Perry Mason is an iconic figure of US television, a defence lawyer in 1930s Los Angeles who specialises in saving the falsely accused. I asked an American friend what he signified. “Careful and clever,” he said. “Stocky, maybe even fat. The name connotes precision and exactitude. It’s actually a bit Sherlock Holmes.” We’ll take his word for it. I have never seen the original, based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels, which was a black-and-white stalwart of the Fifties and Sixties, but if you come to this ritzy HBO remake with fond memories you may be shocked.
In the first place, Mason is not stocky in the slightest. He is the lean Matthew Rhys, in a battered leather jacket and a rakishly cocked trilby. More importantly, he’s not a lawyer, or at least not in the first few episodes. It’s 1931 and Mason is a dishevelled private detective, more Marlowe than Rumpole, a First World War veteran eking out his existence on a dilapidated family “farm” next to an airfield. His wife has left him and taken their nine-year-old son with her. He and his partner Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham) make money taking pictures of Hollywood stars in compromising situations. At night, he drinks and has gruff sex with Lupe (Veronica Falcon), a pilot. It’s not much of a life.
Enter EB Jonathan (John Lithgow), a successful lawyer and Mason’s unofficial mentor, with a grim mystery. A one-year-old baby, Charlie Dodson, has been kidnapped. The captors agreed to return him to his parents on the Angels Flight tram if they paid $100,000. The parents coughed up, but the baby was dead, its eyes stitched open in a macabre detail the episode lingers over for too long. Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick), a wealthy friend of the parents, has come to Jonathan with the case. “I don’t trust the Los Angeles Police Department,” he explains. Rightly so, given that it appears to be staffed exclusively by goons, thugs and murderers. As Mason gets involved, his sense of injustice grows.
You can see where things are going, although nobody’s in a hurry. Perry Mason has been built to last, an eight-hour series meant to be the start of many more. The name is familiar enough in America to draw casual interest, but as far as I can tell it has as much in common with the original as Christopher Nolan’s Batman does with Adam West’s. Perry Mason is its own brooding beast. It looks and sounds wonderful, every set and costume furnished in immaculate detail, with enough nudity and violence to let you know this is Telly For Grownups.
Its Los Angeles is a shadowy, glamorous world, soundtracked by plaintive trumpets and minor piano chords, where even the sunshine seems gloomy. You want to live here, even if you know you’d end up being bumped off by a bent cop or dodgy mogul. The director is HBO maestro Tim Van Patten, the most famous director you haven’t heard of, whose fingerprints are on The Sopranos, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones, among other little-known series. Some scenes, like the gripping opening, feel properly cinematic, and the acting is strong throughout, especially Lithgow, who rarely puts a foot wrong, and Juliet Rylance, adoptive daughter of Mark, as competent assistant Della Street.
Rhys is rarely out of frame, and does an unreasonable amount with a part that could easily drift into cliché. His Mason is smart, vulnerable and prickly without being obnoxious, haunted by his time in the trenches but more by his sense of wasted potential. Between this and The Americans, the Welshman is building an enviable career. Some will find Perry Mason too grim, or too slow, too earnestly striving to be event telly, but it makes a robust case for the defence.
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