CBS jumps into the sweeps-murderfest-miniseries race with a based-on-facts account of a tawdry set of murders sure to please the unquenchable. Gregory Goodell’s teleplay milks the flamboyant story, the production is resourceful, and director Larry Elikann outdoes himself with the report on a weak, simple-minded man being led around by a tantalizing, scheming woman. As with similar crime ventures, TV’s no better for it.
This one’s about bank veepee Debbie Banister (Marg Helgenberger) who contacts ex-Marine John Hearn (Gary Cole) through his ad in Soldier of Fortune and seduces him into wiping out her brother-in-law, whose wife hasn’t read the fine print in his insurance policy.
Proclaiming her love to the dull-but-devoted Hearn, Debbie urges him to knock off her husband, Joe Bannister (Gregg Henry), because of her love for Hearn — and for the $ 100,000 insurance policy hubby carries in her name.
The telefilm sure recognizes Debbie’s all-but-too-apparent sexual control over Hearn, who was a hero in Vietnam but can’t marshal the force to resist seductive Debbie.
His poor widowed mother, played intelligently and commendably by Julie Harris , doesn’t know Debbie is married and begs her son not to plunge into wedlock again after his four divorces. Debbie’s mother, played with touches of anxiety by Shirley Knight, has apparently lost control.
“When Love Kills,” with its flashy title, grinds on with all the suspense of Charlie Brown enduring his annual football kickoff. Hearn’s a reluctant murderer , but Debbie knows how to jack up his killer instinct.
Director Elikann, whose credits include “I Know My First Name Is Steven” and “The Story Lady,” knows how to build suspense and how to create strong personalities as written by Goodell. Secondary characters like Gregg Henry’s Joe Banister, Michael Jeter’s nervous Bob Black and Kathleen Wilhoite’s Cheryl Pearce are standouts.
Gary Cole inserts an admirable mixture of confused passion and dedicated constancy in an otherwise limited man. Helgenberger, fresh from her ho-hum role in ABC’s “The Tommyknockers,” turns in a dazzling interp of the desirable, ambitious Debbie. She’s a knockout.
The four-hour opus, under producer Harvey Kahn, works hard to command attention, looks fine through Denis Lewiston’s lensing and has a sense of authenticity thanks to designer Glenda Ganis’ cunning blend of Atlanta and L.A. sites to establish the Georgia scenes.
Other tech credits are solid.