Posted by: Catadromy | August 4, 2020

I Did It And I’m Glad

During the pandemic, I’ve begun watching a lot of old television. Most of the programming I usually watch is either off the air entirely or airing in reruns—most of which I’ve already seen, since these are shows I’ve already watched the first time around.

So, I’ve taken advantage of this horrible time to ‘rediscover’ some classics. Specifically, Columbo and Perry Mason. Not the Perry Mason that’s currently airing on HBO, but the classic television series from the ’50s and ’60s.

All the old familiar tropes are here. “Just one thing.” Columbo talking about his never-seen wife, but always referring to her only as ‘Mrs. Columbo.’ The raincoat, the ill-fitting clothes, the ancient Peugeot, the cigar, the sad-eyed, droopy-faced basset hound named Dog because Columbo couldn’t come up with a name, even though he asked for suggestions.

Columbo turned the police procedural on its head, by spending the first 30-45 minutes or so providing the set-up for the murder (it’s Lieutenant Columbo, homicide, after all) and showing us the actual killer. We get to watch as the murderer sets up what he or she believes to be the perfect crime, establishes an alibi, commits the crime and then covers any and all traces of their participation. Or so they think.

After watching several Columbos, it becomes possible to pinpoint the one fatal mistake the killer makes in the commission of the crime. Depending on how sympathetic the victim is, you hope Columbo won’t discover it or that the killer will realize what he’s (or she’s) done and manage to return to the scene of the crime and stage a surreptitious correction. But you will be wrong. Columbo, for all his dissembling and seemingly humble behavior, is one smart cookie. He is, most definitely, the sharpest knife in the drawer.

It’s fun to watch the net slowly closing around the killer, to watch as Columbo slowly circles around his victim—and to know that he has identified the guilty party almost immediately—and pulls the strings of the case tightly closed. From the beginning, when Columbo introduces himself to the killer, the viewer just knows he (or she) is going to get caught by the end of the show. All those little bits of evidence, the one crucial overlooked detail, the dissembling. The thrill in watching Columbo put all the pieces together; slowly, methodically, logically.

My only quibble is that at 2 hours, including commercials, the episodes are too long. They’re full of filler. The shows that clock in at 90 minutes, again including commercials, are much more tightly plotted and hold this viewer’s interest.

And now for Perry Mason. From the theme music that appears over the opening and closing credits to the spare black and white graphics to the dependability of the core cast—with one exception, more on that later—Perry Mason is like television comfort food. Perry never (well, almost never, and even when he loses, he ultimately wins) lost a case. Perry also had all the legal ethics of a junkyard dog. Side note: I was in court when the judge admonished the attorneys saying, ‘There will be no Perry Mason in my courtroom!’.  Where would we all be without legal shenanigans?

Raymond Burr was indelibly Perry Mason, with Barbara Hale as his secretary and amanuensis, Della Street. Della keeps Perry on focus, supplies him and his clients with all the coffee they can drink, takes notes, makes phone calls, supplies humor and sometimes acts as Mrs. Perry Mason, when it’s called for. William Hopper portrays Paul Drake, private detective extraordinaire. Paul seemingly has other clients. Seemingly. But drops whatever clients he does have for any assignments Perry has for him; cancels vacations and holiday plans if Perry calls him; Paul and Perry are frequently driving off to strange small towns in the far reaches of California to pursue leads or chartering planes to fly to Mexico or Las Vegas.

One thing we never see is anyone’s personal life. We have no idea if any of them are married (although Paul is quite the ladies’ man), have partners, children, parents, siblings, any home life at all. Rarely, we see Perry’s living room, but the shot is at a very tight angle.

On the other side, as it were, are Ray Collins as Lt. Tragg and William Talman as District Attorney Hamilton Burger. Imagine my surprise when, after weeks of watching, I learned that Tragg had a first name and that it wasn’t Lieutenant. It’s Arthur! Ray Collins is even billed as Lt. Tragg. He and Perry seem to have an avuncular relationship. Tragg invariably shows up, even before anyone knows a murder has happened. It’s like he has some sort of sixth sense about this stuff. He either pops up in Perry’s office as Perry is talking to his newest client or at the client’s home or place of business.

And now we come to Hamilton Burger, District Attorney of Los Angeles County, played by William Talman. Oddly enough, D.A. Burger seems to show up all over California, well away from Los Angeles county. I’m not certain how he manages to establish jurisdiction over cases so far away from home, only to lose, yet again, to Perry Mason. But he does lose, every damn time.

Sometime during Season Three, I noticed Hamilton Burger was missing from the prosecution table. There were several episodes with Perry and crew on the road, trying cases with small town D.A.s and judges wearing business suits, rather than robes, and when finally back in the Los Angeles courthouse…no Burger. William Talman had disappeared from the credits. Hmm, I sez. Must check this out.

It turns out that William Talman was fired from the show for parts of Seasons Three and Four for violating the morals clause in his contract with CBS. He was caught at a party in a private home that was raided for suspected marijuana use and was one of several guests who were either nude or semi-nude. Keep in mind this was 1960.

Hamilton Burger was a dirty stay out!

Talman was rehired after a massive letter-writing campaign by the viewers and at Raymond Burr’s insistence.

Even after watching all these episodes (in the middle of Season 4 now), I can’t figure out Tragg’s and Perry’s relationship. Tragg always comes in, all starchy and authoritarian, but he seems to have a twinkle in his eye, like ‘you know I’m only acting like this because it’s expected of me and we’re supposed to be adversaries, right?’

There are any number of scenes with Perry, Della, Paul, and Ham yukking it up after the conclusion of a case and making jokes about who is going to get stuck with the check for dinner.

But, boy oh boy, do they go at it in the courtroom. Snarling and shenanigans. My two favorite plot developments.


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