Female Detectives, Motherhood, and Other Murderous Concerns: Perry Mason & The Alienist

As you may notice, this is the first Film Beat post since the pandemic hit Nashville. As True Detective’s Rust Cohle would say, for many of us time has become “a flat circle.” But one with sharp edges and treacherous shadows. I often think about the last time I saw a film on a big screen, at the Belcourt Theatre, Director Bertrand Bonello’s excellent Zombi Child, a horror take on post-colonialism. And many is the day I have pined for The Belcourt’s dark comfort, popcorn, and good company in that sacred space of cinema.

But alas, gentle reader, that is not ours for the time being. I have viewed a few excellent films during the pandemic, such as Josephine Decker’s Shirley (2020) and Natalie Erika James’s Relic (2020), horror films in their own right, directed by women and featuring the female sphere. Both are carefully wrought and tightly filmed, in houses haunted by feminine distress. There is much to praise in their subject matter and construction. However, since we are on hiatus from actual movie theaters, I would like to suggest two exceptional, just-concluded television series for your viewing. (Is there a term yet for the streaming equivalent of a TV series?) Since the advent of HBO’s “quality television,” most critics and fans alike agree that long-form television narrative, in other words, the eight-hour film, is often superior to movies. In the cases of HBO’s Perry Mason, and season two of TNT’s The Alienist, Angel of Darkness, that assertion is irrefutable.

These two concurrent TV series (on the same night, at the same time) share many elements of the grotesque and film noir in their plot and mise en scene. While Angel of Darkness takes place in the Victorian New York of 1897, and Perry Mason in the Modernist Los Angeles of 1932, both are adaptations of literary works: Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels and Caleb Carr’s Alienist series. These visual incarnations are inhabited by brilliant, passionate loners who mirror the disconnect of our present state. And best yet, feature strong female leads.

Perry Mason is brought to life by the mercurial Matthew Rhys, who illuminated the FX series, The Americans. This version is adapted with a gay Della Street (Juliet Rylance) as Mason’s smart, legally savvy assistant who helps him solve the case — and demands her due. Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) becomes an African American cop exhausted by prejudice and fraud. In Angel of Darkness, Alienist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler’s (Daniel Brühl) associate, detective Sara Howard, played by Dakota Fanning in one of her best roles to date, now takes center stage, as romantic tension continues with New York Times journalist John Moore (Luke Evans). Women drive the narrative in both series, and the detective work runs parallel, as each begins with charges of infanticide against powerless mothers caught in the apparatus of a corrupt, patriarchal justice system.

Perry Mason’s Juliet Rylance, Matthew Rhys. Photograph by Merrick Morton/HBO

Sara Howard and Della Street carry the essence of cool and are often more level-headed than their male counterparts. This Perry Mason is a down and out alcoholic detective living in his parents’ decrepit farmhouse, who Della shepherds toward a truer course. She counterbalances his anger and self-pity with a determined focus. Tatiana Maslany, as a radio host evangelist, radiates power on the screen; her charisma and belief in miracles recalculate the show’s ideal of justice. Not to mention the amazing Veronica Falcón as Mason’s part-time paramour, a fly-girl in pants who owns her own airfield and takes no prisoners. And, as with Angel of Darkness, the world-building is immaculate. L.A. in the aftermath of the Great Depression shows herself as the very essence of film noir: a site of duplicitous deals, corrupt police, and characters who resound as either victims or victors — found in morgues, brothels, courtrooms, and late-night rendezvous.

The grotesque corpse of a child haunts both of these plots to accelerate their urgency. Angel of Darkness, however, takes as its focus the female psyche. This season reveals Howard’s troubled past and identifies a childhood trauma she shares with the criminal she pursues. Motherhood, as registered through the lens of class and power, is central to this story, which begins with a protest outside a women’s prison and quickly evolves into a study of the psychology of the denied and demented. Additionally, Kreizler’s new love interest, a female alienist, lectures him on female sexuality and Freudian theory, while Bitsy, Sara’s trusty assistant, braves death and offers her boss sound romantic advice. As with Perry Mason, sets, locations, and costumes create a lush accuracy to period and place. Sara Howard’s somber and gender-bending costumes alone imbue her with elegance and gravitas that makes the series worth watching.

Angel of Darkness and Perry Mason are perfect foils to our perfectly dark times. And while we await the return of the movie theaters, turn out the lights and watch these worthy competitors for your time — in any season.

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