March 23, 1981 12:00 PM

Director Peter Yates and screenwriter Steve Tesich, who teamed up on Breaking Away, triumph here with a classy mystery. William (Altered States) Hurt plays an office building janitor who finds a tenant murdered and then, in order to meet a TV newswoman he’s long admired from afar, pretends to know more than he does. (The plot is based on Tesich’s own struggling days as a janitor, when he used to fantasize about CBS’ Lesley Stahl.) Hurt is terrific, creating a memorable movie character in the bright, witty but unambitious janitor. Sigourney (Alien) Weaver, as the news-woman, is appealing too: Together she and Hurt strike sparks reminiscent of Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland in Klute. The supporting cast provides the kind of peripheral fascination offered by only the best films. Christopher Plummer, as Weaver’s lover, a world-weary leader of an underground group that helps Jews escape the Iron Curtain, manages to be wary and ruthless at once. James (The Onion Field) Woods, as Hurt’s old Marine buddy and a prime suspect, puts a scary edge on a nervous character. Kenneth McMillan, as Hurt’s bitter paraplegic father, packs years of pain into a couple of minutes onscreen. And Pamela Reed, as Hurt’s girlfriend, is beautifully frumpy; in one marvelous scene they joyfully tell each other “I don’t love you” once they realize the nonfeeling is mutual. Yates does toss off a potentially harrowing scene where Hurt seems to be trapped in a trash compactor. And the ending, which packs in far too many coincidences and implausibilities, is deflating. But this film has rare energy and style; it makes one look forward to whatever Yates and Tesich try next. (R)

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