As sweeps-period fact-based fodder, Till Death Us do part certainly live up to the clichés of keeping you glued to the set and put through the wringer.
This NBC television movie have aspirations to be more than cynical counter-programming to CBS’ Winter Olympics coverage. Till Death Us Do Part is a TV movie scampering to catch up to the new standards in psychokiller portrayals set by Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. Treat Williams, having momentarily — and wisely — given up his vain quest to be a good guy in TV efforts like the short-lived series Eddie Dodd, here portrays Alan Palliko, a violent con man with ”eyes like he didn’t even know you were there,” as someone in this movie remarks.
Palliko is shown to be the sort of fellow who, when his wife (Embeth Davidtz) leaves him, tracks the woman down and, on a busy California street in broad daylight, socks her in the jaw with a roundhouse right. A quick scene, it’s also the most sickeningly vivid portrayal of misogynist abuse I’ve ever seen, and director Yves Simoneau (Memphis) deserves credit for literally not pulling any punches in the depiction of Palliko’s cruelty.
When evidence ties Palliko to two grisly murders, this brute comes to the attention of the L.A. district attorney’s office, in particular one of its eager-beaver prosecutors, Vincent Bugliosi (Arliss Howard, of I Know My First Name Is Steven). Later well known as the man who prosecuted Charles Manson and his ”family,” Bugliosi is depicted here as an idealistic straight arrow not long out of law school; he’s shocked by the enormity of Palliko’s crimes as his investigation proceeds.
In the teleplay by Phil Rosenberg (based on the book by Bugliosi and Ken Hurwitz), Palliko confronts Bugliosi in a courthouse hallway shortly after being arrested. Fixing the lawyer with an evil stare, Palliko tries to make Bugliosi think they’re kindred spirits: ”Only losers play by the rules,” he sneers. ”You and me — we take chances.” Director Simoneau lets us see that Bugliosi is really rattled by this confrontation — he realizes that the man he’s prosecuting just might be a vengeful wacko. It’s not often we see a TV-movie hero in such a vulnerable spot, but Howard pulls it off. His earnest-but-firm demeanor — sort of early Jimmy Stewart with a rough streak — makes Bugliosi an intriguing character, and a worthy adversary for Treat Williams’ more dramatic villain. A-