In a restroom in The White House, a janitor finds White House secretary Carla Town dead. Metropolitan Police homicide Detective Harlan Regis (Snipes) is put on the case. At the White House, Regis is introduced to Secret Service agent Nina Chance (Lane), who's assigned to keep an eye on Regis.
Parallel to this, the White House has to deal with an impending international crisis: U.S. President Jack Neil (Ronny Cox) has been trying to deal with a situation where Americans are being held hostage in North Korea, and some peopleincluding several members of his inner circle, led by Vice President Gordon Dylanthink the President is not handling it the right way. When the first suspect, the White House janitor, is dismissed the evidence against him is found to be set up, Regis begins to suspect that a conspiracy may be involved.
Murder at 1600 provides examples of:
- Artistic License Law: The defining premise of the film, that a Washington D.C. detective must team up with a Secret Service agent to investigate a murder at the White House, is fictional. Any murders on federal property (like the White House) are handled by the FBI.
- Assassination Attempt: After Jordan sees his effort to sunder national policy crumble, he grabs a pistol and fires one sloppy shot at the President, only for his shot to be intercepted by a handcuffed Chance. The Secret Service then promptly shoot him into Swiss cheese on the spot.
- Chekhov's Hobby: Regis builds scale models of historic battlegrounds and of the "City of Washington." Apparently his research into this included knowing where the secret tunnels under the White House are.
- "Die Hard" on an X: An odd case in which it seems that the film takes cues from other Die Hard derivatives rather than Die Hard itself. It's basically In the Line of Fire (incorporates much of the same Die Hard elements, with phone conversations and building brawls in all) with a tunnel finale much like the SEAL team siege in The Rock (which is Die Hard on Alcatraz).
- Dies Wide Open: Carla Town. A bit of Rule of Scary mixed with Artistic License Biology when we first see her, though, as she is not only looking "up" (that is, to say, toward her eyebrows), but both her eyebrows are visibly arched from the actress' effort to both keep her eyes wide open and pointed that direction. Once you die, you can't arch your eyebrows.
- Enhance Button: Averted. After Regis has gotten Carla's film developed, he sees something half out of frame that he wants more information on, and takes it to a guy who digitally scans the negative (which has a good deal of image that the drug store photo developer cropped out), and zooms in on it. But it's not a digital image, it's a digital scan of a film negative, so the amount of detail is not limited by the original image, but by the digital scanner's ability to resolve it. Apparently, they can do pretty hi-res stuff.
- Fanservice: An odd and version-specific case. If you saw this film on pay-TV in the late 90s or early 2000s, that is to say, if you saw the Pan and Scan version, the scene at Spikings' house is very different from what you would have seen in the theater or in a widescreen version. When Chance runs in to back up Regis, the shot is tightly cropped and follows her closely as she runs across the lawn. In the widescreen version, it's pretty much a static shot on a much wider field, with Lane's bouncing bosom considerably less noticeable.
- Frame-Up: Regis first begins to suspect that a conspiracy is involved in Carla Town's murder after discovering that the evidence against the White House janitor was planted. He and Chance are later framed as traitors by National Security Advisor Jordan after they discover he was behind the scheme, and later the whole scheme is revealed to have been one big frame-up against the President for his stance on going to war with North Korea.
- Jerkass: The First Son, Kyle Neil, who brags about having sex with Carla and sharing her with other men. As it turns out, Chance once used to be Kyle's bodyguard herself, but she asked to be reassigned after she found Kyle beating up his girlfriend.
- Jurisdiction Friction: As a Washington D.C. police homicide detective investigating a murder of a secretary at the White House, Regis has all kinds of jurisdiction friction with the Secret Service (which guards the White House). As a Federal building, the investigation of crimes committed in the White House would actually fall under the jurisdiction of the FBI.
- The Killer Was Left-Handed: Plays a part, mostly in setting up and then dismissing red herrings.Chance: The president is right handed.Regis: Yeah, I noticed that. He writes with his right hand. But he swings a bat and a golf club with his left.
- Making Love in All the Wrong Places: The victim has sex with the President's son in the Oval Office shortly before getting murdered. Later on, it is mentioned that the President's son seems to be trying to get laid in every single room in the White House.
- Mundane Made Awesome: The first suspect is a custodian at the White House who we first see cleaning a conference table with lambswool pads on his hands and knees, apparently swimming across it from one side to the other and back again. It's very visually striking in context.
- Not-So-Innocent Whistle: Regis tries to infiltrate the White House disguised as a janitor while doing one of these whistles. It fails, and he ends up captured.
- Obstructive Bureaucrat: A minor subplot is Regis' home being subject to an eminent domain seizure for demolition by an obscure government agency called the Interstate Commerce Commission, and his efforts to try to stop it being thwarted because he is unable to navigate the labyrinthine DC bureaucracy to even find the commission and try to talk with anyone. At the end of the movie he asks the President if he's heard of it, and it turns out that he has, and is willing to at the very least let Regis get his foot in the door to plead his case.
- Plucky Comic Relief: Dennis Miller, for some reason. Apparently he didn't do enough damage in The Net.
- The Starscream: A half-way through example. Jordan wanted to force the President to resign because he felt the President was too weak in not going to war with North Korea over a hostage situation, but rather than taking the Presidency himself, he was content with the Vice President assuming it, as he was in favor of war.
- Stop, or I Shoot Myself!: The opening scene features the protagonist (a D.C. homicide cop) trying to talk down a cracked government bureaucrat who is holding a gun to his own head in the middle of a busy street. As they learn, the gunman worked for the same agency that was in the process of evicting Regis from his home. Once he was up close, he noticed that the gun was on safety, so he took the guy down.
- Taking the Bullet: Chance eventually does this when Jordan tries to shoot the President after his plans are uncovered. Fortunately for her, it was Only a Flesh Wound.
- Treacherous Advisor: National Security Advisor Alvin Jordan was behind the murder to destabilize the Presidency and force the President to resign.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: It turns out the reason behind the entire murder plot was that National Security Advisor Alvin Jordan wanted to force the President to resign because he felt the President was too weak in not going to war with North Korea over a hostage situation and that war was the only way to protect the nation.Jordan: I think President Teddy Roosevelt said it best: "If I must choose between righteousness and peace, I choose righteousness."
- The White House: Well, duh; the 1600 in the title refers to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the address of the White House, so of course it's featured a lot.
- You Owe Me: After a brief nod to Think Nothing of It, implied at the end to be how Regis is going to get his apartment back from the federal agency that's trying to evict him.