Anyone jonesing for an eyeful of “Mad Men”-era production design will find plenty to savor in “A Kind of Murder,” the first English-language screen adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s “The Blunderer.” The movie’s murder-mystery heart never truly gets pumping, though; the psychological games prove far less tantalizing than the filmmaker’s evocation of a wintry 1960 Northeast. (As in another feature based on a Highsmith novel, “Carol,” Cincinnati plays New York.)
Patrick Wilson stars as architect and part-time fiction writer Walter Stackhouse, who lives in stylish misery with his emotionally unstable wife, Clara (Jessica Biel). His obsession with the unsolved murder of a Newark woman leads him to visit her book-dealer husband (Eddie Marsan), who Walter is certain committed the crime — as is the detective on the case (Vincent Kartheiser, snarling to no avail).
Walter’s fixation is clearly fueled by his own savage thoughts toward Clara, not to mention his guilt over a growing attraction to a Greenwich Village blond (Haley Bennett) whose sleek, A Kind of Murder review black getups are a pointed contrast to Clara’s forbidding crinolines and princess pastels.
In the film’s strongest performance, Marsan embodies class resentment and bottled-up rage in every glance. But under the direction of Andy Goddard (“Set Fire to the Stars”), working from Susan Boyd’s streamlined screenplay, none of this is gripping. The story remains an academic argument, struggling to pierce the handsome surface.