shows are, even by TV standards of the day, slickly produced with excellent production values and top-drawer guest casts.
I've yet to see a truly terrible Perry Mason, though more than a few have put me to sleep. Nevertheless, the range between the best and worst episodes is so narrow I doubt even fans of the series could point to a particular favorite episode. That is, unless it was one of the very small handful of shows actually deviating from its established format. Though still fun, in this day of more sophisticated legal dramas like Law & Order, The Practice/Boston Legal, and Damages, watching the less believable and more formulaic Perry Mason requires a bit of an adjustment. And as this is my fifteenth (!) Perry Mason DVD review, you'll excuse me if I don't have much to add by this point.
(See below for comments relating to this set)
Really at the core of Perry Mason's appeal is its cast, and that's hardly changed at all. Besides ingenious, resourceful Perry Mason (Burr), the famous Los Angeles attorney who never loses a case, there's Perry's loyal, tireless personal secretary, Della Street (Barbara Hale), and their worldly, slightly cynical pal/colleague, P.I. Paul Drake (William Hopper). Cases usually have them up against easily aggravated, perennial loser D.A. Hamilton Burger (William Talman).
Also in the cast, sort of, is actor Ray Collins (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons), a fine actor who in Perry Mason's first five seasons played slippery Lt. Arthur Tragg, Burger's colleague and a veteran cop who derived much pleasure in arresting Perry's distressed clients. But Collins was suffering from advanced emphysema around this time, and the IMDb credits him with just three Season 8 appearances, concluding with "The Case of the Latent Lover," supposedly his final onscreen appearance anywhere. However, I didn't spot Collins, even in a non-speaking role in the courtroom scenes, in any of the three episodes listed, so it appears the IMDb is wrong. Some sources insist Collins's last appearance was on a Season 7 episode that aired the previous January, while others insist he appears, albeit very briefly, in the Season 8 finale. Calling Paul Drake! Wesley Lau took over Collins's duties otherwise through the end of Season 8, before being replaced by Richard Anderson (who appears as a different character in this set).
Regardless, and probably in a kind gesture to insure the actor income through his illness, he's duly credited in each show regardless, an accommodation not made for actor Talman, who's not credited on those episodes in which he doesn't appear.
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. They liked to joke around, and at least one of these is visible to sharp-eyed viewers. Apparently over the course of the show's run the three would occasionally make little changes to the abstract painting in Perry's office. I've never compared the painting from the first show to its appearance in the last episode of the series, but supposedly it changes quite a bit over time.
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.
Notes About Season 8, Volume 1: Business as usual, pretty much. Seasons 8 and 9, Perry's final two years, were more experimental and playful script-wise, though less so here. More and more the show moves away from the tired structure of setting up the story minus Perry, Della, and Paul in the first act, introducing them to their client/murder suspect around 20 minutes in, and then it's to the courtroom for the last act.
In some ways the show became more outrageous, less realistic, such as one episode here where Hamilton Burger compels Perry himself into the witness box to give evidence for the prosecution during a case Perry himself is defending! (Unlikely.)
For reasons not entirely clear, Burr does not appear at all in an episode entitled "The Case of the Bullied Bride," as Perry is "away on business in Europe." Special guest star Mike Connors fills Perry's slot as attorney Joe Kelly. Burr and Perry (but minus Della and Paul) are back for the next show, "The Case of a Place Called Midnight," which is set in Switzerland though filmed entirely in California, with what looks like Big Bear Mountain exterior locations (and possibly a few interior set pieces left over from G.I. Blues). Some speculate CBS was using Connors are a bargaining chip for future negotiations with Burr, with the idea of threatening to replace Burr with Connors (who has similar eyes and facial features if an entirely different body shape) should they not come to terms.
Guest stars in this set include Julie Adams, Ed Nelson, Dee Hartford, Anthony Eisley, Otto Kruger, Mike Mazurki, Stanley Adams, Lynn Loring, Arthur Space, Booth Colman, June Lockhart, Stuart Erwin, Sue Ane Langdon, Sean McClory, Hugh Marlowe, Robert Brown, Gigi Perreau, John Napier, Karl Swenson, Anne Fargue, Dianne Foster, Michael Forest, Jeanette Nolan, Guy Stockwell, Neil Hamilton, John Larkin (the radio series voice of Perry Mason), Tom Tully, Anne Whitfield, Barbara Bain, Whit Bissell, Anne Seymour, Jeff Donnell, Milton Selzer, Paul Lukather, Gerald Mohr, Harry Townes, Robert Emhardt, Werner Klemperer, Eddie Firestone, Robert Cornthwaite, Jim Davis, Ivan Triesault, Richard Carlson, Paul Stewart, Constance Towers, Patricia Huston, John Fiedler, Mimsy Farmer, Audrey Totter, Bruce Bennett, Elisha Cook, Jr. Ben Johnson, Douglas Lambert, Jeff Corey, Ted de Corsia, Roy Barcroft, Lloyd Bochner, Jason Evers, Douglass Dumbrille, Harold Gould, Olan Soule, Murray Matheson, Walter Burke, Berry Kroeger, Mary Ann Mobley, Michael Constantine, Vaughn Taylor, Ruth Warrick, Grant Williams, Barton MacLane, Meg Wylie, John Howard, Bert Freed, Frankie Darro, Gary Crosby, Mark Goddard, Robert H. Harris, Joyce Meadows, John Considine, Leonard Stone, and Lee Meriwether.
Willis Bouchey, Morris Ankrum, S. John Launer, Kenneth MacDonald, and John Gallaudet are back as judges, joined by Charles Irving, Jason Johnson, Grandon Rhodes, and Harry Stanton.
Almost all the shows in this set were directed by Arthur Marks or Jesse Hibbs, though up-and-comer Richard Donner and down-and-outer Jack Arnold helmed a couple of others.
Video & Audio
CBS DVD's Perry Mason - Season 8, Volume 1 presents 15 terrific-looking episodes spread over four single-sided, dual-layered DVDs. The black and white full-frame image is very sharp and detailed with strong blacks. The Dolby Digital English mono is generally quite good, too, and English SDH subtitles are offered. Episodes are not time-compressed, with some running up to 52 minutes. The music does not appear to have been altered, though the usual disclaimer warns, "some episodes may have been edited from their original network versions." If so, I didn't notice any obvious changes.
Once again, Perry Mason's half-season sets continue at a reasonable pace, and with high quality transfers always. It's a fun show and if you've been buying them all along you won't be disappointed here. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.