Uneven 'Goodnight Sweet Wife' fails to illuminate Boston murder case

Television

September 25, 1990|By Michael Hill

"Goodnight Sweet Wife: A Murder in Boston" would have been a better movie if it had gone one way or the other, become an exploitative film that took us into the innards of yet another sicko American family, or a socially relevant commentary on the resonance of racism in American society.

But, like so many products of executive producer Arnold Shapiro -- he does "Rescue 911," a show that exploits emergencies and personal tragedies but also gives useful lifesaving tips -- "Goodnight Sweet Wife" tries to walk down both sides of the street.

The CBS movie, which will be on Channel 11 (WBAL) tonight at 9 o'clock, is the inevitable product of the murder last October of Carol Stuart, a Boston lawyer who was on her way back from a birthing class -- her first child due in just a few weeks -- when she was shot in the head.

Her husband, Charles, who was wounded, called police from his car phone and his dramatic attempt to get help -- recorded by "Rescue 911" which happened to be working in Boston that night -- along with his story of a black man leaping into their car, shooting them and stealing jewelry, dominated the media in Boston and received national coverage.

Politicians leaped aboard the get-the-killer bandwagon. The police found a suspect and were ready to charge him. An already racially-troubled city became intensely polarized.

Then it turned out that this headline-grabbing murder was just another domestic shooting; Charles Stuart probably killed his wife himself. The details will never be known because on the morning that it was announced that he was the prime focus of the investigation, he jumped off a bridge and killed himself.

It is clear that "Goodnight Sweet Wife" had to tiptoe around potential legal trouble, which kept it from delving into the type of portrayals needed for a sicko family story along the lines of "Fatal Vision" or "Small Sacrifices."

Instead, this movie offers a patchwork portrait, with scenes of Charles' actions and behavior that can be documented. That meant, among other things, that the script could only hint at Charles' having an affair that has been widely reported in other media.

However, since dead people can't file lawsuits, the script does invent scenes between Charles and Carol, including an educated-guess depiction of the murder that happens to clear a number of other people who might have been involved.

Considering the limitations, Ken Olin, of "thirtysomething" fame, does a solid job as Charles, with Annabella Price inevitably perfect as the victim. Margaret Colin is given a one-note role as the one reporter in town skeptical of the story.

"Goodnight Sweet Wife" does do a perfunctory job of showing what it was like to be an innocent black male in certain neighborhoods of Boston in the days following the killing, and is pretty devastating on police behavior.

The fact that the Boston public, press and politicians were so eager to buy Charles' story and what that says about our society is really the only relevant issue in this case. If "Goodnight Sweet Wife" had chosen that as its central theme, it could have been an important movie.

Instead, though, it goes back to its unraveling of the tangled web that Charles had woven. And in that story, the legal department clearly required it to pull so many punches there is little real impact.

"Goodnight Sweet Wife: A Murder in Boston"

** A TV movie based on the case of Charles Stuart, who galvanized Boston a year ago with his report of an armed black man jumping into his car, killing his pregnant wife and wounding him, but who later turned out to be the prime suspect in the killing.

CAST: Ken Olin, Margaret Colin

TIME: Tonight at 9 p.m.

CHANNEL: CBS Channel 11 (WBAL)

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