Offering a thoughtful spin on the TV-detective genre, Smile, Jenny, You’re Dead is a reboot of sorts, serving as the second pilot attempt for a series starring small-screen veteran David Janssen as sensitive private eye Harry Orwell. (A few months after this telefilm was broadcast, hourlong series Harry O began its two-year run.) What distinguishes Smile Jenny, You’re Dead from other TV mystery fare of the same era is a focus on emotions and psychology, rather than action and plot twists. The effort to render a serious crime drama for grown-up viewers is bolstered by imaginative cinematography and moody scoring. Alas, the acting is not universally outstanding, and the suspense quotient is low, an unavoidable repercussion of avoiding the standard whodunnit route. Nonetheless, the movie is in many ways refreshingly humane.
Harry (Janssen) is a cop on disability following an on-the-job shooting, so he picks up extra cash working as a private investigator. Living alone on a Southern California beach, he’s forever toiling on a boat that seems years away from seaworthiness, and his most perverse characteristic—by Los Angeles standards, anyway—is that he doesn’t drive. Another quirk? No gun. When a friend’s adult daughter gets harassed by a stalker, Harry takes the job of protecting her. She’s Jenny (Andrea Marcovicci), a model trying to divorce an overbearing man while taking comfort in the arms of a much older lover; Harry also finds himself attracted to her. Things get dangerous once Jenny’s stalker decides the men in Jenny’s life are better off dead.
Writer Howard Rodman provides nuanced characterizations and slick dialogue, while director Jerry Thorpe periodically uses offbeat camera positions to give the movie an idiosyncratic quality. Accordingly, there are compensations in place of the thrills one might normally expect to encounter in such a piece. Janssen excels in the lead role, channeling his signature grumpiness into something complicated, so he’s at once appealing and harsh. Marcovicci does not leave a lasting impression, but Clu Gulager and Tim McIntire lend twitchy specificity to supporting roles, and Jodie Foster contributes her impressive poise to a small role as a youth separated from her mother. As for Jenny’s twisted tormentor, he’s portrayed by future softcore producer Zalman King, and his onscreen behavior is weirdly fascinating because he manages to simultaneously overact and underact.
Smile, Jenny, You’re Dead: FUNKY