Tag: Perry Mason

Book Review: The Court of Last Resort

The Court of Last Resort tells the story of how Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner established a team of experts who investigated cases of people sent to prison where evidence indicates justice wasn’t done and some of the cases where their investigations helped correct the injustice.

The story begins after Gardner helped to address the case of a wrongful conviction in California. He then formed his team of men who didn’t need either fame or money and the project began as a regular column in the magazine Argosy. 

The secret of the Court of Last Resort’s success was that while the column and the organization of experts were known as the Court of Last Resort, Gardner believed the real court was the average citizen. Through the articles in Argosy, pressure was brought to bare on politicians and parole boards to take a look at the case of individuals that society had forgotten.

The first 70% of the book is dedicated to examining the various cases the court took on, but it’s more than just a rehearsal of cases. Gardner goes into some detail on the challenges this group faced, ranging from the rather mundane (how to make this work in a magazine), to how and why they faced opposition and occasionally  support from local officials.

Gardner is a skilled writer and manages to keep a sensible tone, and a great ability to empathize with his subjects including those who weren’t fans of the Court of Last Resort, and see things from his perspective. He avoids broad-brush allegations of corruption or prejudice, only calling those out when the evidence warrants it. Otherwise to help the readers understand why things go wrong due to challenges faced by everyone from the cops on the beat to prosecutors and prison wardens. He eschewed turning human beings to caricatures.

The book then takes a turn. As Gardner has discussed different problems in criminal law, he turns to prescribing solutions for the last thirty percent of the book. To be fair, he remains honest, even-handed, and examines issues from a variety of perspectives. The problem for modern readers is that this portion of the book is a sixty-eight year-old public policy treatise.

Unless you’re an expert on the minutiae of modern criminal procedure, it can be hard to figure out which, if any, of Gardner’s proposals were ever implemented. Several, I knew for sure, haven’t been. If you think he makes a good case for a particular reform, you may think America made a mistake by not following his advice. While some of his ideas are interesting, I wasn’t expecting this to turn into a policy reform book, so I could probably have done without that section.

Still, the cases that are chronicled are pretty interesting and Gardner is an entertaining writer to read. It’s also fun to learn of the Perry Mason writer’s real passion for justice. Overall, this may be a book you’ll enjoy.if you found the Court of Last Resort TV interesting or you’re a fan of Gardner or of the history of real-life efforts to clear the wrongfully convicted.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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The Top Ten Perry Mason TV Movies, Part Three

Previous: Part Two and Part One

3) Perry Mason and the Case of the Lady in the Lake (1988)

Okay, it’s not by Raymond Chandler but for a Perry Mason film, this one has got some nice twists. First of all, Perry’s Client is an ex-tennis player who is accused of killing his rich heiress wife played by none other than David Hasselhoff.

This is one of Perry’s more complex cases. It’s not just a matter of this current murder, but a twenty year old kidnapping plays a big role as well. The movie was the last for Paul Drake, Jr. (William Katt) and Michael Reston (David Ogden Stiers) and its certainly a memorable one with a big twist on the usual Mason ending.

2) Perry Mason and the Case of the Sinister Spirit (1987)

A horror writer invites famous guest to a hotel he owns after having written a novel where he obviously based characters on the guests and portrayed in an unflattering way. He calls them there ostensibly to sue for peace, but instead pulls a series of cruel practical jokes on them that bring up painful memories. For Publisher Jordan White (Robert Stack) this includes a reminder of the death of Jordan’s son in a swimming pool.

It surprises no one when the writer turns up murdered, thrown from the top of the Hotel and Perry’s hired by White to defend him. Paul Drake, Jr. is investigating. A witness who heard the dead man’s last word and saw him fall to his death is seemingly beset by supernatural occurrences, apparently being haunted. In what amounts to one of the most inexplicable scenes in all the movies, Perry impeaches the poor woman’s testimony. Decency aside, there was no real reason for this and it made Drake’s job harder.

However, the solution to the mystery, the story’s dramatic conclusion, and a spell-binding performance by Dwight Schultz make up for these little wrinkles.

1) Perry Mason and the Case of the Desperate Deception (1990)

Perry Mason takes on Nazi War Criminals. This is the basic plot of the story. His client his young Marine attached to the U.S. Embassy in Paris. The young officer is searching for the concentration guard that devastated his family during the Holacaust. He is led to believe he found the ex-Nazi at a health club. However, when the ex-Nazi is killed, suspicion points to the young officer who faces Court Martial.

Perry Mason heads to Paris to head up the defense. He and Ken Malansky find intrigue around every corner. Mason finds ex-Nazis, traitors, and Nazi hunters roaming Paris. Perry has to sort through more than four decades of deception to find the truth, not only to acquit his client but to bring long overdue justice to the perpetrators of heinous war crimes. A goal worthy of one Perry Mason’s top cases.

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The Top Ten Perry Mason TV Movies, Part Two

Continued from Part One

6) Perry Mason and the Case of the Avenging Ace (1988): Prior to the first movie, Perry Mason had been elevated to appellate court judge. In this film, he revisits a case he’d heard on appeal and declined the Defendant’s appeal because the trial was fear. But when the convicted murdered (an Air Force officer) has a new witness come forward, Mason steps in to help clear the man.

This case is far more complicated than that.  The witness changes his testimony at the last minute so it no longer helps the convicted man and Perry’s client apparently escapes, and is set up to take the fall when the wavering witness is murdered. This movie takes Perry Mason to a different: A lot more action, suspense, and intrigue than usual. In addition to this, the Producers take full advantage of the Colorado location to produce some great scenic shots.

5) Perry Mason and the Case of the Fatal Fashion (1991) : Perry is in New York and this time he defends a long time friend (Diane Muldaur) of Della’s who is accused of killing the editor of a rival fashion magazine.

This episode has a lot going for it. Ken Malansky finds himself dealing with the mob when a relative of the head of the family is killed before he can reveal vital information to Perry.  He finds a mob tough guy assigned to “help” him investigate, but how far can Malansky trust him. This works out to a lot of excitement in New York City.

This movie also features a rare prosecutorial highlight with the appearance of Scott Baio in his first post-Charles in Charge appearance as Assistant DA Peter Whelen. Baio makes a solid competitor for Mason as the young upstart New York D.A. You knew he wasn’t going to win, but he made it interesting for a while.

The episode ends with an emotional punch and a murderer you’d never guess.

4) Perry Mason and the Case of the Lost Love (1987):

Perry’s old flame  (Jean Simmons) is being appointed to a vacant United States Senate seat, but it’s all put at risk when her husband is accused of murdering a man who knew a secret that could have destroyed her political career.

The chemistry between Simmons and Raymond Burr is incredible. The mystery is well-plotted and we’re left with a powerful and very surprising ending as Mason faces one of his most unpleasant tasks.

Continued…Next Week

To be Continued…Next Week

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The Top 10 Perry Mason TV Movies, Part One

Having recently watched all 26 of the 1980s-90s Perry Mason Revival movies, I’ve decided to make a list of the best of them.

While these movies are not the equals of the original series, Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale’s talents still made the films worthwhile and entertaining through each of the 26 installments.

Without any further adieu, here’s my top 10 list:

10) Perry Mason and the Case of the Reckless Romeo (1992)

Geraldo Rivera is perfectly cast as a trashy TV host who releases a memoir detailing his past escapades and dishing dirt on all of his lovers. It’s no surprise when he’s killed and suspects abound.

The mystery takes several turns with some great misdirection when Ken Malansky stumbles into two suspects who are in the witness protection program, but everything wraps up quite nicely.

 9) Perry Mason and the Case of the Maligned Mobster (1991)

Perry usually doesn’t take the case of hardcore criminals, but finds himself defending reformed mobster Johnny Sorento (Michael Nader) who has apparently settled down in legitimate business. There are quite a few red herring in this one that throw the viewer off the truth, but the ending  has an incredible twist as the outcome can’t be exactly what Perry’s client was hoping for.

 8) Perry Mason and the Case of the Ruthless Reporter (1991)

The movie begins with Perry giving an interview with a news co-anchor. The news anchor is on a power trip and kills the story, prompting an angry confrontation with his co-anchor. When the anchor turns up dead and the co-anchor is charged, Perry leads in the defense.

If there’s one theme that does recur in these movies, it’s talented people who become the top dog and step on everyone else around them. It’s rarely more plainly shown than in this installment.

This telefilm also includes more than your average bit of action as Ken Malansky has to go to more extreme measures than usual to corral a key witness.

 7) Perry Mason and the Case of the Lethal Lesson (1989)

Speaking of Ken Malansky, The Lethal Lesson was where his involvement with Mason began. In this episode, he ends up Mason’s client after he’s accused of murdering a fellow law school student.

This particular installment has a fun love triangle between Ken’s girlfriend (Karen Kopins) and his an ex-girlfriend (Alexandra Paul) who is telling everyone that she’s Ken’s intended. For the first half of the movie you think Paul’s character is bonkers, but by the end of the film you’re given a surprise whammy in the payoff.

The story is solid with the usual tension between Perry’s friendships and his duty to his clinets. But the introduction of Malansky makes this a fascinating study. With Malansky on-board, the series was on its way to capturing some real magic in the chemistry between the cast and that alone makes this a worthwhile film.

To be Continued…Next Week

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Perry Mason’s Final TV Cases

With the impending departure of Starz programming including the 1980s and 1990s Perry Mason Telefilms, I’ve been watching all 26 of these last films with the aging Raymond Burr. My thoughts on the first 9 films (i.e. the Paul Drake, Jr. era) are here.

After the 1988  Movie, “The Lady in the Lake,” William Katt departed the cast and Paul Drake, Jr. was replaced by lawyer Ken Malansky, played by William Moses. The Ken Malansky era was the one I grew up watching, but Malansky wasn’t all these other films had to offer.

Ken MalanskyKen Malansky: The change from Drake to Malansky seemed to recapture some of the old Perry Mason Magic. The way that Perry Mason had worked in the 1950s was in establishing a family atmosphere on the team between Perry, Della, and Paul Drake. With Raymond Burr and Della Street much older, they needed a dutiful son-type rather than a brother-type as the original Paul Drake had been  For me, Ken Malansky gelled better in that capacity.  This, despite the fact that Katt was actually Barbara Hale’s real life son.

Unlike Drake, Malansky wasn’t a detective. He was a fully licensed member of the bar (after his first appearance when he was a law student accused of murder) who did the work of a private investigator. While he struggled with cases, and finding his man he was far more competent than Drake, Jr.

It did take them a while to get the Malansky character just right. The first three movies with Malansky in 1989 featured Alexandra Paul as his eccentric on-again/off-again fiancee’. They took the quirky character and tried to make her into a detective in training. It didn’t work and by the next season she’d disappeared into the memory hole that had swallowed TV characters such as Chuck Cunningham. From then on, Malansky was paired with a different (usually female) sidekick each movie, often against his will.

Over the course of the seventeen films, Moses grew increasingly comfortable in the role and his role in Perry’s office grew. In early episodes, Perry declined to have the green young attorney as co-counsel, but later he was introduced as Perry’s associate and in one of the final movies as his partner.

Overall, the family dynamic had gelled very well by the time the last few Mason films would air.

Lt. Brock: The latter films featured a lot more of James McEachin as Lieutenant Brock. McEachin had appeared in the second Perry Mason film as Sergeant Brock in The Case of the Notorious Nun. McEachin returned in another role, In the Case of the Scandalous Scoundrel in 1987, before finding his way back for 13 more episodes as Sergeant and later Lieutenant Brock including 12 of the Malansky era Masons.  McEachin had a folksy and convicing manner that almost sold you on whatever slim circumstantial case he’d gotten against Perry’s clients. As I watched a lot of these movies in a row, one thing that did begin unbelievable is his extreme confidence that there was just no way, Perry Mason was going to get his client out of this one. “Unlike the last eleven times I said this, Mr. Mason, there’s no way your client will ever be acquitted.”

Yeah, right. See you in court.

The Prosecutors: After the departure of David Ogden Stiers in 1988, the prosecution table became a smorgasboard of forgettable performances. The prosecution was so inconsequential that in one episode, the writers didn’t bother to name her, having the judge address her only as, “Madam prosecutor.”

One exception to this was, “Perry Mason and the Case of the Fatal Fashion” which featured Scott Baio as the opposing counsel. This was actually Baio’s first role since the end of Charles in Charge and he acquitted himself well as a hotshot young attorney who admires Perry Mason and dreams of besting the great man in court.  While he doesn’t end up doing it, he probably came closer than anyone else, and made a nice bright spot in these bleak catalog of unworthy prosecutors.

A Little Padding: Some of the Perry Mason films came off as padded to fit timeslots. Perhaps, the worst example of this is the obligatory scene where the prosecutor asks the arresting officer about finding the murder weapon. When Mason cross-examines, this makes sense. When he says, “No questions,” as he does a few times, it seems like a waste of the audience’s time as it reveals no new information.

Exit Raymond Burr: Of course, these are minor points. Whatever flaws or logical inconsistencies can be found in Perry Mason’s TV movies, over the course of 26 films, the highlight is still the opportunity to see Raymond Burr in his most memorable role just one more time. While some other parts of the show disappointed in terms of acting, writing, or pacing, Burr remained the consumate professional and delivered solid performances to the end, including his last performance before his 1993 deat in, “Perry Mason and the Case of the Killer Kiss.” Lawyers had long been a joke and despised, but Burr succeeded in creating an attorney who was beloved for his pursit of justice.

Burr’s death left the network on the hook to produce 4 new Perry Mason films, but without the definitive Perry Mason. Rather than trying to cast another actor as Mason, the Network opted to bring in Paul Sorvino and then Hal Holbrooke as friends of Perry filling in. I may watch those films before they disappear from Netflix. I barely remember them from when they aired. The main thing I remember about Sorvino and Holbrooke is that they were no Raymond Burr.

Then again who was?

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