Warner Bros. // 1973 // 588 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // November 21st, 2012
Just call me Billy Jim; everyone else does.
It's funny how little television changes. Sure, I can cherry pick examples of shows like Arrested Development, Community, or Homicide, which are fundamentally different from most programming, but then one looks again and finds Law and Order ending its second full decade and CSI begins a 35th iteration, this time in Boise, or something. Then, going back in time, one sees the same show over and over again, whether that's Matlock or Perry Mason. Between those runs of Andy Griffith and Raymond Burr, we have a one year run of the legendary James Stewart (Rear Window) in the exact same role, a role that reminds me most of the great Saturday Night Live sketch, "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer."
These eight Hawkins television movies aired between March 1973 and March 1974 on CBS and arrive on four discs from Warner Archive.
Death and the Maiden: A young heiress with a history of delusion
comes home to find her family murdered. Everybody believes she's guilty, so BJ
Hawkins comes in to defend her.
Guest stars: Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard), David Huddelston (The Big Lebowski)
Murder in Movieland: A friend of a big time actress is murdered when
he is caught cavorting with the star's young daughter. The accused claimed he
was protecting her from rape, but Hawkins isn't so sure.
Guest stars: Cameron Mitchell (Blood and Black Lace), Sheree North (The Shootist)
Die, Die, Darling: When a sick man dies after not getting his
medicine, his wife is pegged for the crime. Hawkins doesn't know why, but he
thinks she's innocent, so comes in to help.
Guest stars: Sam Elliott (The Hi-Lo Country), Henry Jones (Arachnophobia)
A Life for a Life: A young science student kills himself and his
father vows revenge. When one of the researchers soon winds up dead, Hawkins
arrives to defend the man.
Guest stars: Jeanne Cooper (The Boston Strangler), Tyne Daly (Cagney and Lacey)
Blood Feud: During a Civil War reenactment, a man in Hawkins's West
Virginia town is slain and a member of his family's rival is pegged with the
murder. He has the motive and opportunity, but Hawkins knows he's innocent, so
breaks the feuding line to defend him.
Guest stars: Diana Ewing (The Way We Were), Lew Ayers (Johnny Belinda)
Murder in the Slave Trade: A recently retired pro running back is
accused of murdering his ex-team's owner in the training room, but Hawkins is
convinced that more is afoot.
Guest star: Peter Mark Richman (The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear)
Murder on the Thirteenth Floor: A young woman is stabbed to death in
an elegant hotel, her room is burned, and her boyfriend is the last one to see
her. Hawkins discovers a heroin conspiracy around it and believes the recluse
down the hall has the answers.
Guest stars: Theresa Wright (Shadow of a Doubt), Jeff Corey (Little Big Man)
Candidate for Murder: A senatorial campaign is threatened when a
reporter is murdered. The senator's advisor is pegged for the crime and, though
he claims innocence, he's willing to take the rap so the senator stays out of
trouble, but Hawkins won't let that happen.
Guest star: Pernell Roberts (Bonanza)
"Now, I'm just a caveman. I was hunting, fell into a crevasse, and frozen solid. Your modern world scares me. When I see a solar eclipse, like the one I went to last year in Hawaii, I think 'Oh no! Is the moon eating the sun? I don't know. Because I'm a caveman. That's the way I think. There's one thing I do know, though...this man is innocent!"
Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer was one hell of a defense attorney, and he owes all his skills to Billy Jim Hawkins, West Virginia's most feared and respected legal expert. Now, how Hawkins actually attained his status is anybody's guess, but rest assured that he's the best. He knows just the right time to record an incriminating interview and knows just the right way to get a seemingly innocuous witness to confess to a murder while on the stand. The guy is fantastic; nobody uses their Deep South charms quite like him, except for maybe Ben Matlock or any number of other Southern TV lawyers before and since.
This is the problem with Hawkins, which is otherwise fine vintage programming. It's nothing but an exercise in watching James Stewart play his character. That's not a bad thing, necessarily, but there's no suspense or wonder about whether Hawkins will win the day. The whole point is that he does. Put a wig and a Neanderthal-style forehead attachment on Stewart, and the show is no different than "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer," albeit less funny and a lot longer.
At approximately 70 minutes per episode (90 minutes when they aired), each one is a little too drawn out and presents so much information before the characters finally converge in the courtroom that there's never a time when the real culprit is in doubt...and it's never the person who has been charged.
Still, Stewart's performance is consistently excellent, the guest stars are always good to see, and the show, in general, is fairly well written. As vintage television, it is often a cut above its contemporary programming, though that doesn't make it any less predictable or, today, any less clichéd. While that's not really the fault of the show, it still makes it considerably less enjoyable than it would be if we hadn't seen so often after the following four decades. Watch for Stewart's performance and stay for all the references that would make Phil Hartman's funniest SNL creation, but don't be surprised when you find nothing surprising or terribly interesting about the show in general.
Like most of the on-demand material that Warner Archive releases, Hawkins: The Complete TV Movie Collection is bare bones and mediocre. The standard definition 1.33:1 transfer is mostly free of damage, but there are a lot of compression problems and muddled, fuzzy edges, especially on the faces. The mono sound is fine, with clear dialog and music. There are no extras presented in the collection.
If you've ever watched a courtroom drama, then you have seen Hawkins. That doesn't mean it's completely worthless, just that it wasn't original when it aired and it certainly isn't original today. If you love watching lawyers beat the odds in obvious fashion, though, and you like James Stewart pretending to be a genteel southerner, then you can do a whole lot worse than Hawkins. Don't expect to be surprised by much, though.
Review content copyright © 2012 Daryl Loomis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 588 Minutes
Release Year: 1973
MPAA Rating: Not Rated