Murder By Numbers (1990): It All Adds Up

Dave digs further into the career of writer/producer/director Paul Leder and uncovers another forgotten film ripe for reappraisal.

Shari Belafonte was less than enamoured with the script for MURDER BY NUMBERS (1990) and turned it down pronto. Then, writer/producer/director Paul Leder asked her to give it one more look, this time reading a scene alongside her would-be co-lead, former General Hospital heartthrob Sam Behrens.

“We start Monday,” came Belafonte’s swiftly reconsidered response.

It was a decision that changed the actress’ life forever – maybe not so much artistically, but certainly romantically. Murder By Numbers was shot in May 1988, and, by the turn of ’89, the daughter of crooner and civil rights campaigner Harry Belafonte had moved into Behrens’ Studio City condo. Twelve months later they were exchanging rings in a civil ceremony on the island of Barbados, and it’s a marriage that still thrives today.

Sadly, there’s not so much else about the ludicrously neglected Murder By Numbers that does though…

At the time, People Magazine joked that the film “hit the dumpster faster than yesterday’s sushi”, while in the same article Behrens opined that its release was so anonymous “it premiered on a 747” [1]. This was, of course, a routine occurrence with the majority of Leder’s eleven films from the ‘90s, but it’s paramount that we don’t confuse lack of availability with absence of quality. Usually it’s quite the opposite, and that’s certainly the case with this tightly woven whodunnit.

Lee Bulger (Behrens) is a former lawyer turned private eye whose latest investigation is brought to him by ex-lover Leslie (Debra Stipe). Her sibling, Walter (Wlad Cembrowicz), is missing, something that’s gravely out of character, and she’s desperate to uncover where he is, or at worst, what’s happened to him. Immediately Bulger discovers that art dealer Walter was involved in a high-end real estate deal brokered by the shady Patrick Crain (Dick Sargent). However, there’s also questions to be asked of Walter’s on-off boyfriend Richard (Bobby Hosea); his slippery brother George (Stanley Kamel); and about an AIDS diagnosis that may or may not reveal the true cause of his disappearance.

With nine major characters dropped on screen in the first fifteen minutes alone, six of whom are key suspects, Leder’s challenge with Murder By Numbers is one of structure, clarity, and logic. For the Lederphiles among you it’ll come as no surprise that he spins those plates with the dexterity of a three-armed juggler, negotiating this winding conundrum through a series of red herrings and alibis until the film reaches its surprising conclusion.

Behrens is a great pick for Bulger. It’s the type of part that is all too often penned as a neo-noir gumshoe, but Leder writes the role as a welcome blend of Chevy Chase’s Fletch and Harry Moseby, Gene Hackman’s P.I. in Night Moves (1975). Belafonte shines as Lisa, Walter’s right-hand assistant at his gallery, and Cleavon Little is excellent as Bulger’s ex-con intern, David Shelby. Read the riot act by his boss during his interview about the importance of staying above the law, it’s a droll diversion to find Bulger roping him in to a series of criminal endeavours – purely for the good of the case, mind.

The relevance of the AIDS thread is initially a concern, but under the stewardship of political activist Leder it’s certainly more impressive than oppressive. Made during a time when almost half of America believed that the disease was God’s punishment for immoral sexual behaviour [2], the filmmaker handles the theme with compassion and realism, adding Walter’s mother, Pamela (the brilliant Jayne Meadows), as the raging homophobe of the piece; a frighteningly authentic pearl-clutcher keen to keep her son’s sexual predilection under wraps.

Murder By Numbers snuck out on VHS in March 1990 via Magnum Entertainment but failed to make much of an impact. Press reviews were non-existent, and it barely screened on television until shortly after the millennium. All of which is a great shame because it’s a gripping murder-mystery that adds further weight to my belief that Paul Leder is one of the most underappreciated auteurs of his generation.

[1] Well, Hush Our Mouth – Harry’s Shari and Knots Landing’s Sam Behrens Found Love on Location by Cynthia Sanz, People Magazine, 8th October 1990.
[2] Gallup Poll, 1987-1988.

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