Multilayered mystery successfully reteams crusty law partners Walter Matthau and Harry Morgan in their third “Incident”– the telepic “Incident in a Small Town.” After this bucolic murder yarn, produced and directed by Delbert Mann and tantalizingly scripted by Cindy Myers, one can only hope for many more happy returns.
This ongoing tale of aging barristers has turned into a classy annual series. Following in the wake of “The Incident” (’91) and “Against Her Will: An Incident in Baltimore” (’92, also helmed by Mann), the project underscores the virtue of keeping the adventures spaced at least a year apart. Everything still seems fresh.
The period drama co-stars Stephanie Zimbalist as a stiff-upper-lip single mom concealing a burdensome secret while raising an illegitimate 13-year-old son in a small Illinois town in 1953. The ’50s time frame is crucial, although pic physically feels more like the ’30s or ’40s.
Zimbalist’s burnished performance more than holds its own with the characteristically heavy sluggers around her. If Matthau and Morgan could do these roles in their sleep, there’s something still mesmerizing about their teamwork.
Sandwiched between them, Zimbalist’s character suggests an updated, subtle variation of Hester Prynne’s ordeal in “The Scarlet Letter.” For all her guilt and isolation, she might as well be wearing her own red letter — say, “H” for hussy. At least that’s the lingering attitude of her dad (Morgan’s Judge Bell) and fussy gossips in the town diner where Zimbalist waits on tables.
But now, after 13 estranged years, she suddenly calls her father for help. Morgan’s proud judge and Matthau’s gently stooped Harmon Cobb ride to the rescue (in a 1939 black 16-cylinder Cadillac luxurysedan, which is later matched by a sizzling ’54 red Mercury convertible). Immediately the old boys find themselves in over their heads.
Galvanizing the plot and unraveling Zimbalist’s past is the return of her fiance/war hero (the feral David Erman), a violent, cocky rooster of a guy who had raped (and impregnated) her on the eve of their prewar wedding day.
That’s her secret, festering into hate for the man while she lovingly raises his son (the appealing Nick Stahl, Mel Gibson’s co-star in “The Man Without a Face”). The youth, in turn, who thought his dad died in France, is ecstatic to have him home.
The story’s layers are so intertwined that it gives away little to observe that the untamed ex-G.I. is murdered with a clothesline pole in Zimbalist’s backyard, with laundry sheets flapping gracefully in the wind.
With the killing visually retraced “Rashomon”-style during courtroom testimony (before a smirky judge, wonderfully played by Bernard Behrens), the fickle finger of guilt alternately points down three credible roads and carries the viewer along like an open-mouthed bystander.