I loved Perry Mason as a kid, and something that I always felt without ever quite being able to put my finger on it at the time was that Raymond Burr was kind of creepy. He was the hero of the show, sure, but was there ever a TV star who was less warm and cuddly? The man was intense. I grew up watching reruns of Perry Mason in the 80s, which meant that Matlock was also on the air at the same time. There’s a contrast for you. Compared to Andy Griffith’s warm country lawyer, Burr was like a wall of cold steel.
What I didn’t know until sometime later was that Raymond Burr was pretty much THE face of evil in film noir. In the forties and fifties, he played masterminds, henchmen, and stone-cold psychos. The one element of all of them? That brooding stare which contained contempt for lesser beings. Everyone around him seemed to insult his intelligence.
Burr might be famous today for playing Perry Mason on television, but I have a feeling that as time goes on, his noir work will catch up and exceed his television fame. I don’t know how many new converts the Perry Mason series will find in the future, but I know that for as long as people watch noir, they’ll be struck by Burr’s cold stare and understated delivery.
Burr himself was an intensely private—even secretive—man. Born in British Columbia in 1917, he was raised on the road with a family that rarely lived in one place very long. After his parents split up, Burr and his mother settled in California. Later on, Burr would freely invent stories of jobs he’d had, military service he’d performed, even marriages he’d had—going to far as to portray himself a widower. In fact, all of these stories were a cover to hide that Burr was gay, but by 1960 he’d become longtime companions with the actor Robert Benevides. A small group of people knew the real Burr, but during his lifetime he never came out of the closet. He and Benevides lived together in Dry Creek Valley, where they ran an orchard and a vineyard. When Burr died of cancer in 1992 and left the entirety of his estate to Benevides.
Burr’s noir roles are almost too numerous to list (the man made a lot of crime flicks) but here’s a guide to the best:
Essential Burr Noir:
1. Desperate (1947)—A key film from Anthony Mann shows the director coming into his own as a noir stylist. Burr plays the ring leader of a circle of thieves who are trying to force an honest truck driver into taking the fall for a crime he didn’t commit. The plot turns strain credulity, but Burr is riveting. In one tense scene, he breaks a bottle and threatens to use the jagged glass to rearrange the face of the truck driver’s pregnant wife. This guy is mean.
2. Raw Deal (1948)—A year later Mann made his noir masterpiece with this story about an escaped convict (Dennis O’Keefe) and the women (Clare Trevor and Marsha Hunt) who love him. Burr plays the rich nutjob who owes O’Keefe a load of money for taking the fall for him. One of the greatest of all noirs, Raw Deal is triumph of direction and cinematography, and Clare Trevor, as the tough broad with a broken heart, gives one of noir’s most touching performances. And our boy Burr…Burr’s a pyromaniac who goes out in the proverbial (and here, quite literal) blaze of glory.
3. Pitfall (1948)—Burr’s other masterpiece from 1948 was this film from director Andre De Toth. Dick Powell plays a married insurance agent who is bored at home and tired of being an “average American.” One day he meets sexy Lizabeth Scott and begins an affair. Unfortunately for both of them, she is being stalked by a creepy bug-eyed nutjob played by you-know-who. Pitfall is pretty close to being the best domestic drama in the noir canon. It’s meanings grow the more you see it (especially its ending). Powell and Scott are terrific together, and Burr is at his villainous best.
4. Abandoned (1949)—I’ll just sum this one up by saying that Burr plays a thug in a baby-stealing ring. Yeah, you read that right. I’m telling you, this guy was mean. The scene of him slugging it out with fellow preeminent noir thugs Mike Mazurki and David Clarke is not to be missed.
5. M (1951)—Joseph Losey’s remake of the Fritz Lang classic is an epic of American crime. That may seem like an odd way to describe a film about a child murderer, but the film seems to collect all of criminal society under its gaze. The cast here is key. David Wayne stars as the killer, and around him is a one hell of a collection of goons, all playing to type: Martin Gabel as a crime lord who decides to lead his own hunt for the killer; Luther Adler as his lawyer, drowning his guilty conscience in booze; Glenn Anders as a sweaty scumbag with an insufferable leer; Norman Lloyd as the surly muscle man; and, of course, Raymond Burr as a raspy-voiced hulk of intimidation.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.