Hollywood-based homicide detective Al Mackie (James Garner) and his partner Marty Wellborn (John Lithgow) are assigned to investigate the murder of movie mogul Malcolm Sinclair. Resigned to the possibility they may actually have to solve a case for once rather than let fate take its course, the duo question a series of shifty Hollywood characters who each had motive and opportunity. One of them is Willie (Margot Kidder), a hardboiled actress who sparks up a romantic relationship with Al. Meanwhile troubled divorcee Marty frets over the safety of a young informant he treats like a son. Eventually Al and Marty uncover details of a child porn ring that leaves them with more sympathy for the killer than the victim.
Having last worked together on the altogether more lighthearted The Long Summer of George Adams (1982), James Garner and actor-turned-director Stuart Margolin, co-stars on the peerless detective show The Rockford Files, re-teamed for The Glitter Dome, another movie based on a novel by cop turned crime writer Joseph Wambaugh. In this instance one of the earliest produced by the HBO network, hence the filmmakers were free to push the envelope with content and language stronger than was typical for TV movies the Eighties. Wambaugh's work first reached the screen with gritty, realistic, borderline nihilistic cop drama The New Centurions (1972). After Robert Aldrich bastardized his work with the underwhelming The Choirboys (1977) the author insisted on adapting his own novels for the screen as was the case with the acclaimed The Onion Field (1979). Wambaugh's later novels reflected his growing fascination with the seedy side of Hollywood and that was front and centre in The Glitter Dome. Filmed in a mix of retro-Forties film noir shadow and garish Eighties neon light the central message is aptly surmised by James Garner's cynical, hardboiled narration as not a cop story at all but rather a story of survival.
Indeed Wambaugh, along with co-writer Stanley Kallis, makes it a point to underline his contempt for the Hollywood crime thriller with its heroic cops, crimes solved in the nick of time and happy endings. The film goes out of its way to deny viewers the vicarious thrills of a conventional crime thriller. Wambaugh's well-plotted central mystery adheres to the rigid procedural formula as the cops question suspect after suspect, seedy character after seedy character. Each of them is guilty of something, from the cinematographer who moonlights shooting kiddie porn to the script supervisor (Colleen Dewhurst) clearly exploiting a teenage runaway (Christianne Hirt) for her own sick gratification. Yet the script makes a point of stressing cops like Al and Marty are powerless to really do anything except pick up the pieces after another innocent has been bled dry. In most cases the perpetrators are simply too powerful for the cops to touch as Dewhurst's character sneers at one point. When they finally crack the case it is more the result of unrelated events colliding together through happenstance and sheer dumb luck. Even the climax deliberately sidelines Big Name Star James Garner with an almost comical injury while a hitherto unimportant minor supporting cop takes care of the action, between struggling to recall the words to the nursery rhyme "This Little Piggy."
All of which leaves The Glitter Dome either refreshingly honest or hopelessly depressing depending on one's point of view. While Wambaugh's rendition of Hollywood Boulevard cannot be faulted for seamy accuracy, his portrayal of the film industry seems rooted in 1940s cliché. At the same time the film itself is dated by some cheesy Eighties nightlife including a lot of garishly dressed teens with glow-sticks and roller-skates along with one suspect hilariously styled exactly like Faith-era George Michael. At several points the script appears to imply the reason this town is so amoral and filled with injustice is because Eighties Hollywood makes such bad movies. Which smacks less of sober social commentary than simple middle-aged disdain and will certainly sit uneasily with the current generation of Eighties nostalgists. To its credit the film finds a faint trace of hope in the compassion of Marty and in Al's neurotic romance with the equally acerbic Willy which inadvertently shakes his alcoholism and her substance abuse.
True to form Wambaugh is as concerned with the relationships between the cops as the murder mystery. On paper Al and Marty must read like clichés, the cynical veteran and the sensitive rookie whose compassion could prove his undoing, but prove far more faceted on-screen and are brilliantly portrayed by two outstanding actors. Garner, one of the most charismatic stars of both the big and small screen and also a notable risk-taker, ranks among the very few actors able to make a cynical, opportunist alcoholic coping with erectile dysfunction (we first meet Al struggling to perform with a hooker) both compelling and sympathetic. He is well paired an affecting and earnest John Lithgow as the cop cracking under the strain of a failed marriage and memories of the child abuse victim he could not save. Margot Kidder has one of her better post-Seventies roles. Not the first person you would think to cast as a glamorous femme fatale, she nonetheless pulls off a tricky character. Which includes a funny scene where she struggles to entice Garner into a twisted S&M fantasy. Much like Al, Willie starts off brazenly unsympathetic yet grows more vulnerable and likable as we get to know her. Stuart Margolin also cameos as the victim's flamboyantly creepy producer nephew while a visibly ailing John Marley went out firing on all eight cylinders in his final screen role as the police captain.