"Murder at 75 Birch" is a network time-killer of modest aspirations and even more modest achievements. So little of interest occurs during this ostensible psychological thriller that the film is almost enough -- almost -- to make one miss the overheated women-in-jeopardy junkers of old.

Murder at 75 Birch” is a network time-killer of modest aspirations and even more modest achievements. So little of interest occurs during this ostensible psychological thriller that the film is almost enough — almost — to make one miss the overheated women-in-jeopardy junkers of old.

Pic, “suggested by actual events” (a phrase as meaningless as “natural ingredients”), is awkwardly structured, pasting a series of flashbacks around scenes in which Gwen Todson (Melissa Gilbert) tries to convince authorities that her brother-in-law Rick (Gregory Harrison) is not responsible for the murder of his wife. Never mind that Gilbert’s character couldn’t be privy to all the flashback sequences she shares with police — that’s standard-issue sloppy storytelling — but there’s little that accounts for her abrupt, late-in-the-story and utterly undramatic about-face (or, rather, for her confrontational attitude at the movie’s opening).

Early on, the film introduces Rick as a hot-headed jerk capable of throwing a petty tantrum over a call in a softball game or his wife’s frowning on his Friday night carousing.

One morning, he phones his brother Dave (Vyto Tuginis), Gwen’s husband, who conveniently lives just across the street. In no time, police are swarming Rick’s place (though Gwen has no difficulty sauntering in and tainting the crime scene).

Seems Rick’s wife has been murdered in an apparent burglary. But, suspicious of Rick, the cops badger Dave, who’s unable to cope with the pressure of helping to clear or convict a murder suspect; he begins to chain-smoke and winds up on the business end of a large truck. Throughout the rest of the pic, Gwen copes with her husband’s death stoically — that, or the director forgot to ask Gilbert to convey any sense of loss.

Despite the lack of other credible suspects, Gwen believes Rick to be innocent, and even strikes up a friendship with him, despite his pro-pensity, portrayed earlier in the film, for crass behavior and a few troubling discoveries. He’s a good parent, Gwen reasons inanely: “There are many instances where loving parents turn out to be killers,” a cop informs her, uselessly and vaguely.

Information trickles out sloppily — in one scene, Gwen learns of a revelation while music blots out the information relayed; viewers don’t find out what was said until later, which is storytelling of the cheapest, most gimmicky sort. Tension is limited to one scene, which comes far before pic’s denouement and concludes anti-climactically. Cops seem to have missed a few steps in their investigation. If Rick is a suspect, wouldn’t they have interviewed his co-worker and elicited the info that Gwen gets instead? Worst of all, the lack of potential alternative outcomes mutes any drama the pic might have had.

Gilbert gives a straightforward performance, while Harrison is a cipher as the manipulative man of mystery — scarcely a line he delivers carries any credibility. What effect he’s striving to achieve with such mannerisms — or, more crucially, why anyone would trust his character — is unclear.

Relying on a more traditional approach to storytelling — from the viewpoint of either Harrison’s or Gilbert’s character as their lives become unraveled by the sundry disclosures — and eschewing the flashbacks would have helped to amp up the suspense level. But, then, just about anything would.

Pic was originally entitled “Murder at 75 Birch Street,” apparently until someone realized that the murder, in fact, takes place on Birch Lane. It’s that lack of attention to detail that makes this such a forgettable thriller.

Tech credits are professional enough. A couple of fleeting but gratuitous sex scenes are included, necessary more for network promos than for the film’s narrative.

Murder at 75 Birch

CBS; Tues. Feb. 9, 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Salt Lake City, Utah, by Nicki Film Prods. Executive producer, Dan Wigutow; producer, Vanessa Greene; director, Michael Scott; writers, Daniel J. Levine and Robert Freedman (based on a book by Richard T. Pienciak)

Crew

Camera, James Bartle; production design, Bryan Ryman; editor, Andrew London; music, Dana Kaproff; costumes, Camile Schroeder Morris; casting, Judith Holstra. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Gwen - Melissa Gilbert Rick - Gregory Harrison Dave - Vyto Tuginis Pat - Wendel Meldrum Todd - Jack Blessing Evangeline - Judith Carter

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