FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE - Mystery Commentary by Mike Nevins.

    The first 19 episodes of the Perry Mason TV series (1957-66) came out on DVD last month.  In recent decades millions have seen this old series on WTBS, but every episode was cut to shreds to accommodate far more commercials than were the norm back in the Fifties.  These DVD copies are complete and re-mastered and lovely to look at.

    Whether the series stands up well after almost half a century is another question entirely.  All the early episodes were supposedly based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels but – as I’ve confirmed by rereading several of the books after watching their TV incarnations – it would be more accurate to describe most of them as using parts of Gardner’s plots and some of his characters in new and much simpler stories, completely lacking the breakneck pace and dynamism of the novels. 

    I’ve heard that Gardner, happening to be in the room when overweight Raymond Burr read for the part of District Attorney Hamilton Burger, jumped up and cried “That’s Mason!” – and that Burr lost more than 100 pounds before the cameras rolled.  But most of us who grew up on the dozens of Mason novels predating the TV series find it all but impossible to visualize Burr’s ponderous bureaucrat as the reckless lawyer-adventurer Gardner created. 

    For my money the finest episodes of the series are the first few, especially “The Case of The Nervous Accomplice” (October 5, 1957) and “The Case of the Sulky Girl” (October 19, 1957).  The former features a script by TV writing legend Stirling Silliphant and the latter climaxes far more dramatically than any other episode of the series – or than Gardner’s 1933 novel of the same name.  Both of these and a few other very early episodes are further distinguished by the haunting background music of a never-credited Bernard Herrmann. 

    I might think twice about picking up any additions to the package, but on the whole I’m glad I bought this first DVD release of one of the most successful TV detective series of all time.


    Of the detective-crime series that were on TV in the early 1950s when my parents bought their first set, the two I’d most like to see restored and on DVD like Perry Mason are a sort of matched pair. 

    Man Against Crime, starring Ralph Bellamy as PI Mike Barnett,  usually involved extended chases through signature locales of the New York City metro area like the subway and the Staten Island ferry and the Statue of Liberty.  Principal director Edward J. Montagne was basically a documentary film-maker without much in the way of visual flair, but he sure know how to choose evocative places to shoot in.

    Boston Blackie, with Kent Taylor in the title role, relied even more heavily on chase sequences through picturesque Los Angeles locations.  As chance would have it, the name of its first and foremost director kept popping up in the credits of almost every TV series kids of my generation were watching.  The Cisco Kid, The Lone Ranger, Ramar of the Jungle, Cowboy G-Men, Adventures of Kit Carson, Brave Eagle – Paul Landres (1912-2001) contributed to them all and usually directed their finest episodes.  I never imagined that almost half a century after I began watching all those series, plus of course Boston Blackie, I’d be in Paul’s home, taping with him, working on a book about him that fortunately came out a year before he died.

    For one of his best Blackie segments (“Roller Coaster Murder,” January 7, 1952) he took over a deserted amusement park and staged some fantastically exciting action sequences, some of them shot from the front of a runaway roller coaster so as to create an amazing 3-D effect.  As chance would have it, one of the Man Against Crime episodes (“Free Ride,” April 8, 1953) was also shot at an amusement park, this one in New Jersey across the Hudson from Mike Barnett’s home base, but that director was content to do the roller-coaster action in long shot and his segment isn’t in the same league with Paul Landres’ counterpart for Blackie. 

    Today the episodes of both series are like time machines, permitting the lucky few who find them to see what New York and LA looked like more than half a century ago.


    Of the TV crime-detective shows of my adolescence, the one I’d especially love to revisit on DVD is The Naked City, especially the 30-minute episodes of its first season.  These too were shot on location in the streets of New York and often culminate in a chase through an exotic location. 

    Perhaps my favorite is “The Bird Guard” (November 18, 1958), a perfect blend of emotion and violent action as James Franciscus as a young cop tries to save a murder witness who’s taken refuge in a remote lighthouse from the thugs who are out to shut her up.  The script was written by our old friend Stirling Silliphant and, though I didn’t know it back in 1958 when I first saw this episode on our tiny screen, the background music was lifted – legally since written for the same studio employer – from Leonard Bernstein’s score for ON THE WATERFRONT.
    I am lucky enough to have this episode on DVD.  The later 60-minute incarnation of Naked City I also watched regularly but found it slow and dull and mainly devoted to character sketches of the big city’s wistful little people.  Once in a while, however, an hour-long episode was as powerful as the best 30-minute segments.  I especially recommend “A Hole in the City” (January 25, 1961), in which the cops (including a young Ed Asner) trap a psychotic murderer (a young Robert Duvall) in an apartment house with hostages (including Sylvia Sidney).  You can find it in the Naked City anthology DVD at your favorite chain bookstore, and you’ll never regret having bought it.


    Naked City’s policemen were mush-hearted humanists next to Lee Marvin’s Lt. Frank Ballinger of Chicago’s M Squad, the definitive tough-cop series of the Eisenhower era, which was shot not in Chicago but on Hollywood’s back lots.  I recently discovered that several early episodes of the series were based on previously published short stories.  “Neighborhood Killer” (October 4, 1957) was scripted by ubiquitous Stirling Silliphant from William Holder’s short story (Argosy, August 1948).   “Face of Evil” (October 18, 1957) and “Street of Fear” (November 1, 1957) came respectively from stories of the same names by David Alexander (Manhunt, January 1957) and Thomas Walsh (Saturday Evening Post, March 30, 1957).  How many others of Lt. Ballinger’s cases were originally cracked in the print media by different cops is anyone’s guess.

      Other installments of this column can be found by going here.  


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                   Copyright © 2006 by Francis  M. Nevins.
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