HBO's Perry Mason recasts crime-fighting hero in a way that's less Erle Stanley Gardner and more Raymond Chandler
In HBO's series, gone is Erle Stanley Gardner's suave courtroom saviour and in his place, we have a shabbier, down-on-his-luck Perry Mason, played by Matthew Rhys, making his living as a private eye in 1930s Los Angeles.
The Wikipedia page entry for the writer Raymond Chandler notes that his first fiction attempt was based on his study of the work of Erle Stanley Gardner. Gardner, who studied law but had no desire to pursue a deathly dull career in it, turned instead to writing stories about a criminal defense attorney — Perry Mason — who took on such alliterative cases as that of the Cautious Coquette, the Caretaker's Cat, the Shoplifter's Shoe, the Moth-eaten Mink, the Lovely Legs, the Lazy Lover, and the Shapely Shadow, (but also non-alliterative ones, like The Case of the Sulky Girl, or the Golddigger's Purse, the Curious Bride, the Dubious Bridegroom, and so on) along with his team (secretary Della Street, detective Paul Drake) to square off (usually successfully) in court against his rival, the District Attorney Hamilton Burger.
With Gardner's prolific output, it is no wonder that his hero found himself the subject of several adaptations on TV, radio and film, since his literary debut. The latest — an HBO limited series starring Matthew Rhys — however, is less Gardner and more Raymond Chandler. Gone is the suave courtroom champion and in his place, we have a shabbier, down-on-his-luck Perry Mason, making his living as a private eye in early-1930s Los Angeles.
Mason (as played by Rhys) would be unrecognisable to Gardner: tailing movie stars to catch them breaking the morality clauses of their studio contracts, living in a farmhouse that has seen better days, wearing
egg mustard-stained ties and picking out clothing at the morgue (from amongst the dead's personal effects), troubled by his war experiences and the breakdown of his marriage. But the underbelly that this new Mason is part of and moves through, would be more than recognisable to fans of Chandler's "hardboiled" detective fare.
HBO's series is being pitched as an "origin story" for Mason — who he was before he became the hotshot lawyer we know through the books (and previous screen iterations). Episode 1, which released this week, introduced Della Street (Juliet Rylance) as well, although she is currently the assistant to Mason's mentor, the lawyer Elias Birchard (John Lithgow).
It is Birchard who tasks Mason with helping solve a particularly sensational case: that of kidnapped Baby Charlie, held for ransom, only to be found dead in a funicular car by his parents, after they've paid up. A further macabre touch is added to the crime by the infant's eyes being sewed open.
There's more to muddy the case: the parents are part of a church, the Radiant Assembly of God, headed by an evangelist called Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany). Elias Birchard is contacted by a high ranking, wealthy member of this church to expedite the investigation into Baby Charlie's murder. Mason, over run-ins with the cops and an initial gathering of clues, realises this is easier said than done.
HBO's Perry Mason starts off by feeling a little too costumey, a little too sound-stagey — as though all the attention paid into making the setting authentically atmospheric has had the opposite effect, of highlighting its inauthenticity. But by the time the investigation (and the violence) kicks off in earnest, that impression fades, and this world begins to seem a lot more real. Because no matter how old-timey the trappings may be, there's nothing old-fashioned about the brutality.
Rhys — decrepit, dishevelled, disgruntled — adequately portrays the patheticness of this version of Mason. This Mason isn't yet a saviour of the underdog, he is the underdog. Rhys' Mason moves between two worlds — the glittery surface of Hollywood, where money is being made off and for the "beautiful people", and the gritty underclass that props up the facade, still suffering the effects of the Great Depression — and represents, in a way, the points at which they intersect, usually unpropitiously.
In that sense, HBO's Perry Mason, despite its period setting, is timeless. One suspects it will prove to be even more so as the narrative — implicating the cops and Sister Alice's shadowy church — unfolds.
Perry Mason is currently streaming on Disney + Hotstar. A new episode is released each week. Watch the trailer here —
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