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One has to wonder if David Lynch was inspired by this film when developing his cult-favorite TV series "Twin Peaks". Similarities abound (dead female washes ashore, sleepy town with ugly sexual underbelly, inept police force, quirky citizens, references to pie, to name a few....) Garner plays the police chief of a small coastal town called Eden Landing (mostly represented by the MGM backlot!) When a divorcée is found along the shore with her Doberman at attendance and bite marks all over her, it is presumed that the dog killed her. However, he soon realizes that someone else is involved. Through his investigation, he interacts with quirky locals who are portrayed by a plethora of old time movie stars (some of whom hadn't worked on screen in years.) O'Brien looks really unhealthy and only worked another year or two after this. Ewell (who once flirted on screen with Marilyn Monroe) is also looking really rough. (Trivia: Evelyn Keyes played his wife in "The Seven Year Itch" and Anne Rutherford does so here, so he played husband to both of Scarlett O'Hara's sisters from GWTW.) Lawford is rail thin and knee-deep in the "mod" look he would later take even further. The worst injustice is saved for Allyson. Her character is completely, totally unbelievable and underdeveloped. Things had definitely changed since she and Lawford filmed "Good News" on the same backlot! Garner is aided somewhat by veterinarian Ross (whose lab coat is longer than her mini-skirts) and to a lesser degree by bumbling Connelly and Guardino as a trigger happy state police captain. Holbrook gives another one of his wonderful performances in which it's impossible to tell if he's good or bad. The script is trashy and occasionally meandering. If anyone wants to hear Garner and Ross toss around words like "faggot" and "dyke", here's the chance. Or try a drinking game. Every time someone says "neat", do a shot. Most folks will be under the table by half time. Nearly everyone who doesn't live in Eden Landing is presented as either a troublemaker or a sex fiend. This gives the film a certain oddity value. Not only do the characters think of outsiders as freaks, but the filmmakers seem to feel that way too! (Witness Lawford's girlfriend and the bizarre barroom brawl started by two out of town punks, one of whom actually wears a huge measure of chain around his neck!) The film also serves as a time capsule for horrible '70's decor. Check out the beach house's kitchen and its foil wallpapered bathroom!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This 1972 film is the first and probably the best of four, varied 1970s
movies by the same writer about sensationalistic small-town murders
solved by the local police chief against the backdrop of quirky town
regulars and a casual romantic interest. The others are: (1) Isn't It
Shocking (Alan Alda, 1973); and (2) The Girl In The Empty Grave and (3)
Deadly Game (both Andy Griffith, 1977).
Here, Chief Abel Marsh (James Garner) returns from a Los Angeles vacation to read in the paper about a local woman's death while he was away. She was found dead at the beach, with her pet Doberman "Murphy" beside her and its bite marks on her arms. Marsh finds some suspicious signs at her house and learns that Dobermans strike for the neck, not the arms. So he has the woman's body exhumed and autopsied. He discovers that she was drowned in fresh water but dumped in the sea. He also learns that she was pregnant. Her ex-husband (Peter Lawford) tells Marsh that she ended the marriage because she was in love with a woman. Although the killer stripped the victim's house of evidence, Marsh finds in some litter on the floor a photograph of an unidentified nude couple running toward the beach, away from the camera. He takes in Murphy. He also starts a romance with Katharine Ross, who plays the assistant to veterinarian Hal Holbrook, husband of June Allyson.
Marsh arrives at the victim's house to meet Lawford. Marsh finds the house in flames and Lawford unconscious inside, before being slugged. There is a nice scene as Marsh uses the phone in the house (his car tire and radio cord were slashed) to call for a fire truck and ambulance, only to have to sit outside and watch the house burn down and Lawford die, because the assailant, who took off in Lawford's car, blocked with the car the "one-way tunnel" between the town and the house, delaying the reinforcements. Further deductions lead Marsh to a suspect, who drugs and eludes him in an implausible scene (why would Marsh take the bundle from the suspect, tying up his arms, instead of handing it off to the owner, who was standing right there?). Marsh pursues the suspect and gets closer to the killer, with limited help from the bungling county police and apparently little or none from his own men. His relationship, such as it is, with Ross, falls apart due to his work on the case, at least for now.
Unlike Alda, Garner is credible as a police chief. He uses a gun, breaks up a bar fight, and comports himself with authority. Unlike Griffith, Garner plays the role straight. The supporting cast is good, even if not as well-used as Alda's. There is more plotting and detective work in Garner's than the others. It strikes a better balance between serious and light elements than the dreary Alda or silly Griffith versions. Garner's has pleasant music and some good use of locations.
But problems spoil fuller enjoyment of the movie. The plot depends on Marsh not being able to distinguish a 30-year-old woman from a 55-year-old woman. Why did the careful culprit leave the crucial photo behind? And there is no explanation for how the case could have initially been so badly mishandled (mistaking cause of death for bite marks, instead of drowning). The director seems to go out of his way to present early scenes as unpleasant and loud (Marsh banging incessantly on the police car horn outside the station; a waiting room at the vet's with countless barking, jumping dogs; sickly lime green counter trim and wallpaper in the victim's house; Marsh clumsily knocking things on the floor there).
Garner acts so sullen and cynical that he lacks his usual charm and energy. Marsh's catch-phrases "Neat," "City folks," and "When you know where not to look, that tells you something about where to look," feel overused and phony, not natural. Marsh wisecracks about "triple bourbons for lunch," gleefully brings a second full pitcher of beer to his table, and always has a bottle handy. Nothing is made of this. Although likable, attractive actors, the relationship between Garner and Ross is hasty and unexplained in how it begins and especially ends, with excruciating, slow-paced scenes in which he, doing tight-lipped slow burns, and she, inquisitive and confused, take forever to say nothing. Lines that are supposed to be significant are incomprehensible (suspect tells Marsh, "You're shrewd, Abel, but you're not very smart"). Marsh is too rough with Ross and with Murphy.
There is little depth to the characters or relationships. Allyson is a mere stick figure plot device, with only a brief glimpse early and a few coarse, bitter lines ("She was a bitch."; "If you're so smart, you find the car."). The victim is left obscure. Marsh's deputies play no meaningful role. The running joke of the gung-ho county police's incompetence is taken too far when it causes a death.
The plot relies on sensationalism and innuendo rather than clear, satisfying explanation. The killer's confession is nearly incoherent (" .There was nothing left of him. Nothing of me. I had no choice."). The movie seems to exploit homosexuality and "threesomes" as plot gimmicks. It can be crude and offensive, as when Marsh jokes to Ross' question about why he is still single, "I'm a faggot. Have you seen the women in this town?"; Ross remarks, "I guess dykes don't use the pill."; a deputy laughs hysterically when discussing with Marsh a young woman who had part of her anatomy bitten off by a guy with her in the back seat of a car that hit a bump in the road; Marsh mutters in response to Lawford's new teenage-looking floosie girlfriend's question about whether there are motels in town with vibrator beds "in the box," "In the box, neat....City folks."; and dirty old townsmen quiz Marsh about "Did he get much?" on his L.A. vacation.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
They Only Kill Their Masters is a flawed murder mystery. A meatloaf
dinner half way through stops it in its tracks. The female romantic
lead is as bland and uninteresting as packaged custard. The director
never establishes control over the movie.
On the other hand, it also has a great deal of easy-going charm, a winning performance by James Garner (who carries the picture) and a deliberately misleading set of clues that lead to steamy speculation, smarmy behavior and committed kinkiness. There's a sleight-of-hand solution that makes sense and a Doberman named Murphy with chompers big enough to rip out a throat and a tail that could power an aluminum smelter just by wags.
Never trust small town values, especially if the small town is Eden Landing on the California coast. When a young woman washes up on the sand in front of a beach house, she has major mauling on her body and a prancing Doberman bouncing around in the surf next to her. It's not long before the newspaper pronounces the woman dead by dog and Murphy is scheduled for euthanasia by Dr. Watkins (Hal Holbrook), the town vet. Then Police Chief Abel Marsh (Garner) has a talk with the town coroner. Seems the dog's bites were all on the body's arms and legs. Looks like Murphy might have been trying to rescue her. Then there's evidence that she drowned...on purpose and it wasn't suicide. Her lungs are full of tap water mixed with salt, not seawater. And she was pregnant. As Abel investigates, he finds more questions than answers. He gets bashed and beaten. And he finds he likes the vet's new assistant (Katharine Ross) well enough to invite her over for a meatloaf supper. Abel also finds some erotic photos. Seems the dead woman liked to keep a record of her doings. Through it all Abel remains skeptical, likable, wry and smart...just like James Garner. The conclusion is tricky and nearly lethal for Abel.
Some fine actors join Garner in this flawed but interesting murder mystery. Katharine Ross, unfortunately, brings little to the part. The character is bland, has a nice smile, not much personality and pours too much dressing on the salad she makes for herself and Abel to accompany Abel's meatloaf. But as compensation there are all those excellent, aging actors who show up and demonstrate why Garner is wise enough not to go toe-to-toe with them in their scenes together. Tom Ewell is one of Abel's cops; June Allyson is the vet's wife; Edmund O'Brien is the liquor store owner; Arthur O'Connell owns the local diner and Ann Rutherford is Abel's police dispatcher. Even Peter Lawford shows up as a sleaze with a lot of hair. They give us more than cameos, but none of the parts requires actors as known as they are. The result is that each actor gets a little extra business to do so that we can appreciate their skill and we can remember their great roles. As much as they add to the movie's pleasure, their presence distracts from the story.
I've always liked this movie. The solution is unexpected. Garner is Garner, and that's a plus. And it's still good to see in their old age just how skilled and professional were Edmund O'Brien (D.O.A., Seven Days in May, The Wild Bunch), Tom Ewell (Adam's Rib, The Seven Year Itch) and Arthur O'Connell (Picnic, Anatomy of a Murder).
I saw this movie when I was ten-years-old with my cousin Johnny. My memory is a bit fuzzy, but I remember liking it. It seems that Dobermans were capturing the imaginations of Americans from Los Angeles to New York, and this film reflects that craze. Does anyone remember that crazy movie about a group of Dobermans that were trained to commit crime. It's odd how certain dogs become really popular, then aren't very popular at all. That said, I decided to watch this film again...and you know what, it's a really good movie filled with veteran actors who know how to act. Not fast-paced, but a darn good whodunit that will leave you guessing until it is all revealed. A must for James Garner fans. Quite possibly his best, if you don't include the "Great Escape" or "Support Your Local Gunfighter."
It was better than it should have been. It seems like it was first
slated as a movie-of-the-week but then an fading MGM figured to score
some box office bucks with the gimmick of this being one of their last
movies shot on a studio lot. Casting MGM veterans in small parts helped
some but, this being a detective movie, Jim Garner has to carry it all
the way. Which he does with his usual aplomb.
It's a movie of its time. It's a small-town murder mystery with a back story which might have come from a Playboy or Penthouse fiction piece; the type no major studio would have looked at just three years earlier (it was made in 1972), let alone in MGM's heyday.
Faults aside, this movie has its interesting plot twists ratcheting up what little tension there is, so I was hooked until the end. But a loose-end or two are never answered - where did the fresh water come from? And if it was from the bath tub, was any fluoridation found? What happened to Peter Lawford's girlfriend? In one scene she's waving hello with her generous bust; in the next - a crucial one involving PL's character - there's patently no trace of her nor does anyone ask. Eh?
Hal Holbrook and Katherine Ross form the remainder of the troika of leads; Holbrook as the county vet and Ross as his long-haired, long-legged assistant from New York. In other words, she's really there to become romantically involved with Garner's character (a cinematic must.)
Harry Guardino's county sheriff brings in his boys when things get tricky but to no any real effect except the last scene. Garner's character never feels the case slipping away from him or the noose tightening as with Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade in 'The Maltese Falcon.'
June Allyson has a cameo, bringing in yet another plot twist. A better screenwriter and/or director would have put her in more of the picture. Her brief presence lights up the screen far more than the rest of the cast combined - maybe she should have played the detective.
A woman is murdered in a small seaside town. The cops investigate but
are hampered by bureaucratic infighting, complicated relationships, and
a vicious Doberman Pincher.
Looks to me like the script was on a hurry-up schedule. Nonetheless, the movie's got its compensations. Unfortunately, the whodunit part, which is supposed to be the core, is developed in pretty ragged fashion with a number of hanging threads (who is it in the nude photo; what role did the sheriff have, etc.).
The movie's appeal really comes from its unsparing and often humorous look at small town life, particularly the semi-competent 3-man police force. Plus, there are the town characters, generally cameos from movie vets getting a few minutes back in the spotlight. Nonetheless, it's an uncharacteristically grouchy Jim Garner as the chief. But no wonder he's grumpy, since his two underlings are bumblers, at best, while he has to contend with a county sheriff (Guardino) who wants to cut in on the investigation for suspicious reasons. Then too, catch the naughty innuendo that's not supposed to typify small town life. And, on a different note, that burning beach house is a real Technicolor inferno and a movie highpoint.
The movie's also a payday for a number of movie vets who get the amusing small town parts. (Except for Tom Ewell as a badly out of shape cop.) But who could have guessed that the wonderfully preserved June Allyson was all of 55 in her role here; ditto Ann Rutherford, also 55. For old movie fans, these nostalgic glimpses were a treat.
All in all, it's an entertaining movie, even with a ragged script. Then too, judging from the Malibu location, plus the timing, I wouldn't be surprised that the movie inspired Garner's TV hit, The Rockford Files (1974-1980). But it's a much more typically amiable Garner in the Rockford role than he is here. Anyway, I hope they paid Murphy double biscuits since he's a good enough actor to compete with the many movie veterans.
I agree wholeheartedly that this film is a screen writing mess, a rest home for aging once-great or near-great stars, and some of the sleaziest plot twists ever to come out of a pre-1975 MGM movie. Nonetheless, I also must confess being, at times, enamored with the film for brief periods of time. James Garner plays a sheriff in a small town out to find out what happened to a woman's body washed up to shore that had seemingly been attacked by her Doberman. the dog is assumed to be the culprit, but soon new evidence shows Garner that the woman led a secret life full of sex secrets with members of the town of both sexes. Anyway, we get lesbian overtones, three some references, love triangles, and so much more than you might expect in a film that was the last to be shot in MGM's Lot #2 with old friends like Arthur O' Connell, Ann Rutherford, Edmond O'Brien, Peter Lawford, June Allyson, and Tom Ewell showing up either in featured roles of cameos. Hal Holbrook plays a vet and adds some subtle subtext to the story despite the bizarre story he is involved with. Don't try to make too much sense out of what is going on and things will at least be adequate to get you through the film. Garner as always is a pleasure. Katherine Ross plays a lead role and the love interest(hard to believe she will be 70 in January!).
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Potential cult film has a pregnant lady found dead near her beachfront
property in coastal Eden's Landing, a little California town, her body
covered in dog bites perhaps associated with a pet Doberman. A number
of possible suspects include a visiting beauty (Katherine Ross), a
veterinarian (Hal Holbrook), and a swinging aristocrat (Peter Lawford).
The police chief, Able Mars (James Garner, already rocking the
effortlessly cool Rockford detective look) doesn't realize how
complicated this case will become. With a town of oddballs, some non-PC
homophobic and sexist dialogue, a police force of two that Able has
available to him, a casual, none-too-hurriedly pace to the ongoing
investigation and apprehension of the soon-to-be-discovered suspect on
the lam, and a California county police that love to stop by to flex
their supposed muscle but are none too bright; this film caps it all
off with a twist involving a ménage à trois that provided an incentive
for the murder.
Ross looks mighty foxy, Garner occupies the time on screen with a performance that is as laid back as the pace (he really doesn't even have to try because he's a natural actor allowing his character to function within the environment of his small town that rarely sees much excitement or intrigue besides the eccentrics that live there), and a cast of veterans filling out the characters of locals living in Eden's Landing (like Arthur O'Connell as the owner and cook of the only diner in town, Edmund O'Brien as a liquor store proprietor always poking Able for details in the investigation, June Allyson as the suspicious wife of Holbrook's veterinarian, Tom Ewell as the portly cop attending to the mundane activities and misdemeanors of the locals (like a man biting off a woman's nipple during a heated make out in the back seat of a car!!!) and Christopher Connelly as the inquisitive cop with suggestions that might be accurate about the case, Harry Guardini as an intrusive county law enforcer who thinks he knows better how to conduct the investigation than Able, and Ann Rutherford as Garner's secretary dealing with a station house containing equipment hand-me-downs "from the city"). Lawford likes them young, drives a convertible sports car, and is ambiguous when it comes to sharing personal/intimate details of his ex-wife, a real sexually promiscuous gal. Garner and Ross' romance gets some time on and off throughout the film, but when she becomes a possible member of the murder victim's social circle it throws a monkey wrench in their blossoming relationship. Allyson is wasted in a rather small role while Holbrook does a great deal with a rather limited part that gives him few opportunities to leave a definite mark in the film, although his use of a drug on Garner, during one key sequence which could (or could not) reveal his guilt, taking advantage of the fallen, subdued police chief, after a car chase comes to its conclusion, is quite a memorable moment. Garner's exhaustive tolerance of the locals in his town while investigating the murder case is part of the film's charm. A specific sequence, besides Holbrook's "sticking Garner with the needle" in the vet's office and ensuing car chase, concerning the property of the crime, set afire by the killer (and his/her accomplice), with Garner interrupting (too late, unfortunate for Lawford) as they are about to (or already have) flee, is another memorable moment in the film, especially in why the Doberman didn't bark while in the chief's car Garner waiting and waiting on the beach, as a body is lying right next to him (retrieved from the burning house), the Doberman his only live company, as the police/fire dept seem predisposed, describes the plight of a small town with limited resources and manpower. A one-way tunnel to the crime scene is the perfect means to plug a hole, stop the flow of traffic when needing to avoid capture, and allow time for the home to burn, baby, burn. Ross is the kind of actress who looks great while holding a lot of how she feels internally. The investigation into a murder seems almost too gradual, but that's just Able's style, I guess.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I suspect "They Only Kill Their Masters" owes something to the previous
year's successful "Dirty Harry." Instead of, "Do you feel lucky,
Punk?", we hear "Neat." And, towards the end, James Garner as the
police chief of a small California town, dispenses with his regulation
snub-nosed .38 and produces a .357 magnum. In its elements, it also
hints at "Harper", in that familiar character actors or those somewhat
over the hill show up for brief scenes and then are never seen again.
Garner is sardonic, neatly sardonic. Katherine Ross as first the girl, then the suspect, then the girl again, is pretty. Alas, the print I saw cut out a second or two in which she rushes out of a bedroom an displays her cunning tush.
The murder mystery itself has a certain promising premise. A beautiful young woman, who may or may not be a lesbian, appears to have been killed by her doberman pincher.
But what follows is bland. There are a few major problems with the film. First, this is obviously no small town on the California coast named Eden Landing. It's Malibu and somebody's back lot. "Eden's Landing," with its distinction between small town folks and "city people" belongs on the east coast, probably in the South, maybe North Carolina. There really aren't any small tightly-knit communities on California's Coast Highway between the LA suburbs and Pescadero somewhere south of San Francisco.
Michel Hugo did the cinematography and has turned a feature film into a television movie with high key lighting and fills. There's certainly no drama in the images.
The writer, Lane Slate, with the complicity of the director, James Goldstone, miscalculated the impact of the comic scenes and the attempts to draw some interest from conversational exchanges. Edmond O'Brien, for instance, is a low-brow liquor store owner, and Garner's questioning of him, a total dufus, ought to be amusing but although the pauses for laughs are present, there are no laughs to be had. One imagines what Howard Hawks would have done with this material. He'd have invented some bits of business on the spot that would have resonated with whatever ludic propensity the audience had brought to the theater. He had Humphrey Bogart tossing off lines like, "She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up," without bothering to wait while the laughter subsided.
The performances aren't bad, considering the narrative frame. Garner is pretty good at this kind of role, as he demonstrated before and would demonstrate later. See him in "Sunset" for an example. June Allyson is given a speech that is too long, over the dead body of her husband -- I guess because she is June Allyson.
It's all a little amateurish -- the writing, photography, and direction being the principal weaknesses. I kind of enjoyed it, but it could have been much more with a bit more skill behind the camera. And of course nobody should ever have cut that brief glimpse of Katherine Ross's rear end.
The small seaside town at the heart of "They Only Kill Their Masters" keeps promising to become its own character within the film (or, at the very least, a red herring). With it's ocean-front home belonging to a kinky divorcée (whose body washed up on the beach), its neighborhood restaurants and watering holes, its veterinary office with a waiting room full of barking dogs, and a half-empty police station where chief James Garner works, the movie has the look of an old-fashioned detective yarn: charmingly phony and contrived. Garner, sheepishly resigned to his post peopled by semi-competent underlings, slowly unravels peculiar case of a dead woman who had recently kicked her husband out to be with another woman (or so she said!). There are some clever dialogue exchanges here, as well as some tasteless ones (the bit about a woman's bitten breast is a low-point). Garner shuffles about, occasionally breaking up a fight or cooking dinner for Katharine Ross, a pretty working girl who may be a suspect (her naked rear end could provide a clue!). Diverting entertainment, though not especially memorable or cunning. The plot pieces do fall together (sort of), and it's satisfying on a minor level. ** from ****
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