The Case of the Lethal Lesson is a very strange Perry Mason TV movie. Not just because director Nyby actually doesn’t do an atrocious job, but also because Robert Hamilton’s teleplay is a jumbled mess. Lethal Lesson introduces two new regulars to the main cast, with one of them being the person on trial this time. It screws up the weighing of the plot to say the least.
Worse, Hamilton really pushes for having everyone participate. The supporting cast isn’t just vague suspects, they have subplots with one of the main characters. Sort of. The subplots are often undercooked and don’t stand up to any examination. No spoilers on the finale, but any thought starts to break it down. Hamilton–and director Nyby–bet it all on the charm between those two new regulars, played by Alexandra Paul and William R. Moses.
Here’s how their charm works. She’s rich and flighty. He’s poor and stable. She drives him nuts, but he can’t resist her. Oh, and he’s the one on trial. Even if Paul weren’t annoying, there’s no chemistry between her and Moses. Even if there were chemistry, Moses doesn’t do the sincerity well. He spends most of the movie trying to get away from Paul to hook up with Karen Kopins. Kopins is another of the suspects, sort of, because Hamilton contrives a way to make all of the characters suspects. Everyone is in Raymond Burr’s law school class.
I’m not mentioning Raymond Burr until the end of the third paragraph because he barely has anything to do with the movie. Somehow, even when he gets to the truth at the end, it’s more about the stupid law school romance stuff. Hamilton tries to go with vague innuendo every time, which isn’t just lazy, it’s boring. There’s never any explicit innuendo of the amusing variety, just director Nyby inexplicably perving on Paul for a bit. It’s before her part as screwball detective is established, it’s just a TV movie shower scene. Like some NBC executive said they needed to sex it up but keep it wholesome. Making Paul act like a moron half the time seemingly keeps it wholesome.
Anyway, Burr’s actually great when he gets the stuff to do in the front. He’s good as the teacher, he’s good opposite Brian Keith–old friend and father of the deceased–he’s good with Barbara Hale. She has one scene with enough material for her. Just the one.
Lots of weak support–like miscasting weak–from Brian Backer to Mark Rolston to Charley Lang. Kathryn Christopher is terrible as the judge. Nyby should’ve somehow fixed that problem, but he just exacerbates it.
Kind of weak editing from David Solomon; it’s Nyby, so maybe there just wasn’t coverage. Dick DeBenedictis’s score plays up the romantic chemistry of Paul and Moses and it’s just as annoying in its ineptness to create any chemistry.
Lethal Lesson isn’t actually terrible, it just isn’t any good whatsoever.
Directed by Christian I. Nyby II; teleplay by Robert Hamilton, based on a story by Dean Hargrove and Joel Steiger, and characters created by Erle Stanley Gardner; director of photography, Arch Bryant; edited by David Solomon; music by Dick DeBenedictis; produced by Peter Katz; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.
Starring Raymond Burr (Perry Mason), Barbara Hale (Della Street), William R. Moses (Ken Malansky), Alexandra Paul (Amy Hastings), Brian Keith (Frank Wellman Sr.), Karen Kopins (Kimberly McDonald), Brian Backer (Eugene), John DeMita (Scott McDonald), Charley Lang (Travis Howe), John Allen Nelson (Frank Wellman Jr.), Leslie Ackerman (Miss Lehman), Richard Allen (Jeff), Albert Valdez (Paul Roberti), Raye Birk (Sam Morgan), John LaMotta (Bartender Al), Mark Rolston (Vic Hatton), Marlene Warfield (Prosecutor), Kathryn Christopher (Judge Hoffman).