TV REVIEWS : A Distinctive Comeback for Robert Blake in ‘Judgment’

Robert Blake, in his first role since he aborted his career in 1986, carves a distinctive comeback in “Judgment Day: The John List Story” (at 9 tonight on CBS, Channels 2 and 8).

Blake’s characteristic intensity illuminates the sullen, twisted, taciturn title character, a meek New Jersey accountant who slaughtered his family in 1971 and lived a secret life for 18 years until tracked down after exposure on “America’s Most Wanted"--Fox video footage that the filmmakers (director Bobby Roth and scenarist Dennis Turner) turn to their natural advantage.

But this production is much more than a rip-off of tabloid television and newspaper headlines. It’s a classy production both in its richness of character and in its compelling flashbacks, which add layers of emotional dimension.

The movie opens with Blake’s rigid paterfamilias dining alone in his big empty manse in Westfield, N.J. Lying on an adjacent hardwood floor are the bloody bodies of his mother (Carroll Baker, a religiously crazed harridan), his wife (Beverly D’Angelo, a pill-popping malcontent) and his three--we might add normal--teen-age children.


Fastidious to the end, the husband covers the corpses’ faces, leaves a note to his minister, and vanishes to Denver, where he ultimately remarries (to the trusting Melinda Dillon) and again becomes a bastion of the church. Although not overplayed, Old Testament dogma plays a crucial, twisted factor in List’s God/judge/executioner phobia.

During List’s trial in 1989, news photographs of the accused revealed a prissy, formal-looking man. Blake mirrors that mousy quality, with his pinched-together eyebrows, his starched shirts and his desperate, nerdy eyes. His performance may be subtly mannered but it works. It doesn’t even look like a TV performance.

Seven years away from the cameras seem to have made Blake a better actor.