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It’s not often I find a TV movie that’s classy and trashy at once, but Murder By Natural Causes manages to be both. Trashy because the plot is lurid, and because some of the characters are pure scum, but classy because of a tight script and a great cast, especially Hal Holbrook. I’ve been a fan of his ever since Creepshow.

If it wasn’t for the fades to black where there used to be commercials, you would think the movie I saw was a VHS release of an old theatrical movie. They hardly make TV movies like this one anymore. But isn’t that my usual refrain when it comes to 70s movies in general? I suppose history will look back on our era as one spent romanticizing other eras, if we’re remembered at all.

Anyway, I guess you want a plot synopsis for what I’m going on about. Arthur Sinclair is a magician turned masterful fake psychic, referred to here as a mentalist. Because he has a weak heart, his cheating wife (Katharine Ross) thinks she can get her lover (Barry Bostwick) to scare Sinclair to death so she can take his money. But she has evidently forgotten who she is married to, because with the help of his unique powers of observation, as well as his private investigator (Phil Leeds), Sinclair has already triple-crossed her and everyone she is scheming with.

I know I’ve said before that I loathe “mysteries” which show you who did it right away and make sit around waiting for them to get caught, but this one is twisty enough that I was not bored. It’s not entirely a story about who did it, but what Sinclair will do with that knowledge. Watching everyone try to trick him is a treat. But you can’t take him for a dully flawless main character either; after all, he’s the one who married an evil golddigger.

But I guess you could say that maybe he enjoyed sitting back and watching the plot unfold too, and that he knew what his wife was all the time. The character is that cool; I’d have watched a whole series about this guy solving mysteries by essentially grifting people. Having said that about grifting, I realize I’ve just partially negated my original statement: I hadn’t included his character in my list of the movie’s scum, but technically, even Sinclair is trashy in his own way. Trashy with style, that is.

Murder By Natural Causes┬áis enjoyable in the same vein as another character-driven puzzle of roughly the same era, Deathtrap. There’s even a theme to think too deeply about. Sinclair is able to trap his wife with using state-of-the-art 1979 technology like a video camera, a VCR, and a hand-held cassette recorder, all of which nicely juxtaposes with the word “natural” in the title.

The only aspect of the movie I didn’t like was Katharine Ross’s manner of speaking. Maybe it’s because I’m southern, and used to listening to a drawl, but she clipped her words so precisely that it put me on edge. It was like she went from her elocution lessons directly to the set every day. Does she always talk like that, or was it intentional so her character would seem even colder? Oh well, she sure is pretty.

If you like a mystery with a complicated plot, but not so complex that you have to do a search for spoilers and an explanation after watching the movie, I think you’ll like Murder By Natural Causes.

Fabulous facts: Both Katharine Ross and the guy who played Sinclair’s best friend, Richard Anderson, were in Stepford Wives movies. She was in the original, and he was in the 1987 TV movie The Stepford Children. Anderson also played the killer in The Night Strangler. Gripping, right? Also, Phil Leeds was the hospital ghost who was waiting for his wife to die in Ghost. The glowing white tennis balls came for him.

 

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