The Girl in the Empty Grave (1977 TV Movie)
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Here, were have a "cosy murder" mystery and Andy has to follow up on all the clues. The supposed dead girl has been intermittently seen driving through town in her convertible. A cast of timeless characters promotes the film's upbeat, humorous undertones.
The casting is very good but the locations and sets are superb. This film is SORT OF one of a series of three films and this one is the best of the three. The others are "Deadly Game" and "Winter Kill," although, in the latter film, Andy plays Sheriff Sam McNeill -- still, it's the same sort of movie in the same sort of location. I love all three of these mysteries.
These films are very tough to find on the video market so you may have to catch them on television.
There is one reason to see this filmthe performance of Andy Griffith. The plot is convoluted and a bit silly, the rest of the cast is purposely lightweight and even at times clownish, and the filming is routine. In fact, there is a quality not so different from television at the time, and Griffith was at this point known mostly for his 1960s t.v. show, the Andy Griffith Show. In fact, this movie is one of two based on a second t.v. series Griffith tried (and failed after two episodes) to launch in the 1970s.
But he's a great actor, and he sure feels comfortable as the country sheriff (that's includes all his famous t.v. roles). The movie here is peculiar because of its cheerful colorful homey feeling, even as they are dealing with a murder, and another, and then one that wasn't, etc. In that sense, it's almost a precursor to "Fargo." And you have to get into that cheerful irony to like it.
If Griffith is flawless and likable, the secondary characters are mostly really good, including an early role by the star of "Babe," James Cromwell. But one key actress, the woman of the title, takes t.v. acting too literally, and she's unconvincing just where an actress needs to be flawless in her lying and invention.
The plot involves so many preposterous propositions, it isn't quite worth even outlining. But its worth saying it's a weakness, because you want to follow all these cheerful lawmen doing their rural jobs. And if you do you'll raise an eyebrow or two. Or three, which is too bad.
Watch if for Griffith.
The first was a low-budget theatrical release; the rest made-for-TV. The stories and casts differ. The chiefs also vary ("Abel Marsh" or, with Alda badly faking a Northeastern accent, "Daniel Barnes"). So do the towns (near Vermont ("Mount Angel" near "Horse Creek") or in California ("Eden Landing" or "Jasper Lake" near "Horse Mountain")).
Griffith's are the best as pleasant, light entertainment. He and Garner are the strongest leads. Griffith's supporting casts are the weakest, Alda's the best used. The Griffith films have more energy and better use locale. But all these movies are as exasperating as entertaining. They suffer from thin, far-fetched stories, weak dialogue, slack pacing, undeveloped and exaggerated characters, and off-putting, forced attempts (often juvenile or crude) at color or humor.
The Griffith movies recycle elements from the others. Marsh cannot simply buy a sandwich; he has to keep sniffing it, as if it has gone bad. A policeman has to rib a colleague about a bill for a long-distance call to the next town, asking if she has a "sailor" or "lifeguard" there. The "county" is portrayed as greedy and stupid, wanting "electric handcuffs" or "heat-seeking, thermonuclear skateboards" for its own men but giving the locals a boat or "half a push broom" instead of the bathroom, car, chair, typewriter, or water-cooler the station needs. And we get this exchange: "You're really something. You should run for mayor." "I am the mayor." "Oh, yeah."
Griffith's Marsh is from Georgia. He wears checkered shirts. He drives jalopies -- a 57 DeSoto (his "regular car") or "a 1928-29-30-31 Model A Ford with 1935 wheels" (his "old gray truck"). He favors "vanilla pudding on whole wheat with mayo" sandwiches and banana daiquiris. He eats at "Tiny's" or "The Pit Tavern" ("It's a pity the food isn't edible"; "That isn't food they serve there. I don't know what it is. But it isn't food"; "It's the best place in town." "Lord knows that's true.") His "concrete boat" sinks in 4-foot lake water.
The writing has an annoying, repetitive style:
--"Enjoy your lunch." "I'm going to take out the boat." "You're going to take the boat to lunch?" "I'm not going to lunch." "You're not going to take the boat to lunch?";
--"There aren't any fish in this lake. Why are you fishing here?" "It's illegal in Horse Mountain." "It's posted here too, you're breaking the law." "Some law. There aren't any fish in this lake." "Then why are you fishing here?" "I told you, it's illegal in Horse Mountain.";
--"Call me Lloyd." "Lloyd?" "Yeah, please call me Lloyd. That's my name. I hate to be called Tiny. Call me Lloyd." "Okay Lloyd." "Yeah, that's my name, Lloyd.";
--"She was never born. There is no such person. Don't you see? Don't you understand? The one thing you have to do to die is to live. If she didn't live, how could she die? Of course there's nobody in that grave. Nobody died. She didn't die because she didn't live."
The "humor" is often ham-handed, silly, or crude:
--Pipsqueak, mumbling moron "Whit": we are told that he tried to steal a trailer serving as a temporary bank branch, pointlessly dragged the police boat dock to his house, stole tomatoes from a farmer's truck only to get nothing for them, and filled out $11 on the withdrawal slip of "Spiro T. Babylis" only to be discovered by the teller;
--Deputy Fred to Marsh: "You're luscious when you're mad. Your skin gets kind of magenta like a sunset in Tijuana";
--"Doc" Susan to young woman: "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.";
--Police secretary: "I haven't been 'in position' since high school.";
--Fred: "I'm a marine. I can ride a horse and love a woman." Wife: "Or is it vice versa?";
--Fred describes car: "One of those little Japanese jobs. I don't know, they all look alike to me.";
--Geezer fisherman: "Hello, Abel, spent the night alone again, huh? Ha-ha-ha.";
--During Griffith's questioning about missing file, ambulance attendants "Gilda" and "Harry" do ersatz Ropers routine: "'S' for sex." "Shut up, Gilda. 'S' for stupid, not sex. Never again." "Don't, Harry, don't, just once." "Don't touch me. I don't like being touched." "You want to go into the supply closet?" "I don't know. Do you?";
--Deputy injects locker-room-talk into discussing woman's car accident death ("Did you take her out?" "I took her in once.");
--Bank-teller "Bernice" is "swollen-up in places" and Abel may "stick a pin in" her;
--Character "hates" secretary "Maude" because she is "too hairy" and caused her to quit by telling her "to shave";
--Doc's practice is "two stirrup tables and a flashlight";
--Fran Ryan humiliatingly propositions Griffith ("You want a little home grown?...Okay then, you want to fool around?");
--Insulting subplot where woman, courted by drippy deputy, seems to "sleep around."
Empty Grave is the better mystery, with a nice plot point ("Eliminate the reason, eliminate the blackmail."). But it suffers from obnoxious guest characters and an incompetent scene where a suspect is being lured into a trap, only to have a deputy's voice blare out of a nearby speaker: "Abel, Abel, there's somebody approaching the house. Somebody is approaching the house. A guy is approaching the house. Abel, he's running away now." This leads to a near-10-minute car chase, complete with sideswiping outhouses in a field. All this when the suspect could have come up with a perfectly legitimate reason for visiting.