Thursday, March 5, 2015

Klaatu Solves a Crime

During Perry Mason's 6th season (1962/63), Raymond Burr was out sick for five or six episodes. So on the show, Perry was hospitalized as well, appearing in just a few scenes, usually talking on the phone from his hospital bed.

I always thought it was a little bit of a lost opportunity not to do a few episodes in which we get to see Paul Drake take the lead in one of his cases, but to be fair that would have been quite a departure from the show's usual format. Paul was a crack detective, but he wasn't a lawyer. He couldn't go head-to-head against the D.A. in a court room. All the same, it would have been nice.

So each of these episodes featured a different protagonist, each getting a chance to defend a client charged with murder. Of course, we miss Perry, but several elements make these episodes interesting. The guest-stars were great, including Betty Davis, Walter Pigeon and Hugh O'Brien. In each case, they played lawyers who didn't normally practice criminal law, but found themselves stuck with the job to help a client in desperate need. Paul and Della Street are brought into the story to help, with Perry giving some advice over the phone. Also, in each case, the guest-star lawyer discovers a personal connection to the crime, something that usually didn't happen when Perry was taking the lead.

My favorite of these is "The Case of the Libelous Locket," (aired on Feb 7, 1963). In this one, Michael Rennie is a law professor named Edward Lindley who holds a half-jokingly low opinion of trial lawyers. But when one of his students comes to him for help--she believes she accidentally killed the man who had been trying to blackmail her--he suddenly finds that being a trial lawyer isn't all that easy.

The blackmailer, by the way, turns out to be fine. He was faking an injury to add to his blackmail ammunition. But his survival is short-lived--a day later, someone kills him for real. Lindley's client is soon arrested for the crime.

Rennie is great in the part--subtly showing us in the initial courtroom scenes that he's out of his element and unsure of himself. That, combined with a well-constructed story, is what makes this story. It gives us a different vibe from the one we get from the always-confident Perry Mason and generates an additional level of suspense.

But despite his uncertainty,  Lindley is smart and determined, soon realizing that a series of mysterious red splotches found on the rug at the murder scene might just point to the real killer.

I also like an inside joke that I presume was deliberate. Remember that Rennie played the alien Klaatu in the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951. In the Mason episode, when Edward Lindley notices the splotches on the rug, he asks the homicide cop about them. The cop jokes that if they were footprints, they must have been made by a nine-foot Martian. This sets up several more joking references to extra-terrestrials during the episode. It's a nice touch--a shout-out to Rennie's most famous role without being intrusive enough to break the fourth wall.

So there we have it--Klaatu solves a crime. Of course, if he'd had Gort along, he probably could have wrapped it up in less time.

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