Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Case of the Capering Camera: We need more capers like this!

Season 7 is a really interesting piece of work in many ways. Following on the heels of one of my favorite seasons, it includes a great number of my most-loved episodes as well. The majority of them, however, seem to be in the first half of the season, with only a couple really catching my eye later.

When CBS gets around to releasing another DVD set, it will probably have the first 15 episodes of season 7. (Unless they decide to give us a whole season at once, which is unlikely.) The episode that would close that set would be The Capering Camera.

And what a stellar caper it is! I don’t know if it was just because it was Ray Collins’ last episode and they wanted to make a splash or if that had nothing to do with it (maybe they didn’t know it would be his last?), but it is an amazing episode.

The plot itself has a surprising opening, with a model confronting the photographer over a blackmail issue. Apparently he has some nude calendar pictures he took of her some time ago and has been blackmailing her over them. She wants them back. She eventually draws a gun and says she would love to shoot him. At that moment, he is shot and drops dead. In spite of her words, she is stunned and horrified. And absolutely bewildered; it was not her gun that fired the shot.

That has to be one of the earliest on-screen deaths in any episode.

Perry is a friend of the girl’s family. When she goes to her father’s house Perry is present at a small gathering. She then goes to Perry’s office later and explains her story. It sounds outrageous, but Perry is willing to give her the benefit of a doubt.

By the time the police arrive the scene has been changed and looks like a suicide. Andy writes it off as such, but seeing Perry and Paul show up and act surprised and troubled makes him wonder if something more is going on, such as murder. The next day he goes to Tragg at the station for advice. It’s a very interesting scene, and it and their next scene together both seem to give the impression that Andy is or perhaps more likely was under Tragg’s tutelage and that he highly looks up to and admires the older policeman.

Tragg’s advice is interesting too, and reminds me of something he might have said in season 1. He suggests that Andy consider Perry Mason his only suspect. Not that he really believes Perry would be guilty (I’m not sure Tragg was even serious about the advice, as he acts surprised later when Andy says he followed it), but the idea is that if Andy tails Perry, he may discover a real suspect in the form of a client. Which is exactly what eventually happens.

Meanwhile, however, Perry is wrestling with his conscience over this curious ethical dilemma. If he stays quiet, then the death will likely remain labeled a suicide and his client will be in the clear. He’s not even sure it wasn’t really a suicide and the girl is telling a wild story. Or of course, she might really be a murderer. Whether she is or not, there’s always the possibility that the man actually was murdered. And then a killer would be running free. And despite the girl telling him things in confidence, he can’t ignore the moral responsibility of alerting the authorities that the man may have been murdered.

Eventually he can’t stand it any longer and knows he must take some course of action. But, still conflicted over what the right thing is and wondering how to protect his client amid it all in case she is innocent, he opts for a very intriguing solution. He goes to Hamilton for advice.

Hamilton is friendly and amiable, as he usually is in the later seasons. He greets Perry with a congenial handshake and asks if there’s something pending between them. Perry says he doesn’t think so. Hamilton asks next if this is a social call. Perry says he isn’t sure what it is. Hamilton suggests that between the two of them, they can figure it out.

Perry says he’s got an ethical dilemma and asks if Hamilton will hear him out with the promise that his client will be protected until all the facts are in. Hamilton says that as district attorney he can’t “buy a pig in a poke like that”, which Perry knows. Perry then says he’ll present the situation hypothetically so Hamilton won’t have to promise anything. He lays out the whole problem. Hamilton says that Perry knows he, or oops, his hypothetical lawyer, can’t be forced to come forward. Perry agrees but says he wants to. Hamilton tells him it’s a humdinger of a problem, and by a strange coincidence, he can help Perry with it. Lieutenant Anderson is there, with Perry’s client.

The rest of the episode is just as engaging, as the characters try to find the solution and catch the real murderer. There’s a small sub-plot of another young woman who was blackmailed in the past over some similar inappropriate pictures, who doesn’t want the story to have to come out because she’s tried to turn her life around and is filming the starring role in a movie about orphans and nuns. And as it turns out, it was actually Perry’s client’s sister who was being blackmailed over the other pictures and the sister took over for her, paying the blackmail and trying to get the pictures back.

Tragg and Andy appear in court and together later to pick up the actress as a witness, as she saw the defendant leaving the building the night of the murder. The murderer’s identity keeps the audience guessing until the very end. Perry conducts an experiment in court of reenacting the murder, with Della as his client and Andy as the victim. Paul plays the real murderer, whose identity Perry unmasks moments later. Hamilton and Tragg stand at the prosecutor’s table during the experiment. That is the last we ever see of Lieutenant Arthur Tragg.

The epilogue scene includes Perry receiving an autographed picture of the actress as a thank you for not asking any questions about her own blackmail experience. Della expresses concern over whether the woman has sent Perry one of the inappropriate pictures. He reassures her No.

It’s one of the series’ high-points. It’s also bittersweet, as Tragg’s final appearance. Someone once commented that he stands a lot in many of his scenes. This is true. And he’s standing when we see him last. Ray Collins was already ill by the time he filmed his last episodes, and this other fan commented that perhaps he had wanted to stand, sort of as saying that he was still stubbornly hanging on and standing strong. It’s possible. But in any case, it’s a comforting final image.

The character is never mentioned again. We never know if he’s still around and the audience just doesn’t see him (since of course Ray is unable to come back and play him on-screen), or if he retired or even died. I prefer to think that Tragg is still around. It would have been enjoyable if he had been remembered in the scripts, perhaps being mentioned now and then. That would have been a nice tribute to Ray Collins and a way to keep his beloved character alive off-screen.

Ray Collins’ other two appearances in season 7, in The Deadly Verdict and The Reluctant Model, are also both exceptional episodes. They will both be highlighted here in the future.

Andy’s behavior in the episode is a bit surprising at times. His decision to take Tragg’s “advice”, seeming to think Tragg is serious even if Tragg isn’t, indicates either complete, perhaps a bit na├»ve, trust in and idolization of the older man or that he determined it was a good idea regardless of whether Tragg meant it. When they stand by in the police darkroom and watch a photograph develop of Perry’s client holding a gun at the photographer, however, Andy indicates that he believes Tragg did mean what he said.

The possible idolizing of Tragg is a side of him we’ve never really seen before. Usually he seems fully in control, an independent and hardboiled detective in his own right. But if Tragg has had Andy under his wing since season 5, so to speak, it’s very understandable that Andy would think a great deal of him. The fact that he goes to Tragg for advice in the first place says that loud and clear.

And I think it’s the only time he is shown seeking out Tragg’s advice. Considering it’s Tragg’s last episode that is also a bit bittersweet. But Tragg seems to be hard at work at the time, with no indication that he plans to leave the force any time soon.

And then of course, Perry’s moral dilemma and what he finally does about it. Well, there’s no need to say I was utterly thrilled and ecstatic! And the way Hamilton handles it, especially since he already knows about the client, is very interesting. He is friendly throughout, never mocking, and never accuses Perry of any misconduct. It’s always possible he could have done so off-screen, but he seems more like he’s willing to accept Perry’s story as Perry’s genuine feelings and doesn’t have any desire to charge Perry with anything.

I’ve been pondering whether such a scene could have occurred earlier, even in season 1. As season 1 goes on, there are some hints that Perry and Hamilton are growing closer. But there are also many book-inspired ventures, such as The Daring Decoy, in which Hamilton is most unfriendly. That is his overall attitude in season 1, with it being a rarity if he behaves differently towards Perry. (The Crooked Candle and The Sun-Bather’s Diary both include such unusual for the time, friendly scenes.) If Perry had possibly trusted Hamilton enough to go to him in season 1 the scene could have potentially happened, but Hamilton might have then ceased to be friendly and even decided to charge Perry with misconduct or obstructing justice. If it had proceeded the way it did in The Capering Camera, it would have been even more of a surprise than it was in season 7!

(Of course, if Hamilton had felt that Perry had indeed been guilty of misconduct, even in season 7 he would have found it necessary to charge him. Make no mistake about that. Hamilton does not let friendship get in the way of doing his job, as much as it pains him sometimes.)

All in all, the episode is an absolutely wonderful treat. Most, if not all, of the season 6 and season 7 episodes featuring both Tragg and Andy are extremely well done. And this is among the best of the best.

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