Friday, January 24, 2014

Guilty Conscience (Levinson-Link Productions, Papazian Productions, 1985)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Guilty Conscience is a 1985 TV-movie produced by Robert Papazian, directed by David Greene and written by Richard Levinson and William Link. Papazian’s and Greene’s names meant nothing to me before but Levinson’s and Link’s certainly did; in the 1970’s they were in charge of Universal’s long-form TV mystery series (the shows ran in 90-minute time slots and rotated each week) and were particularly famous for having created the character of Columbo, the raincoat-clad, Peugeot-driving detective played by Peter Falk whose whole strategy seemed to be annoying the murderers into confessing. Though neither Columbo nor any other official police officers appear in this one, the plot is certainly the sort of crime he might have investigated. Guilty Conscience is basically a blend of Diabolique and Sleuth: famous criminal defense attorney Arthur Jamison (Anthony Hopkins) wants to dump his wife Louise (Blythe Danner) but doesn’t want to divorce her because her alimony demands would impoverish him instantly. He’s been having an ongoing affair with a mistress, Jackie Willis (Swoosie Kurtz — I joked to Charles, “In the 1930’s and 1940’s that was the sort of name that got changed,” and he joked back, “And in the 1970’s and 1980’s that was the sort of name people changed to!”), but he’s cheating on her, too, with an art dealer and Canadian immigrant we never actually see.

All this takes place in San Francisco, with an opening scene at the Fairmont Hotel where we see Arthur lecturing to a legal conference and giving a highly jaundiced view of the court system and a defense attorney’s role in it — though we later learn this is just a fantasy sequence envisioning a way Arthur is thinking of killing his wife. Supposedly he arranged for this conference to take place within a 15-minute drive from his home so he could slip out of it, kill his wife, fake it to look like a burglary (we see him jimmying the lock and breaking into his own home) and slip back into the conference without anyone there having noticed he was gone. Arthur also has an imaginary alter ego (Donegan Smith) who questions him about his various schemes for killing his wife and pokes holes in each of them. Meanwhile, Louise and Jackie have met each other and, realizing that they’re both being screwed (literally and figuratively) by Arthur, have hatched a plot to kill him, and we see fantasy flash-forwards about how they might kill him and how their plans to cover for themselves might get undone by a hot-shot attorney like … Arthur Jamison. Guilty Conscience isn’t much plot-wise (I suppose I should add the original version of Unfaithfully Yours as an influence because it, too, is about a rich man fantasizing various ways of killing his wife) but it’s saved by the deliciously perverse writing of Levinson and Link, some surprisingly creative direction by Greene — in a film that’s so talky, and that never leaves the living room of Jamison’s home after that opening scene at the conference (which made me wonder if Levinson and Link had originally written it as a stage play and only later decided to convert it to a film) Greene’s offbeat angling and heavy use of the camera crane keep the film flowing and make it cinematically interesting instead of just “canned theatre” — and, above all, the first-rate cast.

Hopkins is utterly marvelous in his role even though he seems to be channeling Richard Burton more than usual (is it just coincidence that his performance is so Burton-esque when this was filmed one year after the real Burton died?); Danner and Kurtz are equally good (and well differentiated) as the two women (at least the two we actually see) in his life; and though part of me wishes they would have cast Hopkins himself as his alter ego (they probably didn’t because the trick photography needed to show Anthony Hopkins cross-examining Anthony Hopkins would have blown the TV-movie budget), Donegan Smith is excellent in the role, appropriately hectoring as he picks apart every flaw in every elaborate murder scenario Arthur concocts, including the attempts to cover it up after he actually does kill his wife in a struggle in which They Both Reach for the Gun (Maurine Watkins, your plagiarism attorney is calling from Aruba to thank you for financing his trip) — or does he? This film is probably more full of sequences that we think are real events in the story but which turn out later to be the fantasies of the various characters than just about anything ever made, but Levinson and Link are good enough writers that they play fair with this device (a lot of other people who’ve used it haven’t), and though it’s a minor work Guilty Conscience is a delightful 90 minutes ( gives the running time as 105 minutes but the version we watched was considerably shorter, mastered on a rather tacky DVD that started immediately on insertion into the player and might be a bootleg copy rather than the official release) spent with four fine actors and a script that gives them quite a lot to chew on and is fully worthy of them.