It must have been about 10 years ago – maybe more – that BBC One showed all the 80s/90s Perry Mason at lunchtime after Neighbours. For a university student, this an afternoon’s entertainment sorted.
Since then though, they haven’t seen the light of day on terrestrial TV. Instead, whether it be the highs of Diagnosis Murder to the very low lows of Pettrocelli, almost everything else has been shown instead. And ITV tends to just show Columbo (and good for them, because Columbo is the best of the genre by a country mile).
But no Perry Mason.
You can’t even buy it on DVD – and believe me, I tried to get it as a Christmas present for my mum.
So it was with a modicum of excitement that I stumbled upon a full length Perry Mason TV Movie – The Case of the Glass Coffin – on Movies For Men of all channels.
“Brilliant”, I thought “All the Perry Masons are good as far as I remember”.
I started to write out the plot of this in fine detail, but then I thought ‘Why bother?’. After all, Perry Mason scripts are mostly very similar.
This is how it goes…
- There’s about 15 minutes of set up work where someone manages to piss off a fair amount of people to the extent where they end up murdered (This one is about a magician’s assistant who is a total bitch and gets offed during the act)
- One suspect stands out more than others and is charged with the murder by the upstanding but weary homicide detective, Lt. Brock
- The person charged just so happens to be a friend of either Perry Mason, his secretary Della Street or his underling/hired muscle/ladies man Ken Malansky, and so Mason decides to take up the case (As it happens, Mason was at the show as a guest of his friend – the magician – who ends up getting charged)
Of course, this is where the prosecution and police should just say ‘Oh for fuck’s sake. He’s obviously innocent so we’ll let him off’. But they don’t. So the next hour of so involves…
- Mason visiting various other suspects wearing a big black coat and intimidating them with a look. Oh, he knows they might have done it, and they know he knows that they know he knows. And he knows it too.
- Malansky gets a ‘Sassy Girl/Reporter/Private Investigator’ to go around with and inevitably sleep with off camera towards the end of the episode. He’s also involved in various unnecessary punch-ups as people stand in his way of getting to the truth (in this episode he haa to go out of the city to a small hick town in the backwoods of Colorado, where the same hired goons try to kill him 5 times, and chase him around in a pick-up truck, complete with chase music played on a banjo)
- Della Street flirts with Mason a bit and shows herself to be the most efficient Secretary in the world (in this episode she had to phone round 258 opticians to try and find if any members of the show got contact lenses that day, and she manages it in a few hours)
- With numerous potential suspects in the mix, and the trial not going too well, the team finds some unknown piece of evidence that will win them the case.
- Mason wins the case, not with concrete proof, but rather by cornering some weak-willed sod on that stand and just shouting “You DID do it, didn’t you. Don’t look at anyone else, look at me! It was you!” in a progressively more angry tone until the real killer buckles under the pressure and goes “Yes…yes it was me, and this is how and why I did it”. Usually there’s no real evidence to this, but Mason just scares them into admitting it.
- Wearily, the prosecution lawyer (and it’s usually the same guy every episode) accepts he’s lost the case and harmed his career even further.
- There’s a Back At The Ranch-house scene to finish
In this episode, it turned out that the girl who was killed had fled her home town and changed her identity having committed a hit and run murder a few years back. And would you believe
it, the girl whose mother she had killed that night was one of the other assistants to the magician. Of all the coincidences…
Also, this episode finishes with perhaps the most distasteful thing I’ve ever seen. The Magician and his wife can’t have children, so at the end, Mason decides to gift them two of the saddest looking, wheelchair-bound disabled children you’re ever likely to see. As he put it himself, he had the magician’s wife ‘pick them out’ to take home, like they came from a disabled children shop. I was actually taken aback by how deplorable the whole thing was.
Thoughts – The Good (Not Much)
Perry Mason has a cool theme tune.
Raymond Burr is always worthy of a cheer.
But that’s it.
The Bad – The Acting, The Direction and The Writing
Where do I start…
Well, let’s start with the acting. It is pitiful – almost painfully bad.
Some people have the idea that American TV shows are generally more polished than their UK counterparts, but TV really only got the big-budget treatment across the pond in the last 10-15 years. Can you think of ten quality TV shows to come out of American in 1991? Probably not. And even if you can, how do they compare to the output today? You’d likely see the acting and grimace.
From start to finish the acting in this is poor. People inexcusably stumble over their lines and deliver them in such a hammy and ‘am-dram’ way. They also leave pauses to allow them to pout to the camera.
Even Raymond Burr, who was a well respected actor and is head and shoulders above everyone else in the episode, often shows up badly. There’s just so much dead time watching him stare at people in-between lines.
Of course, it’s not helped by the writing or the direction either. They most likely cause the bad acting.
Surely the director would say ‘Sorry Ray love, can we go again’ and try and speed things up a little bit. But no.
The writing calls for cartoon hillbillies in old fashioned saloons, and lines like “You’re in the wrong part of town, partner”, “What’ll it be, stranger” or – when speaking to the local drunk who they’ve sobered up for questioning – “How are you feeling?” “Not good…I’m sober dag-nabbit”. Cringeworthy. Who commissioned this as acceptable?
Worst of the lot – the bit that combined bad writing, direction and acting – was when Malansky’s Woman of the Week says “Oh NO. (pause) They are CHASING us. (pause). What are we going TO DO!!!” I think I rewound that three or four times just to take in how bad it was.
Also, the pacing is all wrong as well.
Does anyone really want to see Ken Malansky get into a fight with the same people, five different times? No. Don’t be absurd. And yet that’s what happens. Presumably Malansky is there to offer female viewers a bit of a thrill, especially when he has one of his fights wearing only boxer shorts, but that’s no excuse.
The whole thing could be made a lot better if it was done in a faster pace and maybe in 50 minutes rather than 120 (including breaks). They would have cut down on so much of the crap and the stalling and perhaps made the whole thing more bearable.
The ‘So Bad It’s Actually Good’ – Plot Resolution
As I say above, every Perry Mason show ends up the same way. He doesn’t appear to have anything to go on when he decides who he’s going to bully into accepting a lethal injection, but once he’s picked his prey, they are for it.
In this episode having interviewed lots of people without it going anywhere, there’s a quick scene with them watching a video of the Magic Show where the murder happened and Mason proclaiming “Well, looks like we’ve got our killer” making almost everything that came before it redundant.
So he calls the girl up to the stand and shouts at her.
And Mason is an intimidating guy. He’s a big old hoss of a man who is almost as wide as he is tall. If he’s shouting at you with his steely gaze then most people would probably admit to the murder just to get the nasty man to stop. Yes, what Mason says to them does almost mean they have no recourse but to admit it, but the question is how he got there?
It’s a bit like someone being handed a mathetical problem to solve and providing the correct answer, but showing no evidence of any work they did to get there.
Stupid, but amusing.
Should You Ever Watch a Perry Mas0n TV Movie?
If you ever stumble across one of these on TV, the most entertained you’ll be is in the last 15 minutes. That is where all the action is, that’s where the unintentional humour is, and that’s where you get to see Mason shouting people into submission.
Beyond that, the pacing of the story is painfully slow, with about 1hr 15mins of killing time, usually with Ken Malansky getting into fights.
I would say these shows are nowhere near as good as I remember. In fact, they are pretty ropey overall. In the 10 or so years since I watched them, American TV has come on leaps and bounds, and there are also a load of other shows of a similar genre that are better.
There’s a reason why these are shown on Movies for Men and not BBC1.
My advice – watch Columbo instead.