The prosecutor is a woman, the reigning police lieutenant is black, and Paul Drake is now Paul Drake Jr., a brash young upstart. "Times change," as one character says, but Perry Mason is still Perry Mason, the world's least corruptible lawyer, in "Perry Mason Returns," a baldly enjoyable new NBC movie Sunday night at 9 on Channel 4.
There may never have been a mystery thriller that was quite so sentimental an occasion as this one, because "Perry Mason Returns" reunites Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, who spent nine seasons together as lawyer and secretary on CBS from 1957 to 1966. In the new film, Perry resigns his post as an appellate court judge and returns to the barricades when Della Street, yes Della, dear dear Della, is accused of murder.
Will this be the first case Perry Mason ever loses? It's not giving anything away to say, "Not bloody likely."
Writer Dean Hargrove and director Ron Satlof have struck the right balance in the film between loyalty to the original series (they retained the burly title tune by Fred Steiner, for instance) and awareness of what modernizations needed to be done. The movie is goofily engrossing on its own; it's creaky, but it's friendly-creaky. Fans of the original program will get added sentimental kicks from seeing Perry and Della together again. They have one tiny moment in court near the end of the film that sets off a wonderful emotional charge.
Hale is more than hale as Della. Prior to the filming, she broke her hip in an accident and so did the whole movie sitting down. Whenever you see Della moving around, that's a double. Hale's son, William Katt, formerly the "Greatest American Hero," plays young Drake, supposedly the son of the detective played in the original series by William Hopper, who died in 1970.
As for Burr, he appears to have added 50 pounds or so to his already Titanic girth, and grown a stately beard, and his voice seems deeper, bubbling up from the ocean floor. He isn't just an actor or a force any more, he's a figure in the topography of mankind.
What he lacks in agility, to put it mildly, he makes up for in ominousness. He's the Avenger General of the United States. If all lawyers were like Perry Mason, we wouldn't need -- well, we wouldn't need lawyers, for one thing.
"Perry Mason" nearly always ended with the real killer confessing on the witness stand, or from the gallery, which was preposterous, yes, except Burr was so imposing it really did look as though he could scare a confession out of anyone. The device works again in the new movie.
It opens with scenes that parody the patented "Perry" formula. We are introduced to a mean and nasty old millionaire (Patrick O'Neal) on a dark and stormy night. The millionaire has a flock of dreadful, selfish children to whom he announces, at a surprise birthday party they throw him, "I'm cutting you all out of my will." As with the old show, this fellow is as clearly earmarked for elimination as all those poor schnooks done in by the Devil in the "Omen" pictures.
Predictability was part of what made "Perry Mason" work; it was a likable predictability, and it carried with it certain assurances -- that, yes, there is such a thing as a beneficent and honest lawyer and, also, that in at least one court in the land, if only a make-believe court, justice is always done. If justice weren't done, Perry looked formidable enough to huff and puff and blow the court down.
From Los Angeles, Fred Silverman, coexecutive producer of the film and former NBC president, says he thinks this two-hour movie format is "the perfect way to bring 'Perry Mason' back, doing three or four a year. It reminds me a little of 'Columbo.' You really looked forward to those 'Columbo' movies." What if the public, that is the Nielsens, demand that Perry return as a weekly show? "The star doesn't want to do a weekly show, and neither do the producers," Silverman says.
There was an attempt in 1973 to revive Perry with a new cast. "The New Adventures of Perry Mason" starred a relatively young, and hopelessly skinny, actor named Monte Markham as Perry. It was a disaster in every way.
Meanwhile, Viacom, which owns the original Burr series, is about to release into the video mainstream 26 episodes of the program that were never syndicated and haven't been seen since the original CBS run. On some of these, Burr was recuperating from an illness and so was seen only briefly; in those cases, the murders and the trials went on, with guest lawyers including Bette Davis. These episodes will join the 245 others in circulation on Jan. 1, although the Atlanta-based SuperStation is showing them already on weekday afternoons, albeit with some impertinent trimming.
In the new film, the young prosecutor talks about facing the famous Mr. Mason in court. "This is going to be fun," she says. "Granted, it would be a little more satisfying if he were still at the top of his game, but he's still Perry Mason, rusty or not." Rusty? There may be a barnacle or two on the old hull, but the man is still the haunting, daunting specter of Justice Itself. Perry Mason returns in the nick of time.