Perry Mason, the HBO series or How I Learned to Better Appreciate the “Perry Mason moment” in classic film

As a child of the 70’s & 80’s, I never watched the original Perry Mason television series but, thanks to my parents having been fans of the show and having a grandfather who was an attorney, I certainly knew what a “Perry Mason moment” was in a courtroom. If you don’t know what that means, then you clearly have not watched enough courtroom shows or movies.

When I first saw the trailer for the Perry Mason series before its debut in 2020, I was very intrigued. Not necessarily by the name Perry Mason but rather the setting of the series, 1930’s Los Angeles with its amazing art deco décor and buildings which harken back to an era many film lovers call the “Golden Age” of Hollywood. It was simply gorgeous to look at and had me hooked before I even knew the storyline. Of course, I am also a sucker of two things this series already had going for it, first, courtroom drama and mystery and, second, a great origin story based on characters written by novelist Erle Stanley Gardner.

The first season of the series, which debuted in the ultra-binging early days of the COVID pandemic, starred Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason, Juliet Rylance as Della Street, Shea Wingham as Pete Strickland, and Chris Chalk as Paul Drake. They create the core of characters for both the first and second seasons of the show and they are all incredibly talented actors. Some of those names, you will most likely recognize and some of them might be new to you. New or old, they are all intriguing and give riveting performances in their roles.

In addition, the first season also featured John Lithgow, Lili Taylor, Stephen Root, and Robert Patrick in supporting roles. Together, they work to tell the origin story of Perry Mason, a man who, in the beginning is living hand-to-mouth in 1930’s LA as a private investigator before his later days as a famed defense attorney who always seems to have that case winning, dramatic, “gotcha” moment in the courtroom (aka the ”Perry Mason moment” I spoke of earlier).

This series varies drastically from the original which starred Raymond Burr in the title role. It is a much darker with the tones of any first-rate film noir and reflects a much more modern take on the social issues and character complexities including issues of race, sexual orientation and alcoholism. Although, I never watched a single episode of the original series which aired from 1957 – 1966, consisting of 271 episodes, I am pretty certain that Della Street was not a lesbian, Paul Drake was not an African-American struggling with racism in both his profession and community, or that there as much of a storyline regarding the PTSD which plagues Perry Mason after having served in World War II and his use of alcohol to manage its effects on his life. Those changes, along with a superbly written “who done it” storyline brings this classic character into a more modern era even though it is set in the 1930’s when many of those topics were nothing short of taboo.

Raymond Burr as the title character in the original Perry Mason television series on CBS which aired from 1957-1966.

Let me just, for a moment, mention the stunning cinematography, production design, art direction, costume design, and hair & make-up artists. I absolutely love period pieces and I would certainly consider this a period drama. Corsets and extravagant wigs, ala Bridgerton, might not be involved but this is certainly a by-gone era and it has been flawlessly recreated by the stellar production teams. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, without even knowing the details of the story that was going to be told, the trailer had my attention because it was simply stunning to look at, every detail painstakingly matched to the era. In fact, the production design and cinematography were both nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards in 2021.

Matthew Rhys (left) as Perry Mason and Shea Wingham (right) as Pete Strickland in the HBO series Perry Mason

As if that wasn’t enough, the writing is superb, with series creators Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones penning a few of the episodes, and produced by HBO and Team Downey. In case you aren’t aware, Team Downey is a production company founded by Robert Downey Jr. and his wife, Susan Downey.

Season 1 of Perry Mason was nothing short of a triumph and Season 2 has only recently begun on HBO. So far, the second season has been equally beautiful to look at and well-written even though, as often happens, some members of the original production team from season one having gone on to different projects. I cannot recommend this series enough – especially if you are a noir fan, enjoy watching actors at the top of their game, and are crazy about a good mystery.

What I discovered, while watching Perry Mason, is that my love of mystery films runs deep. I always find myself wanting to go back and re-watch classic films with their own “Perry Mason moment” in them and, in doing so, realized that those a-ha, courtroom moments long cited as being introduced by Perry Mason have actually been around a lot longer than that. So, here are some of my, personal, favorite films which are categorized as crime or courtroom drama/noir/mystery and which Perry Mason has inspired me to go back and re-watch again.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Humphrey Bogart (left), Peter Lorre (center left), Mary Astor (center right) and Sydney Greenstreet (right) star in John Huston’s classic noir masterpiece The Maltese Falcon

As Sam Spade, Humphrey Bogart solidified his place in film history and as the of the kings of all thing’s noir. His classic line from this film, “The stuff that dreams are made of”, was, in 2005, voted the #14 movie quote by AFI and is as synonymous with this film as Bogart is with the genre of film noir. In fact, for Bogart considered his experience making this film to be one of the best of his career. He stated, “It was practically a masterpiece. I don’t have many things I’m proud of but that’s one.” This comes from the man who starred in Casablanca!

Written and directed by John Huston and with a strong supporting cast including Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Glady George as Iva Archer, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Ward Bond as Detective Tom Polhaus, Sydney Greenstreet, in his film debut, as Kasper Gutman, and an uncredited appearance by the director’s already famous father, Walter Huston.

The film tells the story of San Francisco private detective, Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart, as he takes on a case involving an interesting array of characters and their quest for a priceless statuette, The Maltese Falcon, with a few murders, a lot of intrigue, and a fair bit of lying thrown in to make one of the most iconic films in history. Based upon the novel written by Dashiell Hammett, and with the screenplay written by John Huston, in his directorial debut, Warner Brothers green-lit the film with a $300,000 budget which, in the end, wrapped 2 days ahead of schedule and $54,000 under budget. The film went on to be nominated for 3 Academy Awards in 1942, although it failed to win in any of its nominated categories which included:

Sydney Greenstreet presented quite a challenge for both the costume and prop departments on this film. The 60-year-old weighed in at 357 pounds at the time and, as a result, the studio had to specially build his entire wardrobe for his role in the film. In addition, a chair used by the actor in a scene with Sam Spade also had to be specially made for him as well because the standard chairs were neither wide enough for him nor strong enough to support his weight. Bogart, on the other hand, had to supply his own wardrobe which was common practice at Warner Brothers back then as a way for the studio to save money.

George Raft was originally cast as Sam Spade but, according to author John McCarty, author of The Films of John Huston, Raft decided against doing the film because he didn’t want to put his hands in the career of a first-time director. Can you say, major error in judgement?! Bowing out of this film, along with High Sierra, another role picked up by Bogart, George Raft essentially ensured Bogart’s rise to the status of an eternal film legend.

As for the statuette itself, it is also a thing of legend in Hollywood to this day. It is believed that the total cost of designing, casting, and painting of all the Maltese Falcons used in the films cost less than $700. Further, it is reported that of the 8 Maltese Falcons used for the film, 3 of them remain in existence, individually valued at millions of dollars apiece. One of the iconic statuettes is owned by Academy Award wining actor Leonardo DiCaprio and makes a cameo appearance in his film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood briefly shares the screen with the famous “black bird” (aka Maltese Falcon) designed by Fred Sexton for the iconic film of the same name.

The mysterious lore of The Maltese Falcon drives the story, characters and plot of this classic film and the equally perplexing lore of the Maltese Falcon, the prop, keeps both movie-lovers and fans of Hollywood legend engaged in the enigma behind the film to this day.

If you are interested in more of the lore about what many consider to be the most valuable movie prop, check out this article from Vanity Fair from 2016: The Mystery of the Maltese Falcon, One of the Most Valuable Move Props in History

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Patricia Collinge (left), Teresa Wright (center left), Joseph Cotten (center left), Henry Travers (center), Charles Bates (center right), and Edna May Wonacott (right) star in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Alfred Hitchcock is widely regarded as not only the “Master of Suspense” but also one of the most influential individuals in film history. During his career, which spanned 6 decades, he directed over 50 feature films as well as many television projects including his self-titled hit series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents which ran from 1955-1962. With a resume like that and being considered a guru of all thing’s suspense, it should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his work that two of his films have made my list.

The first one is the film noir, thriller Shadow of a Doubt starring Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotton and Macdonald Carey. This film tells the story of a normal California family whose life is upended by a mysterious and sudden visit from a well-traveled favorite uncle, Charlie Oakley played to perfection by Joseph Cotten. Uncle Charlie is warmly welcomed by his family including his favorite niece and namesake, Charlotte “Charlie” Newton played by Teresa Wright, his older sister, Emma Newton played by Patricia Collinge, his brother-in-law, Jospeh Newton played by the incomparable Henry Travers, his young nephew, Roger Newton played by Charles Bates, and his youngest niece, Ann Newton played by Edna May Wonacott who caught the eye of director Alfred Hitchcock while he was scouting exterior locations for the film in her hometown of Santa Rosa, California.

The screenplay, written by playwright Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson and Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, was loosely based on a serial killer named Earle Nelson, known as “The Gorilla Man”, who is considered to be the first known serial sex murderer of the twentieth century. Nelson was born in San Francisco, California in May 1897 and was raised by his devoutly Pentecostal grandmother. As a child, he began exhibiting bizarre behavior which was only made worse after he sustained severe head injuries at the age of 10 in a bicycle accident. In the film, Shadow of a Doubt, there is a reference to this type of incident and injury in the life of Uncle Charlie.

Mugshot of Earle Nelson in 1927. Nelson was used a basis for the character of Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt.

Hitchcock often stated that Shadow of a Doubt was his favorite movie, specifically because he loved the idea of bringing “menace to an otherwise idyllic small town”. In fact, Teresa Wright agreed to accept the part of Charlotte immediately after hearing Hitchcock describe the plot to her in a meeting, without ever having read the script. Later, in an interview in 1959, Teresa Wright went on to say that Shadow of a Doubt was her favorite film putting her in good company with Hitchcock himself.

In addition to the amazing cast which made up the Newton family, there were a number of other notable cast members including Macdonald Carey as FBI agent Jack Graham, Wallace Ford as FBI agent Fred Saunders, and Hume Cronyn, in his theatrical movie debut, as neighbor and family friend Herbie Hawkins.

Although today, I cannot image this film with any other actors, Alfred Hitchcock did have some others in mind when he initially set out to cast Shadow of a Doubt. Hitchcock considered Cary Grant for the role of Uncle Charlie and later wanted William Powell to play the but MGM refused to loan him out, ultimately leading to Jospeh Cotton being cast in the role. Additionally, Hitchcock wanted either Joan Fontaine or Olivia de Havilland for the role of Young Charlie; however, they were both unavailable and Teresa Wright was selected. I don’t know about you but I think the perfect actors were cast in the end.

Considered a box-office failure at the time of its release, it had gone on to be considered one of the greatest films ever made having been added to the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” in 1991, included among the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of the 400 movies nominated for the Top 100 Greatest American Movies, and making the list of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” edited by Steven Schneider and Ian Haydn Smith.

When thinking about what I consider to be the “Perry Mason moment” in this film, there are a few that come to mind. In case anyone reading this post has yet to see the film, I don’t want to put any spoilers here to ruin the experience of watching it for the first time and discovering those moments for yourself but, in my opinion, they are some of the best “ah-ha” moments on film.

Rear Window (1954)

Thelma Ritter (left) as Stella, Grace Kelly (center) as Lisa Fremont, and James Stewart as L.B. Jefferies in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954)

Alfred Hitchcock, James Stewart, Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter. You put those 4 names together and I don’t care in the least what they are doing but you can bet that I am going to watch it. Lucky for me, and every other film lover, when they did come together the result was the mystery/thriller Rear Window.

Amazingly, this film, along with four others of the same era, were unavailable for 3 decades as a result of Alfred Hitchcock having purchased back the rights and having left them as part of his daughter’s inheritance. Known as the “Five Lost Hitchcocks” they were eventually re-released in theaters again in the mid-1980’s; however, prior to the official re-released, ABC televised Rear Window once in 1971 while not having the rights to broadcast the film. The other “Lost Hitchcocks” were Rope (1948), The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and Vertigo (1958). I cannot image a world without these films but back to the topic at hand.

The film is based on an original story by Cornell Woolrich and centers around professional photographer L.B. Jefferies, played by James Stewart, who, after suffering a broken leg as the result of an accident while on a photo shoot, is confined to a wheelchair and his Greenwich Village apartment during a hot summer in New York City. Along with his visiting nurse Stella, played consummately by Thelma Ritter (who makes every movie moment better with her presence) and his girlfriend, Lisa Fremont, played exquisitely by Grace Kelly, they begin to suspect one of Jefferies neighbors of murder.

As the story unfolds, you also meet many other residents who share Jefferies courtyard, including Raymond Burr (Perry Mason himself) as Lars Thorwald, Ross Bagdasarian as the Songwriter, Judith Evelyn as Miss Lonelyhearts, and Georgine Darcy as Miss Torso. Wendell Cory also co-stars as Tom Doyle, the police investigator and friend of Jefferies who, despite his doubts and efforts to dissuade Jefferies, Stella and Lisa that they have witnessed a murder, becomes entangled in the amateur detective’s voyeuristic activities.

Shot entirely on one set which required two months to construct, Hitchcock had the soundstage floor removed so that the courtyard area could be built in a storage space in the soundstage. This also allowed Jefferies’ apartment to appear to be on the second floor even though it was actually on street level. The set included thirty-one apartments, twelve of which were fully furnished. At that time, it was the largest indoor set ever constructed for a film in Paramount’s history. Alfred Hitchcock only worked in L.B. Jefferies apartment and directed actors in other portion of the set via radio by utilizing flesh-colored earpieces.

Courtyard set from Rear Window (1954)

As for lighting, the set had four lighting set-ups at the ready to reflect the light at different times of day. It has been reported that one thousand huge arc lights were used as well as two thousand smaller lights to create the necessary lighting, virtually every available piece of lighting equipment that wasn’t already being used at Paramount. In addition to the extensive lighting system in place, the set also had its own drainage system for rain scenes.

Similarly, to the film I previously mentioned (Shadow of a Doubt), Rear Window was inspired, in part, by a real-life murder case – two of them, in fact. In 1910, the wife of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, an American homeopath living in London, disappeared. Dr. Crippen explained to friends that she had left on a trip to the United States and, then later, published an announcement that she had died there. In the meantime, Ethel Le Neve, his secretary and mistress, moved in to his house and wore his wife’s jewelry and furs in public. Partial human remains were found in a hole in the basement of Crippen’s home which were identified as his wife, Cora Crippen, who had been poisoned and then dismembered. After initially attempting to flee and live in hiding, Crippen and Le Neve were eventually tracked down and tried for murder. Crippen was found guilty and executed in November 1910.

Then, in 1924, Patrick Herbert Mahon murdered his pregnant mistress, Emily Kaye, in Sussex, England. It was reported that he dismembered her body in order for them to fit into a packing trunk and his gladstone bag. Like Dr. Crippen, Mahon was tried for murder, found guilty, and executed. Yikes!

Rear Window went on to be nominated for 4 Academy Awards in 1955 including:

With a score by Franz Waxman and costumes by Edith Head, this movie was stacked with talent both behind and in front of the camera. Rear Window was added to the National Film Registry in 1997 and, in 2007, was ranked as the 48th Greatest Movie of All Time by the American Film Institute.  

I could watch this film every day and never tire of it. The late film critic Roger Ebert might have summed it up best when he said, “Here’s a film about a man who does on the screen what we do in the audience – look through a lens at the private lives of strangers.” I’d never thought of being an audience member in such a way before but perhaps it is that shared voyeuristic experience that makes the film one of my favorites.

12 Angry Men (1957)

Henry Fonda (center) leads an all-star cast on 12 Angry Men (1957)

Often included in top ten or must see lists across the board, 12 Angry Men was ranked as the #2 greatest courtroom drama film by AFI in 2008. In addition, it is the only time Henry Fonda took on the role of a film producer and, due to the small budget also deferred his salary. In the end, the film failed to make a profit and, as a result, Fonda never received his deferred salary; however, he always regarded this as one of the three best films he ever made during his illustrious career.

Based on Reginald Rose’s 1954 teleplay of the same title for the CBS Studio One series, 12 Angry Men is a dramatization of a jury’s deliberation in the murder trial of a young defendant accused of killing his father. Of its 96-minute runtime, all but 3 minutes are set in the confines of a jury room on a hot, New York summer day. Rose was inspired to write the original teleplay after serving as a juror in a manslaughter case in early 1954.

Directed by Sidney Lumet, who was hand-picked by Henry Fonda to direct the film, the cast is a veritable who’s who of well-known actor’s including Lee J. Cobb as Juror 3, Martin Balsam as Juror 1, John Fiedler as Juror 2, E.G. Marshall as Juror 4, Jack Klugman as Juror 5, Jack Warden as Juror 7, and Ed Begley as Juror 10. Of course, all of these were in addition to Henry Fonda as Juror 8.

At the beginning of the film, all but one juror votes to convict the young man, known only as the Accused and portrayed by John Savoca in his only film role and uncredited to boot. The 12 men must decide, unanimously, on a guilty or not guilty verdict in the case. A guilty verdict would result in a mandatory death sentence for the young defendant. Over the course of the film, Juror 8, portrayed by Fonda, through his dissent with his fellow jurors begins to expose several of the other jurors’ reasons for discriminating against the defendant including his background, race, and his relationship with his father. By questioning the reliability of the evidence and exposing the prejudices of the other juror’s, a tense drama in the jury room is played out to the conclusion of an eventual, unanimous verdict.

12 Angry Men (1957) movie poster

Produced initially for television, before the film was produced and released, 12 Angry Men was also produced as a stage play at a variety of theatres across the world; however, it would not make its Broadway debut until nearly 50 years after the film’s release. When the film was released, it was shown to all of the State Bar Associations who honored the film for “contributing to the greater public understanding and appreciation of the American system of justice.” It even inspired storylines for episodes of The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show where one of the show’s characters were the lone, hold out juror voting not guilty. Then, in 2010 while speaking at a screening of the film at the Fordham University Law School Film Festival, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated that seeing the film during college influenced her decision to pursue a career in law.

I recall having watched this film for the first time in my 7th grade honors English class a Nobel Junior High School in Northridge, California. I had never seen a film like it before and, although I had a grandfather who was an attorney, seeing the perspective of a case from that of the jury gave me an entirely new respect for the justice system and the ability of one person to make a difference. Every time I have watched the film since then, I find myself remembering that I was the only student in the class who wasn’t totally bored or falling asleep while watching this black and white movie. I guess I was a classic movie fan in the making even way back then.  Given the long-reaching impact of this film, I feel quite certain that Fonda and Lumet, despite the film being considered a box office failure in 1957, would be proud of the lasting effect of their film.

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

Gregory Peck (left) as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters (right) as Tom Robinson in the 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill A Mockingbird, in my opinion, is not only one of the greatest films of all time but also a supreme example of the “Perry Mason moment” as well as simply an exquisite example of storytelling, characters and a master-class in the art of acting. Gregory Peck stars as Atticus Finch, a windowed lawyer in depression-era Alabama, who defends an African-American man, played by Brock Peters, falsely accused of rape by a racist, abusive farmer, Bob Ewell, played by James Anderson. This film also marked the first appearance of Robert Duvall on film in his role as the mysterious neighbor Arthur “Boo” Radley.

Robert Duvall (left) as Boo Radley and Mary Badham (right) as Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird

Gregory Peck went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1963 for his portrayal of Atticus Finch and the film also won Academy Awards for:

To Kill A Mockingbird was nominated for a  total of 8 Academy Awards, those also included:

The performances by all of the child actors in this film, Mary Badham as Scout, Phillip Alford as Jem , and John Menga as Dill Harris are considered to be among the very best ever captured on film.

Phillip Alford (left) as Jem, John Menga (center) as Dill, and Mary Badham (right) as Scout

Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name written by Harper Lee and published in 1960, is loosely based on her childhood, growing up with her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, who was a compassionate and dedicated lawyer in a small Southern town. It is reported that the story was based on the only criminal case her father ever took on and involved Amasa Lee’s unsuccessful defense, in 1919, of 2 African-American men convicted of murder.

Gregory Peck & Harper Lee

Those who are familiar with Lee’s the background and the writing of the novel are also aware that the character of Dill Harris, played in the film by John Menga, was based on her own childhood friend Truman Capote.

**FUN FACT** In 2022, Mary Badham, now 70, accepted the role of the mean neighbor, Mrs. Dubose, in the national tour of the Broadway production of To Kill A Mockingbird. You can check out the New York Times article here.

What are some of your favorite “Perry Mason moments” in classic film?

Let me know!

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