Killjoy (1981) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

KilljoyEveryone’s a suspect in this engrossing mystery starring Kim Basinger and the late Robert Culp, both searching for the elusive Joy Morgan – but does she even exists? This CBS TV-Movie, prosaically retitled Who Murdered Joy Morgan on video, is much better than average, though admittedly it opens with what was already a cliché by 1981 – a long POV tracking shot of an unseen murderer stalking a scantily clad blonde. But in this story, things are rarely what they seem …

This review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

Dr Martha Trenton: “Laury, if you want to get involved with doctors, you’re going to have to learn patience”

Laury: “Patients? That’s what you call the sick folk around here that you treat, right?”

‘Joy Morgan’ is the focus of the narrative yet, like Beckett’s Godot, she is permanently off-stage. In the opening moments of the film, all shot with the subjective camera, we see a blonde young woman being stabbed with a pair of sowing shears by an unknown assailant. She may or may not be ‘Joy Morgan’ (we only find out until the very end) and indeed fairly soon we start to wonder if she actually ever existed at all. Kim Basinger stars as a wealthy young socialite who is courted by two doctors at the local hospital run by her father: a sexy but arrogant heart surgeon (played by Stephen Macht); and safe, kind and slightly dull pathologist (John Rubinstein). The latter is much richer but has the disadvantage of being completely under the thumb of Martha, his domineering mother (played by the late, great Nancy Marchand, here in between her career-defining roles in Lou Grant and The Sopranos), who also works at the local hospital.

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The plot then becomes fairly convoluted but let’s get the basic set-up out of the way. At their regular watering hole (named ‘Post-Op’ …), the barkeeper Rosie (Ann Wedgeworth) hands Laury Medford (Kim Basinger) and her friend, Dr Paul Trenton (John Rubinstein) an envelope for Max Heller (Stephen Macht), Laury’s new fiancée. Inside are keys and a loving note from Joy Morgan – Laury is immediately jealous and the two use the keys to enter the woman’s house. They find a bedside photo of Max and his newly repaired custom-tailored jacket. Laury confront Max, who claims he is being set up and that he does not know who Joy is. The two argue and the engagement would seem to be off – which pleases Martha, as Laury’s husband is bound to be made head of medicine by her father.

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At a party Max invites a perky blonde who says she is Joy and who laughingly apologises for her prank – she now says that she and Max actually stopped seeing each other a long time ago. But it’s all a lie. Paul admits that he was the one who set Max up in the first place, trying to drive a wedge between Max and Laury, whom he also loves. It then turns out that the ‘Joy’ at the party was in fact an actress friend of Max’s – and that the real woman is missing.

Rosie: “Now, your type, they’ll have to nail you into a coffin to keep you from wandering”

Max: “Rosie, a woman as beautiful as you are, you turn a guy on and then you complain when he’s out of control”

Rosie: “On top of that coffin doctor, they’d better dump a ton of rocks”

Enter Lou Corbin (Culp), who claims to be another one of Joy’s old boyfriends. He soon  finds all kinds of skeletons in the trio’s background and reasons why they would  want to get rid of Joy – this even extends to Paul mother’s Martha. Joy is in fact now officially missing and Lou, clearly a pretty shady character, thinks that one of the four may be involved in her disappearance – but which one? Is Lou the one covering his tracks? Late one night in the hospital Corbin involves Laury in a cunning plan to catch a killer, leading to a surprise conclusion and a memorable freeze-frame finale!

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Killjoy is very much in the style of those great psychological mysteries sired by the success in 1955 of Les Diaboliques, the suspense classic that Henri-Georges Clouzot adapted from the novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, which in turn lead Jimmy Sangster to write and produce a whole run of imaginative variations on the theme for Hammer Studios, and which I have blogged about extensively before. Director John Llewellyn Maxwell was one of the best TV directors at the time and handles the material superbly, keeping the proceedings ticking over at a fast pace but also fashioning a genuinely spooky climax in the hospital morgue. Basinger is utterly ravishing here, bouncing between the various men in her life and negotiating the secrets that they hold with fiery imperviousness – every ounce a star in the making, she is smashing here.

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For me though the real star of the show is Robert Culp, who like everybody else appears in a highly ambiguous role but is both sinister and funny all at the same time and truly compelling throughout. His line readings are always ever-so-slightly off and his trademark wolfish grin is always hiding something.

Max: “I’m going to tell you just once. If you harass us again …”

Lou: “Harass? That is a very, very hard word …”

Max: “… I’m going to break your spine”

Lou: “Do you think you can do that?”

Max: “Oh yeah, Louie. I can do it – really.”

Lou: “Oh. Well, how about now?”

Like Chase a Crooked Shadow, which previously I reviewed here, and Taste of Fear (which I reviewed here), this is a tight suspense movie in which suspicion is dealt with like a pack of cards. No one, but no one, is to be trusted, all leading to a surprise payoff that a) really surprises and b), plays fair, which is really, really unusual. In re-watching it, I was very happily surprised by just how finely dovetailed Sam Rolfe’s script really is. There are not too many of these kinds of mysteries that are as solidly constructed as this, so do yourself a favour – get hold of this one (it’s easy) and enjoy – you won’t be sorry. For more info about this TV-Movie, I recommend you visit Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot.

DVD Availability: Always easy to find on disc (and previously on VHS), for too long this was only available in technically very inferior versions, some even in faux ‘widescreen’ editions (ugh). However, it has finally got a proper release through the Warner Archive Collection directly from Warner or Amazon and the like. You should definitely snap it up!

Killjoy (1981)
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Producer: Joseph B. Wallenstein
Screenplay: Sam Rolfe
Cinematography: Robert B. Hauser
Art Direction: W. Stewart Campbell, Richard Wineholdt
Music: Bruce Broughton
Cast: Kim Basinger, Robert Culp, John Rubinstein, Nancy Marchand,  Stephen Macht,  Anne Dusenberry, Ann Wedgeworth

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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22 Responses to Killjoy (1981) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. le0pard13 says:

    I seem to remember this from long ago. Long-time fan of Robert Culp’s work, on film or TV. The man was effortless with either the good guy role or the cad. Especially the latter. His Columbo roles always among my favorites.

  2. This one’s ringing just the faintest of a bell for me, too, Sergio. If I did see it, though, it was far too long ago for me to really remember it. Some of Kim Bassinger’s and most of Robert Culp’s work is great though. And this does sound like a really well-done psychological suspense story. Thanks, as ever, for the fine review.

  3. realthog says:

    Looks splendid!

  4. Colin says:

    Like Margot says, something feels vaguely familiar about this. I may have seen it, or perhaps bits of it. but it would be an awful long time ago. Sounds good though and one to look out for.

  5. Definitely intriguing – and REALLY obscure and overlooked!

  6. John says:

    I would definitely remember a movie that starred John Rubinstein (saw him on Broadway as the original Pippin) and Kim Basinger. Never heard of it or seen it unlike the others who vaguely recall it. I was addicted to movies like this in the 1970s but I see the date is 1981 and I was in college then. Between 1979 and 1983 TV was barely part of my life. If I wasn’t studying, I was rehearsing or on stage. Only saw a few shows every now and then and only during the summer.Thanks for this tantalizing review. I’m off to find a copy later this afternoon!

  7. tracybham says:

    This one definitely includes some actors I like to see. I don’t think I ever saw it or remember it, but that was a long time ago.

  8. Sergio, I think I have seen this film though I can’t be absolutely certain. The Kim Bassinger shots do seem familiar but I can’t say the same for the rest. I’m drawing a blank with Robert Culp.

    • She is great in this and gets top billing quite rightly (though ti was done alphabetically as Culp was definitely the major star of the film). Actually, for some reason my images grabs do look a bit strange, not sure what happened, so i may re-do them. Thanks for the comments Prashant, as always.

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