Saturday 24 October 2009

They Only Kill Their Masters (1972)

Director: James Goldstone
Stars: James Garner and Katharine Ross
The timeframe of this movie is obvious from moment one, from the flute music playing over the short opening credits to the font used to show us the names involved: James Garner, Katharine Ross and Hal Holbrook. The whole opening beach scene screams early seventies too with Jenny Campbell's corpse being dragged to shore by her dog, a Doberman Pinscher (sorry, they only call them dobermans now, apparently, says veterinary nurse Kate Bingham). The dog is Murphy, he's very well trained, and he's not just the chief suspect in the murder, he's the only suspect. At least that's until chief of police Abel Marsh in this sleepy coastal town of Eden Landing turns up with a court order to have put him put to sleep.

Marsh doesn't even like dogs but in passing the time of day with the vets he finds that the whole thing doesn't add up. Mrs Bingham knew of another doberman who had killed its master, but that one went down in an understandable way: the dog had been beaten for years and when it finally turned it went for the throat. Marsh wonders why such a well behaved, thoroughly trained animal would kill her and if it did why wouldn't it go for her throat? So he gets the lab to do some tests and sure enough, Murphy is cleared. Jenny didn't bleed to death; she was drowned. Someone killed her in freshwater, attempted to diguise the act by pouring in salt and then dumped her in the ocean. The lab also finds out that she was three months pregnant.

So Marsh gets to investigate, in his lazy small town sort of way and as much he can given how underfunded his police department is. The small town setting means that he knows pretty much everyone and the underfunding doesn't mean that he isn't capable, as he proves by breaking up a bar fight with a couple of bikers. This impresses his date, because you know he just had to try it on with Mrs Bingham, once he finds out she's divorced. She is played by Katharine Ross, after all. He's a little less willing to take on Murphy too, but he's saved him from being put down and nobody else wants a dog that the papers have labelled a killer.

The mystery is well written here, by Lane Slate, but is hardly a detail oriented thing with clues coming out of the woodwork every ten seconds. There's no attempt to work an Agatha Christie type yarn with a set of suspects and a set of motives. There are merely a few hints dropped here and there and a cop dogged enough (sorry) to work it all through, in the process discovering that his sleepy little town has a dark side. Jenny seems to have been a popular girl and not just with the sort of people you'd expect. There's an undercurrent of homosexuality here, not just Jenny being bisexual but in the use of dialogue. I was surprised to hear James Garner use the word 'faggot', just as I was surprised to hear Katharine Ross use 'dyke'. Somehow such words seem out of place in a story that exposes a sleazy undercurrent to the town but otherwise tells its story in a safe TV movie sort of way.

Garner was great in this sort of laid back role, which fit him to a tee, and he'd soon be even more laid back as Jim Rockford in six seasons of The Rockford Files, which began two years after this film. The tone of the film and Garner's portrayal of the chief of police reminds me of Tom Selleck's work as Jesse Stone in that series of TV movies. I was amused to find that the only time Garner was nominated for an Academy Award was for a film called Murphy's Romance. No, it wasn't a sequel to this film in which Jenny's doberman finds a girlfriend. Ross is a lovely leading lady, who gets quite a bit of screen time and who seems to walk around naked under her coat because it's longer than her miniskirts.

Both the leads may be fine, as is Hal Holbrook as the town vet, but it's the name cast of supporting actors who really colour this film. This was the last film shot on MGM's #2 lot in Hollywood after a few decades of being one of the most important places in filmdom, and it proved to be a golden opportunity for a number of golden age actors who knew the location well to make a movie there for the very last time. They get mixed treatment, though it's good to see them all, some of whom hadn't been on screen in a long time.

Worst treated has to be June Allyson, who has only a small but crucial role as the vet's wife and who deserved to be a much bigger part of the story, especially as she hadn't appeared in a film since 1959 and only had two more performances left. In worst condition is Tom Ewell as one of Marsh's cops. He looks scarily out of shape, nothing like the young man who fantasised about Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, and it isn't surprising to find that he was close to the end of his career, only two more films left for him too.

Rat Packer Peter Lawford plays the victim's husband, who she apparently left for another woman. He looks older than I'm used to seeing him but the nineteen year old girl on his arm fits just fine. Arthur O'Connell and Edmond O'Brien are both excellent in their small parts as owners of Eden Landing businesses, full of character and stealing their scenes ruthlessly but apparently effortlessly. Best of all is Ann Rutherford, best known for being Andy Hardy's girlfriend Polly in a couple of films a year as the thirties became the forties. She even snuck in a performance as Scarlett O'Hara's sister in Gone with the Wind. Here she's married to Tom Ewell and works with him as the police department's secretary. She gets more time on screen than any of the other old timers and she does quite a lot with it.

Murphy is unfortunately uncredited, but he's the star of the show, and he's the reason I'm watching. This makes precisely one of the classic doberman pictures that my wife has been waiting to see again for years. Now I just need to find The Doberman Gang, made the same year as this film, and its sequels, all made by Byron Chudnow. There were three sequels, the second of which features quite a few interesting names. How can you go wrong with a movie about a former conman controlling his five dobermans by remote control and taking down a criminal gang, especially when the ex-con is Fred Astaire? Well that film is The Amazing Dobermans, made in 1976, with James Franciscus, Barbara Eden and even Billy Barty. For now I'm happy to have finally found this one.

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