"Rehearsal for Murder" is dandy, delicious, civilized and scintillating, or at least as close to scintillation as a TV movie gets. Richard Levinson and William Link, who created "Columbo" for TV, wrote and produced this nifty murder mystery and signed up a top-drawer cast to play it. The CBS movie airs at 9 tonight on Channel 9.
Like Ira Levin's "Deathtrap," the mystery is set in the New York theater, although the producers apparently weren't willing to spring for location shooting; there isn't a single exterior shot of New York in the film. Of course this can be excused by calling TV an interior medium, and it isn't so bad being locked in a theater with a bunch of actors when the actors are as good as these.
Foremost among them, Robert Preston plays playwright Alex Dennison, whose new comedy, "Chamber Music," opens and closes on the eve of his marriage to its star, Monica Welles, played with provocative shimmer by Lynn Redgrave. Unfortunately for the author, the star also closes that night. Her death is ruled a suicide, but a year later Dennison gathers a crowd of cronies together in an otherwise empty theater for a reading of his new play, "Killing Jessica," which turns out to be a collection of scenarios revealing how each of the colleagues had a motive for bumping off the late Ms. Welles.
"In a mystery, everyone must have a motive," the playwright lectures. He also says, "In a mystery, the audience should never know what's coming next," and so it would be unfair to delineate any more of the film's plot, except to say it contains genuinely amusing curves and U-turns and a surprise ending that is at least remotely plausible.
The suspects include Patrick Macnee (of "The Avengers"), devilishly hammy as the play's leading man; the ever-capable William Daniels as a parsimonious producer; Madolyn Smith, deftly duplicitous as another actress in the play; towering, eminently affable self-caricature Jeff Goldblum as an ambitious young actor ("When I enter a room, I seem to command attention," he says, and he does) and Lawrence Pressman as the director. William Ross also distinguishes himself in the small and relatively unimportant role of Lt. McElroy of the New York police department, a hired audience for Dennison's investigative run-through.
Preston makes, if possible, more than the most of his role. A grandness has overcome him with advancing years; his craggy face makes him look like a friendly lion, and his occasional balletic gestures are not only in character, they're physically witty decoration--true masculine elegance. He really is among the most watchable of actors, and it's nice to see that his career now isn't entirely consumed with being the redeemable element in sour and lousy Blake Edwards movies ("S.O.B.," "Victor, Victoria").
In its promotion of the film, CBS has compared it to Agatha Christie, as if that's the only way to exploit a murder mystery. Actually, it's much more comparable to "Murder by Natural Causes," a similarly rich and breezy fun-house ride, with Hal Holbrook and Katharine Ross, that Levinson and Link engineered for CBS four years ago. Mysteries can be terribly enjoyable when it's obvious the people who put them together did so with relish and delight; "Rehearsal for Murder," nimbly directed by David Greene, is shamelessly guilty on both counts.