Stories about amnesia victims enjoy a certain cachet among devotees of psychological thrillers. It's hard to botch one up no matter how surreal it may be. "Murder by Night," airing tonight at 9 p.m. on cable's USA Network, is not exactly botched, but its payoff is sure to elicit a groan of disbelief.
The show is a refreshing stretch for Robert Urich, who plays a man unraveling from a loss of memory, triggered in the lurid opening moments when he is knocked to the pavement by a car explosion and witnesses a serial murderer wielding a claw hammer.
Director Paul Lynch and writer Alan B. McElroy employ lots of nightmarish dream sequences in which Urich envisions himself at a series of murders that have Gotham abuzz. His key chain is found at a subway killing and at other points he suffers vertigo on a building ledge with a corpse behind the window and later wakes up with his pajamas and mattress soaked in blood (in the production's most imaginative, scary moment).
Kay Lenz plays a police psychologist assigned to jog Urich's memory but who falls into bed with him instead. Michael Ironside has an acerbic turn as a detective with the personality of a chain saw. And unctuous Jim Metzler is full of blandishments as a neighbor in Urich's apartment building.
If you check out the dialogue carefully, you can pick up on the killer early on. Red herrings hover about, and chess figures as a metaphor. Production values are solid. "Murder by Night" is a suspenser with more craft than logic or originality.