Friday, January 4, 2013

Capsule Film Reviews: Murder at 1600

Historically speaking conspiracy suspense thrillers have been with us for a long time. While I am not an expert on the historical origins of conspiracy thrillers they have been with us at least since ancient Rome when Suetonius (69-122) blamed the Emperor Nero for the burning of the eternal city, many blamed Christians for attempting to undermine Imperial Rome and for eating their own, and the Eastern Romans, the Byzantines, gave us a synonym for conspiracy intrigues, Byzantine. The Mediaeval period saw the rise of one of the worlds more bizarre conspiracy theory, one that is unfortunately still with us today in several permutations or iterations in the west, the notion that the Jews were collectively conspiring to eat and drink the blood of Christian children and plotting to take over the Christian world.

The United States of America has not been immune to these Western conspiracy theories. American conspiracy theories, in fact, go back before the Republic itself. In Colonial America many saw Catholic and French conspiracies to conquer English America everywhere. Conspiracy theories continued to be prominent with the birth the the new nation as Americans came to see conspiracies afoot everywhere to undermine the Republic by tyrannical and undemocratic Masons, Mormons, Catholics, Germans, Jehovah's Witnesses, Socialists, Anarchists, Communists, and "foreigners" of all kinds. Political conspiracy theories, of course, grew up around the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and John F. Kennedy in 1963, and UFO's particularly during the Cold War.

Conspiracy suspense thrillers have not been absent from American cinema either. Thanks to the Cold War a number of films like Warner Brothers 1952 John Wayne vehicle Big Jim McLain, Columbia's infamous 1952 Invasion USA, and the evn more infamous 1952 Paramount made and Leo McCary directed My Son John which saw communist conspiracies to undermine the USA everywhere. In the 1960s and 1970s thanks to the massive culture war between those who imbibed America's long standing conspiracy theories of communist takeover--some of these saw communists working to overthrow the government from within--and those who saw, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, and the revelations in the Pentagon papers, another type of conspiracy film arose in the United States, one which saw a different type and more home grown conspiracy within the US government itself. Films like Klute (Alan Pakula, Warner Brothers, 1971), The Parallax View (Alan Pakula, Paramount, 1974), All the Presidents Men (Alan Pakula, Warner Brothers, 1976), and Three Days of the Condor (Sidney Pollack, Paramount, 1975) saw collective conspiracies in America's halls of political, police, surveillance, and economic power.

Conspiracy suspense thrillers have continued to periodically come out of Hollywood from Clint Eastwood's 1997 Absolute Power (Castle Rock, Malpaso, Columbia, Warner Brothers, 1997) and the same years Murder at 1600 (Dwight Little, Regency, Warner Brothers). In both Absolute Power and Murder at 1600 the conspiracies of the 1970s films, ones which Murder at 1600 producer Arnold Kopelman says he admires, transforms corporate conspiracies into individual abuses of power all covered up by those loyal to the individual conspirator.

At the heart of the narrative of Murder at 1600 is the murder of a young secretary, Carla Town, in the White House. The White House Secret Service blames a janitor for Town's death. DC detective Malcolm Regis (Wesley Snipes), in part because he finds barriers put in the path of his investigation by the White House Secret Service, including access to and manipulations of the evidence, is not sure the janitor is the culprit. First he thinks that the playboy pile up the sexual notches on his belt son of President Neil Kyle Neil (Tate Donovan) may be the murderer since it becomes clear that Neil had sex with Town just before her death. Then he thinks it might be the president himself (Ronny Cox in a rare non-villanous role). Then he thinks it is the head of the Secret Service Nicholas Spikings (Daniel Benzali doing his best Rod Steiger imitation).

Murder at 1600 does a nice job of keeping the tension going throughout most of its 107 minutes and keeping viewers in suspense, by keeping us guessing along with the investigators as to who killed Carla Town. In what some might argue is a fairy tale moment Murder at 1600 ends like most other recent American conspiracy thrillers, but not The Parallax View, something that makes that film so interesting. The truth wills out. Eventually with the help of Secret Service agent Nina Chase (Diane Lane) and his partner Stengel (Dennis Miller) Regis uncovers the truth: Neil's NSA advisor Alvin Jordan (Alan Alda playing against Hawkeye type) is behind the brutal murder and is using the presidents fear that it may have been his son who did it in order to blackmail the somewhat Clintonian Neil who has never served in the Armed Forces and who prefers patience and diplomacy to a military strike, to resign the presidency so he, the vice president, and the generals can have their hearts desire and attack North Korea which has captured American soldiers and is holding them hostage. In the climax to the film Regis and Chase manage to infiltrate the White House through old civil war era tunnels underneath it despite being shot at by Jordan's man and chased by Secret Service men and reveal the conspiracy to the president who no longer has to resign. Happy ending. I give Murder at 1600 two and a half to three stars. Good film. Still Diane Lane deserves better.

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