' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Murder at 1600

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Some Drivel On...Murder at 1600

1997 was not just the year of dueling volcano movies – “Dante’s Peak” and, obviously, “Volcano” – but of dueling White House sex thrillers too. After all, you-know-who was in the White House. Clint Eastwood’s “Absolute Power” arrived first, an adaptation of David Baldacci’s airport rack thriller with a couple coats of auteurist varnish. “Murder at 1600”, which hit theaters a couple months later, is just trash, or at least should be, opening with a comely White House intern found murdered in a White House bathroom. She is the same comely intern we see only moments before splayed out with an unidentified male on the Resolute Desk of the Oval Office, the camera tilting down to the Presidential Seal. If this suggests an Alan Pakula thriller for the Clinton Era, melding “Klute” with “The Parallax View”, forget about it. But then, “Murder at 1600” is never even as tawdry as this sequence suggests. Indeed, the close-up of George Washington’s eyes on the Gil Stuart painting seems to evoke a sort of tsk-tsking, a dressing down of the whole situation, that this is unbecoming of the Presidency and of the Presidency’s house, a mood the whole movie maintains. Virtually taking a cue from its most memorable line of dialogue, briefing White House staff on avoiding the words “woman” and “murder” when discussing what happened, “Murder at 1600” is weirdly prudish, not salacious. 

After the intern is discovered dead, Washington D.C. homicide detective Harlan Regis (Wesley Snipes) is summoned to investigate with Nina Chance (Diane Lane) as his Secret Service Liaison. If the case seems open up and shut, a male janitor seen harassing the dead woman having his button turn up in the bathroom, you undoubtedly know the rules of the road enough to know it isn’t. This button, in turns out, was originally found in the dining room, suggesting the fix is in, and also suggesting the sort of intramural sleuthing that defines “Murder at 1600”, blatant clues like jumbo sized bread crumbs, substantial red herrings, not to mention dutiful adherence to Ebert’s Law of Conservation of Characters which doubles as how high up your name comes in the cast list – that is to say, Tate Donovan as the President’s skeevy son cannot be quite as important as Alan Alda as the President’s National Security Chief. (Spoiler alert!) The latter ties directly back to a brewing North Korean hostage crisis which seems like a backdrop to the murder but gradually becomes paramount, “Murder at 1600” ultimately proving as interested in geopolitics.

“Murder at 1600” itself is almost as sterile as a crime scene, virtually devoid of atmosphere. The prologue, in which some burned out Beltway bureaucrat stands on the street in front of a frightened crowd threatening to blow his brains out, suggests something, at least, a city and its denizens holding on by a thread. Alas, this is just set-up to introduce the superfluous recurring bit about Harlan’s looming eviction as well an opportunity to see Harlan work his semi-ass-kicking magic. Mostly director Dwight H. Little’s style is just stock scenes of Washington D.C. and routine action scenes chopping up the sleuthing, culminating in a White House break-in through the mystical tunnels located beneath 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which is nowhere near as fun as it should be. The concluding face/off brings all the characters onstage together, allowing for a climactic Teddy Roosevelt quote and giving the stand pat President (Ronny Cox, barely there) a chance to stand up, one final underlining of the kind of blasé two-dimensionality defining the entire film.

As Regis, Snipes is given nothing to play, or at least nothing interesting. Initially the character is written as a fish out of water, gawking at the White House interiors as he is escorted through to the scene of the crime, but that mostly falls by the wayside. Harlan’s hobby, meanwhile, of constructing Civil War miniatures is cited as a kind of “therapy” given his occupation, though Snipes never lets us feel the weight of anything much, no matter how deep into the political murk he wades. Even the eviction looming over his head is just comic relief. Lane has even less to play, though she at least evokes an almost infuriated fatalism when her character reluctantly goes rogue by joining forces with Harlan, like she know she’s written her own death sentence, though the plot gives that nowhere to go either. And despite the lascivious nature of the case they are trying to crack, Harlan and Nina are allowed no romantic connection, none, strictly platonic, an odd counterpoint. In that way, then, perhaps Harlan’s hobby is right on. Like “Murder at 1600” itself, he’s a total square.

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