My first exposure to Raymond Burr was in his role as the Symbol of Justice that was Perry Mason. As a child, I was awed at his ability to dig the truth out of people by careful questioning and put them in their place, as needed. And I use to think, “I could never be a lawyer. I’m not that clever.”
But I was just a kid and never considered that Mason’s cleverness came from the minds of the show’s writers. Even so, the ferocity of Burr’s personality brought the character to life in stories that combined law with elements of what I’d come to learn was film noir. Hardboiled detective style film noir, that is.
And, as a child, I had no idea that Burr’s intense performances had served him in other (very different) roles. In fact, Burr’s dark energy, sonorous voice, and his obesity (let’s just call it what it was) gave him not just the perfect set of traits to play Mason, but created a high demand for his services as a B-movie
My first taste of Raymond Burr as film noir’s icon of villainy may (arguably) have been his role in Rear Window, but the first one to make an indelible impression on me was Raw Deal. Not only does Burr channel all his energy toward portraying an extremely vicious and controlling man, he does it so well that it shocked me to compare that guy with my childhood memories of him playing Mason the Determined Friend of the Underdog.
In Raw Deal, Burr plays a sadistic criminal named Rick Coyle. Our protagonist, Joe Sullivan, took a post-heist rap for Coyle. After he
breaks out of the joint escapes the prison, Joe expects Coyle to pay him his share of the $50,000 spoils. Little does he know that Coyle has arranged his escape early release, intent on making sure he’s too dead to collect he no longer has reason to collect, because he’s dead.
The part that truly seals the deal on Burr’s performance in this film is the menace in his voice and the slightly-mad look in his eyes, as he flings a glass of flaming brandy in his mistress’ face. Punishment for the capitol offense of accidentally spilling a drink on him.
Much of the effect is due to creative cinematography, in which the brandy is tossed at the camera, i.e., the audience. This instills in the viewer greater empathy with the hapless mistress. But the offhand way Coyle admonishes her after the fact (“She should have been more careful.”) is stated so coldly. And the words suggest a subtext that goes well beyond clumsiness with beverages.
Thus, this is the film that seared the image of Raymond Burr as criminal psychopath into my mind.
Now that I’ve become more familiar with Burr’s early work, I am doubly (triply?) impressed with his talent. This led me to check out his Wikipedia entry, where I found out so many things I never knew about him.
And, FWIW, here’s a quote that’s really stuck with me:
“I was just a fat heavy,” Burr told journalist James Bawden. “I split the heavy parts with Bill Conrad. We were both in our twenties playing much older men. I never got the girl but I once got the gorilla in a 3-D picture called Gorilla at Large. I menaced Claudette Colbert, Lizabeth Scott, Paulette Goddard, Anne Baxter, Barbara Stanwyck. Those girls would take one look at me and scream and can you blame them? I was drowned, beaten, stabbed and all for my art. But I knew I was horribly overweight. I lacked any kind of self esteem. At 25 I was playing the fathers of people older than me.”
I ask you … look at these eyes. Is this man not handsome?
But for a few extra pounds, Burr could have been a matinee idol.
Perhaps I should have waited for this blogathon! 🙂
PS: Here are 11 things you might not know about Raymond Burr.