Months ago I said that I might take certain posts to highlight various characters from other movies and TV series played by our beloved cast members. This is more of a movie, rather than a character, highlight, but the general proposition still stands.
In 1956 a little noir was released called Please Murder Me. It features Angela Lansbury as a woman accused of murdering her husband and Raymond Burr as the lawyer who loves her and is set to defend her. It’s in the public domain these days, and while it’s definitely a B movie, it’s an interesting watch, for old movie buffs, crime movie buffs, and Perry Mason fans.
There are certainly elements reminiscent of Perry episodes. Even Raymond Burr’s character, in some ways, is like good old Perry—especially in his desire for justice above all else. He’s a bit darker, faced at the beginning of the flashback with a moral dilemma that Perry never had, but he deals with it in an honest, straightforward way, not wanting to hurt the party involved. If Perry had ever been confronted with such a problem, he might very well have handled it the same way.
One thing I like looking for when seeing actors in other roles is determining what mannerisms are theirs and which are their individual characters’. Raymond has several mannerisms in the movie which we’ve all seen and heard from Perry: that certain way he says “Oh?”, the way he lays one hand in his other hand and gazes at them, and his pacing.
The thing that thrilled and excited me most about the film is that Craig Carlson, our defense attorney protagonist, has a good friendship with Ray Willis, the district attorney. The very first spoken words in the film are addressed to Ray from Craig, as he begins to narrate the events of the plot in flashback. He even says “Dear Ray” to open his spoken letter/confession. They clearly have a great amount of respect for each other throughout the film, including during the court scenes and afterwards, as they share a dinner. Me being me, it would have been impossible to watch that and not think of Perry and Hamilton, especially in the later seasons.
Of course, the movie is not without its flaws. Its most glaring, as far as I’m concerned, happens during the trial. A critical part of the case (and what ends up closing it), is the defendant’s reason for wanting a divorce from her husband. And it’s not revealed to the court until Craig addresses the jury. My jaw dropped. And even more shocking, there was no protest from the prosecution whatsoever. All I could think was, “… Shouldn’t someone be getting charged with withholding evidence for this?!”
One thing Perry Mason was well-known for was its adherence to proper courtroom procedure (excepting the often preposterous confessions and Perry usually winning, of course). And although I certainly can’t claim to know much about law beyond Perry and some assorted research, I can’t believe that something like what happened in Please Murder Me would have ever been allowed in real-life. And if it had happened on Perry, Hamilton Burger would have most definitely been crying out in justified protest! Clearly, whoever wrote Please Murder Me just wanted an intensely dramatic scene, not caring whether or not it was plausible.
But, ridiculous flaws aside, the movie is quite worth a watch. As B-grade film noir goes, it’s got some good things going for it: Raymond Burr, Angela Lansbury, and the titular plot twist. It’s a dark and tragic spiral that, for me, leaves deep questions not easily answered. Is what Craig eventually does to bring Myra Leeds to justice a good thing? A bad thing? Each viewer will have to try to come to his or her own conclusions about that. I’m still debating it. I like a movie that makes me think.
And I’m curious as to whether or not Raymond had yet auditioned for Perry Mason at the time. Please Murder Me was released only a year before Perry started, so it’s highly possible that either Raymond had indeed auditioned or that he decided to audition later after playing a defense attorney in this film. (Especially since I was thinking the auditions started in 1955, which could have been either before or after this movie was filmed.)
I imagine it’s also possible that this film could have had something to do with him eventually being cast as Perry, but I’m not as sure about that. Just watching him in those early screen tests on the 50th Anniversary set, without yet having seen this film, I saw that he was just perfect. Others were good trying out too, such as William Hopper, but Raymond was fabulous. Erle Stanley Gardner knew what he was doing by insisting on Raymond playing Perry. In the process, Gardner was opening the door for the creation of a TV legend. I seriously doubt Perry would have ever been as successful without everyone in the roles they ended up having.
In the end, I thoroughly recommend Please Murder Me for all Perry fans to try, if they haven’t seen it. It raises some interesting queries. And it’s also a just plain good watch for crime/noir seekers.