Writers Richard Levinson and William Link are known for their wonderfully complex murder mysteries with several twists, turns and reversals. The pair had been friends since junior high and soon the pair were writing together for TV, Movies and Live Performances. Television series includes 1965s Honey West one of the very first female lead detective series on television. They also heavily contributed to Columbo, Mannix, Elery Queen and Murder, She Wrote. Richard Levinson died of a heart attack in 1987. Link wrote the script for the 1991 television film, The Boys starring James Woods and John Lithgow, as an homage to the partnership. This article will focus on two of their very best made for television movies, 1979s Murder by Natural Causes and 1985’s Guilty Conscience.
Murder by Natural Causes: Starring Hal Holbrook as Arthur Sinclair, a very talented mentalist who has become very wealthy with his books, television appearances and live performances. A couple years before, Arthur had a heart attack and now has a pacemaker. Unbeknownst to Arthur, his beautiful wife (Katharine Ross) wants out of the marriage, but she is greedy and doesn’t want to settle for her portion of community property. Katharine hatches a plan that involves her lover, Gil (Barry Bostwick) in the hopes of finding a way to get everything she ever wanted. Can the pair carry out their nefarious plan against a man who claims to be able to read minds? Watch and find out!
This is such a fun movie to watch and is expertly crafted, with a great cast. Multiple Emmy winner and Oscar nominated actor, Hal Holbrook, does a great job as the confident and a bit too arrogant Arthur whose job is to con an audience into believing he can read minds. Katharine Ross is also wonderful as the cold-blooded wife. Sweet and nice while at home, but self admittedly not a good person telling Gil when he is having second thoughts about their plan, “If you wanted a girl you could bring home to mother, you should have found someone else”. Rounding out the cast is Barry Bostwick as the handsome young actor whose failures on stage help spur him to the extreme and Richard Anderson as Arthur’s friend and Lawyer. The pacing of the film is good, slow for today’s audience but still moves at a good pace and has a nice rhythm. The script is clever and witty with wonderful play on words based on the character’s professions. The story seems straight forward at first, but as the plot unfolds, there are twists and turns, alliances and betrayals, making for a very entertaining watch. What will become of the characters, who will live, who will die and who will do the killing!
Guilty Conscience: Arthur Jamison (Anthony Hopkins) is a very successful attorney whose marriage is near its end. Not wanting to lose money in a costly divorce, he imagines different scenarios in which he murders his wife. Knowing the inner workings of the courtroom, he tests out testimony in a fictitious courtroom and cross examined by an imaginary prosecutor, who helps him find the faults in his plans. His wife (Blythe Danner) also has her own diabolical plans as does his mistress Jackie Willis (Swoosie Kurtz). The plot is like a game of chess, who can outsmart who and even more to the point, who can get away with it? Watch and find out!
This is one of the most amazing murder mystery television movies made, mainly because you never know what is real and what is fantasy, which is done by design. The audience is constantly guessing if something really happened or if in a few beats we are going to find out it was all in Arthur’s mind. Anthony Hopkins is amazing as the philandering husband who is brilliant in the courtroom and knows the law inside and out, giving him leverage over the others in the film. The plot is intricately woven and like most of Levinson and Link’s work, the dialogue is intelligent and witty with some biting commentary and dark humor. There is so much more I would love to write, but I don’t want to give anything away.
I have a personal connection to this story. Guilty Conscience is also a stage play, and in 1989, I had the honor of playing Arthur as a freshman in college in my first leading role. It was a tough part to play, and I wish I could do it now as an older and wiser human, but I absolutely fell in love with this script and to this day still think about its complexity.
Levinson and Link crafted many of my favorite stories. I had been and remain a huge fan of Ellery Queen, Murder, She Wrote, and Columbo, all of which the pair were heavily involved with. These are the stories that helped create my absolute adoration of murder mysteries. In addition, and close to my own heart, they also wrote the 1972 drama That Certain Summer, which is recognized as the first television movie to depict a stable gay couple, a gay parent and the first gay themed show to win an Emmy. With the subject matter, there were network issues, bomb threats and finding actors to play the leads was difficult, but I am sure we will do a full review in the coming months of this very important film.
Movie of the Week: I Love a Mystery
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