Movie review: A Slight Case of Murder (1999), based on “A Travesty” by Donald Westlake

A Slight Case of Murder is a quite-faithful TV-movie adaptation of Donald Westlake’s novella, “A Travesty,” really, one of the most faithful adaptations of Westlake’s works that I’ve seen. Plenty of scenes and even lines are straight from the book.

The setup is the same–film critic Terry (Stacy in the book) Thorpe (William H. Macy) accidentally kills his girlfriend (well, one of them, anyway) during a fight when he pushes her and she splits her head on a coffee table. Seeing no reason that he should pay a price for an unfortunate accident that wasn’t really his fault, he endeavors to remove traces of his presence from her apartment and go about as if he had nothing to do with it. It can’t stay that simple, of course, as private investigator John Edgarson (James Cromwell) is on to Thorpe and wanting money in exchange for silence and police detective Fred Stapelli (Adam Arkin) is on the case.

A Slight Case of Murder handles Thorpe’s internal deliberations by having him break the fourth wall and speak to the audience, a device that works well and often quite humorously. Part of the fun of the novel is the process of Thorpe talking himself through whatever moral and other contortions will get him off the hook, and this captures that.

Macy is reliable as always as Thorpe and Cromwell is a hoot as Edgarson, but Adam Arkin is badly miscast as Fred Stapelli (Staples in the book). While staying entirely faithful to its source would have been impossible, this character’s deviation from the material does not work at all. In “A Travesty,” Staples is a happy-go-lucky, charming, likable, and perhaps slightly naive fellow. Stapelli is jaded and grumpy, which makes a critical scene where he plays cutesy with his wife crash and burn and reduces the audience’s sympathy for him when he is betrayed. It also greatly dilutes the impact of the ending.

Another big problem is the final act, which is rushed and unsatisfying. A successful landing would have elevated A Slight Case of Murder over typical TV fare, but instead we’re left with a decent film–the kind you watch on a rainy Sunday when it happens to be on cable and you have nothing else to do (or, as of this writing, when you’re quarantined due to coronavirus). Not bad, but not worth going out of your way to seek out.

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Review: Double Feature, part one – “A Travesty”