Created by Erle Stanley Gardner in the 1930s based on his years spent practicing law, the character of Perry Mason would be featured in over 80 novels before being adapted into one of the most popular TV shows of all time. Featuring Raymond Burr in the role of Mason, the show ran for nine seasons and racked up 271 episodes before finally ending on May 22nd, 1966. Just short of 20 years later, the character returned to the small screen with Burr reprising his signature role, in the first of what eventually became 26 TV movies (four were made after Burr's death in 1993). These features also brought back Barbara Hale as Perry Mason's trusty assistant Della Street, and featured William Katt as Paul Drake Jr., son of one of the series' characters (Hale's real-life son).
Now that Paramount has finished releasing the original "Perry Mason" series on DVD, they've started off on the movies, collecting the first six films in a three-disc box set (the six films are broken up into three "double features"). Longtime fans of the series will probably be excited to be able to add these telefilms to complete their "Perry Mason" collection, but it's harder to say whether their memories of the movies will hold up. All six films in the set are enjoyable but also pretty forgettable, each connecting a similar series of dots in a very similar fashion. Admittedly, being reliably formulaic was also a criticism (or perhaps just an observation) of the original novels, so maybe this is just being faithful to the source, but viewing the box in one go is a touch monotonous.
In each of these six films -- "Perry Mason Returns", "The Case of the Notorious Nun", "The Case of the Shooting Star", "The Case of the Lost Love", "The Case of the Sinister Spirit", and "The Case of the Murdered Madam" -- the plot is basically the same. Perry has a case unexpectedly dumped into his lap. He and Paul (and, eventually, Della) go to investigate. In the last 30 to 40 minutes, the trial begins, and Perry slowly reveals his angle on the case, not just to the characters, but also the audience. Meanwhile, Paul is still out in the field, tracking down the one last bit of crucial evidence, arriving at the courtroom just in time, providing Perry with the ammo to make the perpetrator break down on the witness stand, while District Attorney Michael Reston (David Odgen Stiers) watches and seethes as his case goes down the tubes. Rinse, repeat, and add the occasional guest star (Alan Thicke, Jonathan Banks, Dwight Schultz, Robert Stack, John Rhys-Davies) for flavor.
To be fair, repetition is a cornerstone of television, and the formula in and of itself is fine. What's more disappointing is that the films don't really do much in the way of developing the three main characters in the meantime. The writers hint at the possibility of a relationship starting between Perry and Della, but all that changes over the course of nine hours is the hinting gets a touch more aggressive. There's also a set-up in "Perry Mason Returns" that Perry could be sort of a father or mentor figure to Paul Drake Jr. as he learns to fill his father's shoes, but he and Mason are basically friends by the time the credits roll. Moreover, to take a film format only to tell the same kind of episodic, "case of the week" stories that could've been told on the original TV show comes off as a bit of a missed opportunity. Obviously, nobody wants to reinvent the wheel here, but a few more flourishes would be appreciated.
That said, the first film in the set is perfectly entertaining, and the subsequent episodes maintain the same level of quality. The weakest, "Sinister Spirit", goes all out with a spooky plot set in an empty hotel, but it's hard to get wrapped up in it given that "Perry Mason" is set in the real world, and the filmmakers certainly aren't about to introduce ghosts. It's amusing to watch Stiers get pissed off again and again, and although the relationships and personas remain constant throughout, the chemistry between Burr, Hale, and Katt is very good. It's an odd team: the lumbering, wide-eyed Perry; small but whip-smart Della; and young, confident Paul, who really gets the short end of the stick considering how much physical and mental anguish he's forced to endure handling the legwork on all of Perry's cases. They feel like old friends from the moment they step on screen, and it's that familiarity that these films intend to tap into.
Bizarre that in the days of increasingly slimmer packaging, Paramount has decided to package this in three individual cases, each holding a single double feature disc, inside a glossy slipbox, instead of a single three-disc case with a slipcover or something. Not only does it kind of stink of artificially enhancing the product's perceived value, but it also backfires -- the cheap Photoshop art (a photo of Burr with an effect thrown on it), the flimsy cardboard box and weightless cardboard eco-cases all scream "budget" rather than "deluxe." It also means the set takes up an unnecessary amount of space on the shelf. All three cover arts feature a variation on the same design. There are no inserts.
The Video and Audio
Presented in their original 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio, Paramount has not done anything to polish or improve the look of these shows for DVD. They have the hazy, soft appearance of brand-new VHS -- there is some detail present, sure, but not what one expects from digital. Colors bleed ever so slightly, analog edge haloes are visible, distortion can appear on the edges (probably not seen on 1980s television sets), and black crush is frequent. Hardcore "Perry Mason" fans will probably just be happy that these movies are available for purchase at all, but the video is pretty dire.
Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtracks fare better. Although they lack the full surround experience of 5.1 tracks, separation is very clean and the sound is crisp. Unlike the video, the mixes seem to have been preserved in optimal condition. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are included on each episode.
On one hand, these TV films are on the repetitive side, following an established formula to the absolute letter. Then again, this DVD box set is aimed at "Perry Mason" enthusiasts, not newcomers -- anyone who's interested probably knows and loves said formula by heart, so it's forgivable. Less pleasing is the set itself: looks and feels cheap, as bare bones get, and the MSRP is unreasonably steep. Rent it.
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