Made for TV movies, to me, almost always have a budgeted feel to them. A-list talent, from the writers to the actors to the directors is hard to find. You can notice the quality gap (production, writing, acting, overall) between a theatrical film and a made for TV movie. However, made for cable TV movies are a whole different story, and they hide that gap well.
Premiering in 1999 on TNT (Turner Network Television), A Slight Case Of Murder, directed by Steven Schachter (Door To Door) and based on the novel by Donald E. Westlake, is finally being released on DVD. William H. Macy stars as Terry Thorpe, a film critic who accidentally kills his lover Laura Penny (Stephanie Belding) during an argument. Terrified, he covers up the murder and flees her apartment.
Unbeknownst to him, Laura’s husband hired a private investigator named John Edgerson (James Cromwell) to follow her. John went into her apartment that night after Terry left and discovered Terry’s involvement. John then uses this knowledge to blackmail Terry.
While dealing with John’s financial ambitions, Terry also has to deal with a police detective named Fred Stapelli (Adam Arkin) who has a smokin’ wife (Julia Campbell) and has written a screenplay. All the while, Terry also has to entertain his girlfriend Kit (Felicity Huffman).
The heart and soul of A Slight Case Of Murder is Macy and his performance enlivens the movie. After he murders Laura, Terry is shy and dimwitted. As the movie progresses, Terry becomes more confident, sometimes calculating, and very macho. Being a film noir, you’d expect A Slight Case Of Murder to be a serious drama. Director Schachter seems to have no part of that. The lighting couldn’t be brighter. The music couldn’t be livelier. And you’d be surprised how funny and comedic Macy could be.
Although to be fair, the title is a Slight Case, not a “Complete” or “Full” Case Of Murder. You can sense the apprehension that the filmmakers have toward making a traditional film noir. The detective isn’t so hard boiled, even being clumsy and unprofessional in his attempts to both solve the murder and get Terry (the prime suspect) to read his screenplay (about a detective no less). He also pretty much throws his wife to Terry, who naturally does what any man would in that situation. He’s only human for that matter.
The private investigator also isn’t the tough guy using his muscle to get what he wants. He’s old and instead uses a hilarious kick to the groin. Even then he helps the victim find something to sit on to ease the pain while also giving some words to soothe the soul.
These characters aren’t your typical noir characters. They make stupid mistakes. They make us laugh. But it still is a film noir. The antihero does his job (sort of) and the protagonist gets his due. TNT sure does know how to make movies.