They Only Kill Their Masters (1972) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • An enigmatic young woman has been murdered in a small California coast town. The investigation by the local sheriff uncovers a complex web of relationships centering on the victim; the scattered trail of evidence ranges from a mysterious photograph to the victim's own dog. During the investigation, the sheriff meets and becomes romantically involved with a woman whose connection to the murder is ambiguous.

  • Off the shores of the beach-front town of Eden Landing, California, the dead body of thirty-nine year old divorcée Jenny Campbell is found washed up on the beach, hovered over by her pet Doberman, Murphy. Because of the marks on her body, the initial belief is that Murphy mauled her to death. About one week after the fact, Police Chief Abel Marsh, who had been in Los Angeles at the time of the body being found, takes over the investigation. He has to be resourceful as the detachment is cash strapped. From the autopsy, he finds that she didn't die from being mauled by Murphy - who was actually trying to pull her out of the water - but by drowning in fresh water made to resemble salt water. So the investigation turns to one of murder. The autopsy also uncovers that she was pregnant, which is a seeming dichotomy to the information that Abel receives from her estranged ex-husband that she was a lesbian, the reason for their divorce. He finds from veterinarian Dr. Warren Watkins that Murphy is a well trained animal, who was initially court ordered put down when the belief was that he killed his master. Through the investigation, Abel begins a relationship with veterinary nurse Kate Bingham, a divorcée recently arrived from New York City. Although not a dog person, Abel, with Kate's assistance, ends up taking care of Murphy. Abel believes Murphy and a photo he finds in Jenny's house are the keys to finding Jenny's murderer. An obstacle in Abel finding the killer is Sheriff Daniel Streeter, who wants to take over the investigation and who seems often to work at cross purposes to Abel.

  • California small town police chief investigates a suspicious death involving the victim's own dog that presumably killed its owner.



The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • The dead body of thirty-nine year old Jenny Campbell (Lee Pulford) is in the surf on the beach outside her isolated house in the ocean-front community of Eden Landing, California. By the wounds, it looks as if her Doberman, who is snarling as he hovers over her body, mauled her to death, specifically by going for her throat.

    This death is the biggest case for Eden Landing police chief, forty year old Abel Marsh (James Garner) upon his return from a week-long vacation in Los Angeles, where, rumor has it, he went "to get some" as the running gag is that there are no good looking available women in Eden Landing. Most of the time, Abel only has to worry about his department doing whatever little actual police work they have on no budget, which forces them all to use the two police cruisers on a rotating basis for their collective personal business. Meanwhile, their regional county sheriff, Captain Daniel Streeter (Harry Guardino), seemingly gets whatever he wants. Abel's first order of business on this case is to serve the notice to put down the Doberman, who is currently being housed at the professional compound of Abel's casual friend, veterinarian Dr. Warren G. Watkins (Hal Holbrook), this task which Abel is not looking forward to if only because he doesn't like dogs. At the vet's office, he meets Warren's beautiful new nurse, thirty year old Kate Bingham (Katharine Ross), from who he learns that the dog, named Murphy (Hans), is very well trained, but that there are documented cases of Dobermans killing their masters in such a manner. Warren further confirms that they can put Murphy down using a humane method of drugs, specifically sodium pentobarbital. The court order is rescinded and the case turns to a double murder investigation when Abel learns from the coroner's office that Jenny died from drowning, in fresh water made to resemble salt water, and that Jenny was three months pregnant when killed. Murphy's actions at the beach were his efforts to pull her out of the ocean and protect her body.

    During Abel's initial search through Jenny's home for clues, the house which looks as if there was just a party held in it, he seems most interested in the smell of the bathtub, and a bottle of Cromarty, a single malt scotch in the liquor cabinet, the bottle which he takes with him to consume himself at the diner owned by his friend Ernie (Arthur O'Connell) and which he later learns is not stocked at the local liquor store. He hears a noise sounding like someone else is in the house. He is only able to catch someone eventually running away from the scene.

    At a private club, Abel speaks to Jenny's ex-husband, wealthy non-local businessman Lee Campbell (Peter Lawford), who has an alibi for the time of the murder. Campbell tells Abel that Murphy was initially his, that the house belongs to him and that he was letting Jenny use it after their divorce which was the last time he saw her alive, and that he paid for but did not attend the funeral as the reason their divorce was because she left him for another woman. He notices that Campbell is drinking Cromarty. As such, he returns to Ernie's to retrieve the bottle he took from Jenny's house. Back at Jenny's house, he knows that beneath the mess, someone was careful to remove all incriminating evidence of the murder. But he does find something else that intrigues him: a photograph taken from the house toward the beach of a nude man and woman running toward the surf holding hands. He can't tell from the back the identity of either person. As she has a science background, Abel calls Kate to the house, she who is able to identify the smell in the bathtub as a disinfectant masked by deodorant, to hide the fact of where the drowning probably took place. He takes the opportunity to learn about Kate: that she is from New York where she was running away from a bad marriage. Unable to find a home for Murphy, Kate is able to convince Abel to take him. The two make plans for a date. After their dinner date at Abel's house, she spends the night. This date is the beginning of their relationship.

    Abel learns from Campbell that the woman in the photograph is not Jenny, that he does not know who either person is, and that Jenny liked to take photographs of her friends in compromising positions. Although the house used to be full of such photos, this one is the only one Abel found.

    Abel fills Streeter in on the case at Streeter's request, although Abel tells him they don't need the help of the sheriff's office. Streeter implies that it is his business as if things go sour on the investigation, he gets the blame.

    As Abel heads to Jenny's house late one evening, he sees a Chevy sedan speeding away in the opposite direction on the only road leading to and from the house. Arriving at the house, he sees that it is engulfed in flames. He notices Campbell's sports car on the scene. Fighting the flames, Abel enters the house to see Campbell fleeing, he who manages to escape in his car, while Abel's car is now disabled from a slashed tire and cut cord to the police radio. He is able to telephone the fire department from the house, the part of the house where the telephone is located not yet touched by the fire. While in the house, he sees an unconscious body inside. He is able to get the body out, that being Campbell himself, meaning that the persons fleeing, either in the Chevy or Campbell's sports car, were not Campbell. By the time the fire department, ambulance and police arrive, who were all delayed as the perpetrator was able to place up a roadblock, the house is totally destroyed and Campbell is dead.

    As Abel and Kate are in bed later that night, Murphy enters the bedroom snarling, as if he is ready to attack, which is the first time he's done such since either has known him. They are both scared, but Kate, using what she knows as his training, is eventually able to get Murphy back to a normal state. Although able to subdue him, she does not know what set him off. Because of Murphy's volatile behavior, Abel wants Kate to take Murphy back to Warren's office.

    Streeter and his men come storming into town, he telling Abel that he is taking over the investigation. A comment by Streeter before he leaves makes Abel wonder how Kate knew Murphy's name, as Warren's office had never treated him before. This question also makes Abel think that the woman in the photograph is Kate. Confronting Kate at her apartment, Abel manhandles her as her answers to his question about Murphy aren't being answered as he would like. Thinking about it, Kate remembers that Warren was the one who mentioned the dog's name to her, as he was the one who got the call to pick up the dog from the beach. Later, Abel heads to Warren's office, where he clandestinely watches Warren in the pen with Murphy, training him to attack. As Abel confronts Warren, Warren tries to dismiss what he was doing a friendly play with Murphy. Abel then arrests him for the murder of Jenny, her ex-husband, and his own unborn child. The one piece of the puzzle Abel has not yet figured out is the identity of the third party, the woman in the photograph who was the third in Warren and Jenny's ménage-a-trois. Just then, a patient (Norma Connolly) arrives with her dog. Warren asks if he can attend to this emergency, which was the reason he came to the office early. Abel allows him as much. Warren gets Abel to hold onto the dog, to who he will give an injection to reduce the swelling in the dog's prostate. Instead, Warren stabs Abel with the needle and runs off. A car chase ensues, with Abel able to radio in for help. The primary question is what was in the injection and if Abel will be either conscious or alive long enough from that injection to catch Warren. Abel does catch up to Warren but passes out before he can do anything. Warren drives off. One of Abel's officers, John (Christopher Connolly), arrives to take Abel to the hospital.

    When Abel awakens in the hospital, he learns from Streeter that he was injected with sodium pentobarbital, and that the dose would have killed a large dog. Based on information from John, Streeter also mentions that they have picked up Kate as the co-murderer, Abel responding that she is not the other person that they are looking for. Later that night, Abel, still in a groggy state, sneaks out of the hospital and heads to Kate's. Seeing him, Kate is concerned for him. He, in turn, is unable to say anything to her, and he walks off.

    Streeter and his men are unable to locate Warren, whose office is being packed up on the directive of an unknown woman. Warren's boat is also missing from the harbor. They assumed he has sailed away to parts unknown. But upon questioning Streeter, Abel and John realize that what Warren has done is hide out in his own house in town, his wife (June Allyson) who was able to provide Streeter with all the right answers.

    The moving company makes delivery of Warren's office items to his house. Across the street, Streeter, his team and Abel's team are on surveillance. In Warren's house, Abel appears from behind a door in the room where the delivery has just been made to confront Warren. Abel threatens to kill Warren, who states that he has killed no one. Abel is able to open the blinds to let the surveillance team see what is happening, before he takes Warren at gunpoint down into the kitchen, where Warren's wife is preparing lunch. As Abel and Warren are walking down the stairs, Abel is hit over the head from behind by an unknown assailant. Warren rushes out of the house, as the entire surveillance team pursues him. Streeter orders him to stop, which he doesn't. As Abel emerges onto the street, he orders Streeter not to shoot Warren, which Streeter does anyway. He shoots Warren dead. Abel then tells him that Warren killed no one. Mrs. Watkins then rushes out from the house to her dead husband. Abel confronts Mrs. Watkins as the murderer. Despite Abel's accusations of her and Jenny's affair, she calls Jenny a bitch, as a person whose love was not pure, in the sense that it was not solely in her direction as she wanted, but rather wanting to bring Warren in as the third, before a fourth and fifth in Jenny's pursuit of free love. The pregnancy was the last straw as a sign of how she was not truly a part of Jenny's life. She is handcuffed and taken away.

    As Abel is alone at the police station surveying the broken equipment received as part of the request from their latest budget, Kate arrives, announcing that she is leaving town since she is out of a job. Kate mentions that she never thought Warren a murderer, which he wasn't. He was just a man in love with his wife, he who cleaned up after her messes. Abel then confesses that it was him who thought, if only for a second, that it was Kate in the photograph. Kate leaves for good, Abel alone with Murphy. Abel looks out the window as Kate gets in a taxi, which drives away. Abel gets on the police radio to Streeter asking for a favor: to tell him where the taxi, which will be passing by his area, is going.

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