'A Slight Case of Murder' is delightful nod to film noir

Many TV movies are awkwardly produced compared with their theatrical counterparts. Shooting generally has to be completed in about 21 days, budgets are modest (by comparison), and accomplished actors are in shorter supply.

But that is changing as more first-rate talent looks to television to make those little films they believe in. A Slight Case of Murder (Sunday, TNT, 8-10 p.m.) is one of those amazing pictures that bodes well for the future of TV movies.

All it takes is talent - like writer/director Steven Schachter, writer/actor William H. Macy ("Fargo"), and actors like Macy's wife, Felicity Huffman ("Sports Night"), Adam Arkin ("Chicago Hope"), and James Cromwell ("Babe") - to raise TV moviemaking to an art form.

In this case, Schachter and Macy, both protgs of playwright David Mamet (and it shows), adapted a darkly comic novella, "A Travesty," by Donald E. Westlake, to the small screen.

Schachter directs and Macy stars in this satirical thriller as a movie critic named Terry Thorpe who accidentally kills his girlfriend and then lies to protect himself.

And oh what a tangled web he weaves. One lie follows another in rapid succession - especially after a private eye who had been following the dead girl tries to blackmail Thorpe. And with all that sticky thread lying around, a guy can trip

up - especially when deception is only one of many sins.

In fact, though Thorpe is a kind of Everyman (or Everycritic) and did not intentionally harm his girlfriend, he hasn't got much of a conscience - always a sign of weakness. And as the police investigation goes on, he's happy to take advantage of anyone in his way.

The fact that this antihero is a film critic is crucial to the witty satire. It's one way of getting back at all those who write negative reviews, of course, but it's also a clever device for creating a story.

Thorpe teaches a course in film noir (the crime films of the '40s and '50s) and tells his class - and us - that in film noir, there's the sleuth, the victim, and the hero, that these are dramas of claustrophobia and degradation, and that it often rains (symbolizing a dreary state of mind).

Cleverly enough, all of the above are also true of this film, so that Macy and Schachter are clearly winking at us.

Dozens of movies from "Gaslight" to "Annie Hall" are referenced in one way or another. Foiling the blackmailer at one point, Thorpe says, "He tried to Hitchcock me; I'll just Spielberg him right back."

We have a pretty good idea where Schachter and Macy are going with this story, except that, like any good noir thriller, this one has so many twists and turns, you can't be sure until you get there. But the filmmakers hint at what they're about in the movie references and in the film's structure.

Sometimes the noir protagonist narrates the story, as in "Sunset Boulevard" or "Double Indemnity." All through the film, Thorpe talks to the camera - dragging us along on his decisions, confiding in us, and making us co-conspirators in his spiraling crimes.

In the noir genre of the good old days, once the fateful mechanism of crime had been set in motion, nothing could stop it until the guilty were punished. Noir offered a highly moral vision of evil.

But this is the '90s and this is a satire, so where will the filmmakers choose to go? What really constitutes a "modern ending" anyway? The writers find a way to surprise and delight us wholly consistent with noir and modernism.

Another crime film mugging for viewers' attention this week, Sirens (Showtime, Sept. 26, 8-10 p.m.), is a little more realistic, and a little more unusual, than most.

Dana Delaney ("China Beach," "Fly Away Home") stars as computer executive Sally Rawlings, whose ex-husband, an African-American, is killed before her eyes by a rogue cop. When Rawlings tries to press charges, she loses, and the cop gets away with murder. But she isn't the kind of woman to give up. The film manages to say something significant about injustice without preaching.

There are a few oddly dreary moments in "Sirens" when the filmmakers don't seem to know what to do next. They give the characters inexplicable behaviors that seem tangential to the story line.

Yet, far from being a formulaic picture, "Sirens" is composed like a labyrinth. It butts the viewer up against blank walls, then opens new passageways into the story again.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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