"Jinxed" appears to be its own worst enemy. A curiously misfired attempt at offbeat, screwball romantic comedy, it demands a level of plot-manipulating and stylistic sophistication that obviously remained out of its reach.

In fits and starts, one recognizes the desire to emulate the drollness of something like Hitchcock's "The Trouble With Harry" or the wackiness of something like Capra's film version of "Arsenic and Old Lace" or the cleverness of the deceptions and double crosses in something like "The Sting." What's sorely missing is a consistent style of facetiousness from any vaguely recognizable direction.

An oddly selected, incompatible trio of performers -- Bette Midler, Ken Wahl and Rip Torn -- turns up in a triangle situation that suggests a comic variation on the plot of "Double Indemnity." Wahl, a blackjack dealer named Willie, employed at a Reno casino, is professionally haunted by the fact that Torn, a smug, small-time gambler named Harry, seems to own him. Whenever Harry appears at Willie's table, he invariably cleans up. This "jinx" costs Willie a job as the story begins, and we learn it has cost him others in the past. As if this weren't enough trouble with Harry, he follows Willie from casino to casino, determined to exploit him indefinitely as a lucky charm of a pigeon.

Harry has a long-suffering mistress named Bonita, played by Midler, who entertains strangely unfocused singing aspirations but mainly keeps house for Harry in their van while getting bossed around and enduring his occasional physical abuse. Hoping to get some sort of edge on his nemesis, Willie seduces Bonita, who quickly suggests both their problems might be solved if they disposed of Harry. Moreover, Harry has a life insurance policy that makes his elimination seem financially beneficial. Bonita urges Willie to join her in a mutually liberating murder conspiracy, and he reluctantly agrees, on the condition that the jinx persists the next time Harry confronts him at the tables.

The plot, a jumble attributed to screenwriters Bert Blessing and David Newman, hits a serious snag at this juncture because bumping off Harry seems too drastic for the situation and for the wavering but always harmlessly humorous tone set by director Don Siegel.

"Jinxed" might have worked if its twist had been reserved for the denouement, leaving Willie and Bonita free to start over with each other. Unfortunately, there's a ton of ponderous, meandering exposition left when Harry departs the scene, and it obliges you to slog along with complications that make the lucky, clandestine lovers appear demented and venal. Fearing that the insurance company won't pay off on a suicide, Willie and Bonita go to desperate, unmirthful measures to fake an accidental death. After all this effort, the plot takes a turn that renders it pointless and sends Bonita off on a treasure hunt that proves equally strained and unrewarding.

I suppose it might be instructive if the story conferences for "Jinxed" could be reconstructed, because it's impossible to account for the rambling wreck of a plot the filmmakers leave you with. Could anyone have thought it worked, or that it would even pass careless inspection?

It seems ironically fitting that the most effective comic element in the movie should turn out to be Rip Torn's deadpan interpretation of Harry the stiff. "Jinxed" never looks so much alive as when Torn is playing dead. The role of Bonita, a combination of sad sack and Screaming Mimi, couldn't possibly have been tailored for Midler, who needs a mischievous, exuberant characterization to bring out her sunny, congenial sassiness.