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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'Perry Mason' Film: Guilty As Charged

November 29, 1985|HOWARD ROSENBERG

America loves revivals. The ratings confirm it.

There's something calming about nostalgia, about withdrawing from a chaotic, uncertain present into a time that we recall as simpler and more tranquil.

Hence--ta dum . . . ta DUM, ta dum . . . ta DUM--"Perry Mason Returns," Sunday at 9 p.m. on NBC.

It's absurd. It's unbelievable. It's unsuspenseful. It's trite. It's banal. It's hokey. In short, it's just the same as the old "Perry Mason" series that ran on CBS from 1957 to 1966 (These were simpler, peaceful times?) and continues to live in syndication.

Uh, almost the same. As an hour drama, the old "Perry Mason" series was good because it was so bad. It was a triumph of camp, a delightful celebration of corn over content.

As a poorly written two-hour movie, though, "Perry Mason Returns" ultimately becomes tedious and stagnant.

For old times sake, though, it's worth a look.

A bearded, fatter Raymond Burr, 68, is back as omnipotent Perry and a grayer, stouter Barbara Hale is back as his loyal comrade Della Street. Only this time, the trouble is bigger than ever.

No longer working for Perry, Della has been (gulp) framed. She is accused by the thudding cops of murdering her wealthy industrialist boss after he announced to his wife and adult offspring that he was deleting them from his will and naming Della administrator of his powerful foundation.

The cops are certain Della's guilty because they're dumb and also because the apparent killer was seen fleeing in one of her dresses, and one of her earrings was found in the victim's hand. It looks grim for Della. Why, there's probably not a lawyer alive who could get her off.

Well, maybe just one.

The 1985 Perry is an appellate court judge who doesn't hesitate to chuck it all to defend Della, whose purpose in this story is to look maternal and eye Perry adoringly.

All right, so far so good. We've got Perry and Della on the scene, a body and eight sneering persons with motive enough to hire someone (You think any of these greyhounds would want to put on one of Della's shmattehs themselves?) to murder the victim. "I don't have to tell you that we've very little to go on," Perry informs Della. If only they had someone to do some investigative leg work, if only they had a loyal private eye at their disposal, if only they had . . . had . . . had Paul Drake.

Actually, it's Paul Drake Jr., the real hip son of Perry's famous shamus, Paul Drake (who was played by William Hopper, who died in 1970). Unlike his conventional father, Paul Jr. plays a soulful sax at a jazz club, is writing a novel, drives a jeep and dresses sort of like the guys in "Miami Vice." What's missing now is a real dopey cop like Lt. Tragg in the old series. But Raymond Collins, who played Tragg, is dead. So we solve that problem by making all the cops in the story mindless slugs.

Now if only there were a prosecutor who Perry could run rings around in court, a real buffoon who was continually baffled, someone like Hamilton Burger in the old series. William Talman, who played Burger, is dead. But this is 1985, after all, so let's serve up a female buffoon whose legal strategy consists of rising in court to object to Perry's line of questioning as being "totally irrelevant and immaterial."

And while Perry is making a fool of her in court, Paul Jr. is in the boonies ("Where is Paul?" Perry keeps wondering), gathering the critical evidence that will spring Della.

You'll just love the part when Paul Jr., dressed like he belongs in a leather bar, finally enters the courtroom, causing testimony to stop and everyone to turn around and eye him as if he were Superman.

Then it's time for the real guilty party to take the stand, crack under Perry's relentless pressure and confess. Of course, no one has bothered to advise this person of the legal right to remain silent, but does anyone watch Perry Mason for a legal education?

Even the most spectacular real-life trials are nothing like this. Courtroom spectators don't oooooh and ahhhhh at testimony, and trials are never this dramatic. They're more like elevators that stop at every floor and have you wondering if you'll ever get to where you're going.

To say that "Perry Mason Returns" is predictable (I identified the culprit after 15 minutes) is like pointing out that the sky is blue. Predictability was the very charm of the old series, a TV classic that brought Erle Stanley Gardner far more fame than he ever received as a writer of mystery books.

Two hours of that, though, is far too much. The only suspense is whether the obese Burr will ever remove his overcoat (he finally does).

More than anything, it seems, age has finally overtaken Perry and Della, rendering them both totally irrelevant and immaterial.

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