Perry Mason first left the airwaves in 1966 after a highly successful, nine-season run. Two of its stars, William Tallman (as District Attorney Hamilton Burger) and William Hopper (private investigator Paul Drake) died soon after, in 1968 and 1970, respectively, while another regular, Ray Collins, who'd played police Lt. Tragg, already passed the year before the show's cancellation. But star Raymond Burr immediately segued into his second long-running hit, from 271-0 attorney Perry Mason to paraplegic Chief of Detectives Ironside, a popular but less interesting series that ran eight seasons, from 1967-1975. Barbara Hale, Perry Mason's Della Street kept busy with various projects, including a small but good part as Dean Martin's wife in the hit film Airport (1970).
CBS brought the famous lawyer back for The New Perry Mason but that series, which ran just 15 episodes at the beginning of the 1973-74 season, was a flop. Audiences just weren't interested in the same show with an entirely different cast (Monte Markham played Perry).
Then during the summer of 1985 Raymond Burr was in the news everywhere. He was starring in Godzilla: 1985, the Americanized version of Gojira (1984) in which he reprised his role of reporter Steve Martin, the same character he had played in Godzilla, King of the Monsters! nearly 30 years before, a role he filmed just prior to the original Perry Mason's launch. Interviewers seemed nonplussed that Burr would have agreed to appear in the new movie, but he replied that he had always liked the original film, so, why not?
Whether Burr's media blitz surrounding the release of Godzilla: 1985 had anything to do with his decision to similarly resurrect Perry Mason (and, later, even ol' Ironside), but in any case before the year was out, the one and only Perry Mason was back as well.
Perry Mason Returns (1985) was such a hit that Perry Mason: The Case of the Notorious Nun followed for the ratings sweeps the following May. Eventually 26 Perry Mason TV movies starring Burr were produced, usually three or four per year, ending only with Burr's death. Indeed, four Perry Mason Mysteries, using scripts obviously intended for Burr but starring others, were broadcast soon after.
Perry Mason Movie Collection Double Feature 1 is a repackaging of material previously available only as part of CBS/Paramount's pricey (and similarly, confusingly titled) Perry Mason Movie Collection 1, a boxed set that contained the first six telefilms. Double Feature 1 offers only the first two, Perry Mason Returns and The Case of the Notorious Nun. The transfers are inadequate and obviously old if not actually derived from the original video masters, but the two movies are themselves quite entertaining.
Perry Mason Returns is a shrewdly written TV movie. As with the original show, the story is set in Los Angeles but the TV movie was actually shot in Toronto (presumably to save money). Della Street (Hale) now works as an executive assistant for multi-millionaire businessman Arthur Gordon (Patrick O'Neal, one of the few busy character actors of the 1960s not to appear on the TV series). Despite his philanthropy, he's a cold, calculating and suspicious man in the process of cutting his second wife and adult children from his will.
Gordon is murdered by a man dressed in Della's clothes, and she's clearly being set up to take the rap for Gordon's murder. After being charged with the crime, Della calls on her old friend Perry Mason (Burr) for advice. He's been working as an appellate judge for the last several years and thus legally is not allowed to represent her in court. In the movie's best scene he tells her that he's already submitted his letter of resignation so that he can defend her and she's deeply moved by his selfless gesture of friendship and loyalty. This scene is actually quite touching, with the two actors obviously drawing on their real-life, 30-year friendship.
Paul Drake apparently is no more, though no mention is made of his death. (However, a portrait of William Hopper is visible in several shots.) Instead, Perry and Della enlist the aid of the P.I.'s offspring, Paul Drake, Jr. (William Katt, Barbara Hale's real-life actor-son). Unlike his father, Paul Drake, Jr. is less experienced and much more disorganized, leaving Perry skeptical about the young man's ability to best serve his client's interests. Curiously, Perry is atypically curmudgeonly toward him throughout the show, acting much more like Robert T. Ironside than Perry Mason.
The cast includes a few familiar faces, with Richard Anderson (The Six Million Dollar Man) playing a suspect and not the police detective he'd played during the original series' final season. Lee Miller, Burr's longtime stand-in and a bit player on the TV series, briefly turns up here as a security guard, his final acting role.
But neither the guest cast nor the mystery is particularly memorable. Rather, it's the relationship between Perry and Della, a classical not-quite-romance between the star attorney and his former Girl Friday where Perry Mason Returns really shines. Always an underrated actor, Burr subtly expresses his affection for Della through his eyes and little gestures of amusement or concern, while the more demonstrative Della nicely complements this characterization.
Compared to the subsequent Perry Mason TV-movies, Perry Mason Returns is a bit more elaborate and imaginative, featuring some nice neo-noirish direction by Ron Satlof, particularly during the show's early scenes, and there's more action and stunt work in scenes involving Paul Drake, Jr. than in most of the later shows.
The second one, Perry Mason: The Case of the Notorious Nun, has a better supporting cast, maybe the best ever among these later TV-movies. Timothy Bottoms (The Last Picture Show) plays a priest investigating allegations of misuse of church funds in Colorado (where the episode was filmed). He's working closely with a dedicated young nun, Sister Margaret (Michele Greene) who's clearly being set up as the patsy by someone. (Structurally, it's almost identical to Perry Mason Returns though different enough in other respects to be pretty satisfying in the end.)
When he's found dead in a hotel suite with Sister Margaret unconscious in an adjacent room, she's accused of murdering him for refusing her romantic advances, with hints of their supposed one-way love affair witnessed by Father DeLeon (Tom Bosley) and others. Archbishop Stefan Corror (William Prince) calls on his old friend, Perry Mason, to investigate. (Amusingly, Perry fakes heart problems to infiltrate the Diocese-run hospital, causing Della undue worry.)
Who could the murderer be? Monsignor Kyser (Gerald S. O'Loughlin)? Hospital president Thomas Shea (Arthur Hill)? Hospital legal representative Jonathan Eastman (Edward Winter)? Suspicious doctor Peter Lattimore (Jon Cypher)? Patron Ellen Cartwright (Barbara Parkins)? The latter is billed as a "Special Guest Star" but she has less screentime than most of the rest of the character star-filled cast. Meanwhile, David Ogden Stiers makes the first of eight appearances as Perry's rival, D.A. Michael Reston.
Video & Audio
Perry Mason Movie Collection Double Feature 1 visually underwhelms, considering. Both were photographed on 35mm film (though the latter appears to have been finished on tape), yet both look very soft and even smeary at times, visually at odds with the lively and imaginative use of early television stereo sound on The Case of the Notorious Nun (Perry Mason Returns is mono), with both presented here in Dolby Digital format. Optional English SDH are included and the single disc containing both 94-minute shows is region 1 encoded. No Extra Features.
Less for general classic TV fans than hardcore Perry Mason followers, yet despite the less than ideal presentation both TV movies are fairly entertaining and for them it's Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.