[box cover]

A Slight Case of Murder

Those who have dabbled a bit in writing may recall the theory that every good screenplay has a line early in the script where one of the characters expresses the theme of the story. In A Slight Case of Murder (1999), that line's delivered by a cab driver (played by "The Sopranos'" Vincent Pastore) as he gives his passenger, a film critic, his opinion on the tedious repetition of movie plots — "Case in point, Titanic … It's a formula. Bad guy's always gonna get caught. Broad gets rescued on an iceberg. Why not let her die once in awhile? Let some guy get away with murder. Let the thief keep the jewels." The film critic, Terry Thorpe (William H. Macy), is on his way home after an argument with a lover led to the woman's death. Thorpe didn't kill her — she slipped on an ice cube and took a header into the edge of her coffee table. But in a moment of panic, Thorpe decides to run, wiping down the place in hopes of removing fingerprints and heading home. However, he soon finds himself with two big problems — he has no alibi, making him a suspect in what a pair of cops (Adam Arkin and James Pickens, Jr.) have decided is a murder, and he was photographed leaving the building by a crooked private detective (James Cromwell) who wants $35,000 to keep his mouth shut.

Originally produced for TNT television and based on a novel by Donald E. Westlake, A Slight Case of Murder — written by Macy and director Steven Schachter — is a delightfully self-referential example of the meta-movie, with a main character whose job involves knowing all about the conventions of cinema, and who uses that knowledge to try and solve his own real-life problems. Thorpe is, in many ways, a cinematic cousin to Jerry Lundergaard, Macy's twitchy, guilty car salesman in Fargo — a classic noir character, the "anti-hero," a type described by Thorpe in a lecture he gives to a Film Studies class: "He's not a bad man, he's a good man tripped up by fate. These are ordinary men whose small worlds start to close in on them." It's a type that Macy does better than most, and his choice of a novel to adapt couldn't be any more inspired. Under his own name and a number of pseudonyms, novelist Westlake is one of the more prolific thriller writers in America, with films adapted from his books including The Hot Rock, Point Blank (from his novel "The Hunter"), Payback, Bank Shot, Slayground, and Jimmy the Kid. Westlake's also a brilliant screenwriter in his own right, penning the scripts for The Grifters and The Stepfather. The screenplay for A Slight Case of Murder, while obviously a vanity project for Macy, is clever, funny, and full of Westlake-esque surprises, with a terrific cast and a great understanding of noir. It's a film that, perhaps, will be more enjoyable by fans of the genre, delightfully knowing and clever with a twist ending that even the most savvy noir nuts won't see coming — even if they keep the cabby's words in mind.

*          *          *

Warner Home Video's A Slight Case of Murder DVD is a straightforward, bare-bones release of the Turner telefilm, with an anamorphic transfer (1.78:1) that's sharp and clean with nice, rich colors. The DD 2.0 audio (English, with optional English or French subtitles) is fine — the sound was obviously engineered with the average home TV setup in mind, so there's not much to it, but it's good for what it is. No extras, keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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