Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Perry Mason and the Case of the Film Noir Connections

Raymond Burr as MacDonald from Pitfall and as Perry Mason from Perry Mason

Perry Mason is one of the most successful television shows of all time. The show ran for nine seasons and spent several years in ACNielsen's top twenty shows for the year. After it ended its run in 1966 it went onto a highly successful run in syndication. Indeed, repeats of the show are still being aired to this day. Perry Mason was based on the novels of Erle Stanley Gardner, the first of which (The Case of the Velvet Claws) was published  in 1933. In addition to Mr. Gardner's many novels, the character of Perry Mason was seen in six movies produced by Warner Bros. in the Thirties, as well as a long running radio show. The character of Perry Mason was well known by the time the TV show debuted in 1957. While Perry Mason owed a good deal to Erle Stanley Gardner's novels, it also owed a good deal to a cycle of films that was coming to an end even as the show debuted. Quite simply, Perry Mason has several connections to film noir.

To a large degree this should have been expected. While the "Perry Mason" novels were never published in the pulp magazines of the day, they owed a good deal to the concurrent pulp fiction of the time. Of course, film noir was heavily influenced by pulp fiction, in particular the hard-boiled crime fiction published in such magazines as Black Mask. Perry Mason also shared tropes in common with film noir. Both the "Perry Mason" novels and the TV series Perry Mason always involved someone wrongly accused of a crime, a trope common in film noir. And while there was no moral ambiguity about Perry Mason, his secretary Della Street, and detective Paul Drake, there could be a good deal of moral ambiguity with regards to the characters appearing in episodes of the TV shows. Of course, moral ambiguity is one of the chief characteristics of film noir. That is not to say that there were not some differences between Perry Mason and film noir. Violence often played a large role in film noir. It was much rarer on Perry Mason (the murders usually took place off screen). Similarly, the eroticism sometimes seen in noir isn't often found on Perry Mason, probably because the National Association of Broadcasters' Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters was even stricter than the Motion Picture Production Code. Perhaps the biggest difference between Perry Mason and film noir is that the cynicism often found in film noir is generally lacking on Perry Mason.

Of course, like most film noirs were, Perry Mason was shot in black-and-white (only one episode, "The Case of the Twice Told Twist" from 1966, was shot in colour). Shooting Perry Mason in black-and-white was to a large degree a necessity--colour television would not become common in the United States until the Sixties. That having been said, shooting Perry Mason in black-and-white allowed the show's directors and cinematographers to occasionally use the same techniques as film noir, including harsh lighting, extensive use of shadows, and even low angles.

While Perry Mason had a good deal in common with film noir, its strongest connections to film noir may well be its cast. In fact, of its leads only William Hopper (who played private detective Paul Drake) never appeared in film noir. While Mr. Hopper never starred in a film noir, some of his co-stars more than made up for this by appearing in several, to the point that some of them are identified with it.

This is particularly true of Raymond Burr, who appeared in numerous film noirs for much of his career. What might shock many people who grew up with Mr. Burr as Perry Mason or Robert T. Ironside (and have yet to see Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window) is that in film noir he overwhelmingly played villains. In fact, Raymond Burr played so many bad guys in film noir that it is notable when he actually played a good guy (such as Detective Sgt. Strake in 1948's Sleep, My Love ). What is more Raymond Burr didn't just play any old bad guys in film noirs, but often very bad guys, from the sociopathic gang leader Walt Radak in Desperate (1947) to the corrupt private eye MacDonald in Pitfall (1948) to narcotics smuggler Pete Ritchie in Borderline (1950). Below is a list of film noirs in which Raymond Burr appeared. I will not claim that it is complete, as Mr. Burr appeared in so many film noirs that it would be easy to miss a few.

Desperate (1947)
I Love Trouble (1948)
Sleep, My Love (1948)
Raw Deal (1948)
Pitfall (1948)
Walk a Crooked Mile (1948)
Red Light (1949)
Abandoned (1949)
Borderline (1950)
His Kind of Woman (1951)
FBI Girl (1951)
The Blue Gardenia (1953)
A Cry in the Night (1957)
Crime of Passion (1957)

While Raymond Burr largely made a career out of playing heavies in film noir, his co-star Barbara Hale (who played Perry's secretary Della Street) was a bona fide movie star, having played leads in films well before she starred on Perry Mason. In fact, she appeared in a variety of genres of film, from Westerns (West of the Pecos) to comedies (Lady Luck) to period pieces (Lorna Doone). Along the way she appeared in two film noirs, both from 1949. She appeared alongside her husband, Bill Williams, in the film noir The Clay Pigeon. In the film Mr. Williams played a former POW who awakes from a coma only to be told he is guilty of murder. In The Window Miss Hale played the mother of a boy (played by Bobby Driscoll) who witnesses a murder.

While Barbara Hale appeared in only two film noirs, like Raymond Burr, William Talman (who played District Attorney Hamilton Burger) appeared in several. And, like Raymond Burr, more often than not William Talman played a bad guy in film noir. In fact, he played one of the greatest villains in the history of film noir, psychopathic killer Emmett Myers in Ida Lupino's noir masterpiece The Hitch-Hiker (1953). Mr. Talman did play the occasional good guy in film noir, such as Police Officer Bob Johnson in The Racket (1951), but that was generally the exception to the rule. Below is a list of the film noirs in which William Talman appeared:

The Woman on Pier 13 (1949)
Armored Car Robbery (1950)
The Racket (1951)
The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
City That Never Sleeps (1953)
Crashout (1955)
Big House, U.S.A. (1955)

Like Raymond Burr and William Talman, Ray Collins (who played Lt. Arthur Tragg) also appeared in several film noirs. What is more, he would appear in one of them alongside his future Perry Mason co-star William Talman, The Racket (1951). Of course, Ray Collins had already had a long and distinguished career by the time he appeared on Perry Mason. In the Thirties he appeared in a number of the "Penrod" short subjects. He was also one of the original members of Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre. By the time of the film noir era, he had already appeared in such films as Citizen Kane (1942) and The Human Comedy (1943).  While Mr. Collins played the hard-nosed, but honest Lt. Tragg on Perry Mason, he sometimes played less than savoury characters in film noir. In Hideout (1949) his character Arthur Burdette hired petty thieves to steal a diamond necklace. In The Racket he played a crooked district attorney. In yet another film he played a criminal mastermind that can't be revealed without spoiling the plot (if you have seen the film, you probably know the one I am talking about). Below are a list of film noirs in which Ray Collins appeared:

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Crack-Up (1946)
A Double Life (1947)
Hideout (1949)
The Racket (1951)
Touch of Evil (1958)

In addition to the leads, many of the guest stars on Perry Mason, were also veterans of film noir. Steve Brodie, who appeared in such film noirs as Crossfire (1947), Out of the Past (1947), and Armored Car Robbery (1950), guest starred on three episodes. Elisha Cook Jr., a mainstay of film noir (he even appeared in what many to believe to be the first film noir, 1940's Stranger on the Third Floor), guest starred in two episodes. Audrey Totter, one of the queens of film noir, guest starred on the episode "The Case of the Reckless Rockhound" from 1964. Marie Windsor, another one of the queens of film noir, appeared in no less than four episodes. These weren't the only actors associated with film noir to guest star on Perry Mason by any stretch of the imagination.

Perry Mason could hardly be described as "télévision noire." The show departs too much from many elements of film noir. That having been said, it does have a lot in common with film noir through its roots in pulp fiction. Perry Mason also owes a lot to film noir in terms of much of its direction and cinematography. Of course, Perry Mason would have a very different cast if its leads had not been drawn from the ranks of film noir actors. While Perry Mason is not exactly télévision noire, it comes closer to film noir than many television series that have aired through the years.


Caftan Woman said...

An excellent rundown of the noir to be found or recalled while enjoying Perry Mason.

One episode from season 1 that has a genuine noir vibe is The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink. The cinematographer on the episode was Frank Redman, a vet of RKO, home of so many dandy film noir.

If one wanted, film-noir being in the eye of the beholder, we could add The Houston Story to Barbara Hale's side of the ledger.

Timothy said...

Interesting that you mention The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink, since it is the pilot episode of the series, shot in 1956. It is one of THE best episodes of the series, hands down, and it also formed the basis of another top episode, The Case of the Sausalito Sunrise.