Murder at 1600

(Dwight Little, USA, 1997)


It seems obligatory today that cop films start with a typical, everyday case which has no bearing on the main plot.

Murder at 1600 begins with Harlan (Wesley Snipes) tricking a maniac in the middle of a main street out of his gun before he kills himself or any passers-by. Immediately we gather that Harlan is a brilliant, eccentric, rogue type with a firm moral and social conscience.

This frenetic opener, however, gives us other, less generically familiar details. We learn, for instance, that Harlan is about to be evicted from his apartment – a space he has covered with lovingly recreated dioramas of his 'turf' of Washington. We also receive snatches of news about an American defence crisis in Korea, a tricky matter of foreign policy that threatens to split the government.

Soon we are into the main intrigue of the movie – a mysterious sex-related murder within the White House that triggers an immediate, elaborate cover-up operation. Here, Murder at 1600 resembles a modest version of Clint Eastwood's underrated Absolute Power (1997). But the skill and novelty of Dwight Little's film rests in the always captivating way that it keeps all its diverse threads running until they dramatically intersect.

This is a superior whodunit in which the usual red herrings and incriminating clues do not register as annoying contrivances. Harlan encounters an impressive range of shady governmental figures, from the feisty Nina (Diane Lane) to the creepily pragmatic Alvin (Alan Alda). An intriguing array of themes is worked out as the small-scale personal story comes to mirror larger, ideological wars shaping global history.

Murder at 1600 received little publicity or comment on its release, and disappeared quickly to video. But it is a sturdy, surprising little film that deserves to be savoured on a big screen.

© Adrian Martin December 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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