By Richard Winters
My Rating: 5 out of 10
4-Word Review: Dog turns on owner.
Abel Marsh (James Garner) is the police chief of a small west coast seaside town who’s put in charge of investigating a baffling case where a dog inexplicably turned on its owner and killer her. The clues though don’t match up convincing Abel that the dog is innocent and used simply as a ruse to cover-up an even more sinister crime.
This is the first of four films all written by Lane Slate to feature the character of Abel Marsh. All of the subsequent films featured the same small town setting and quirky themed murders, but where made for TV instead featuring Alan Alda in the role of Abel for Isn’t it Shocking and then Andy Griffith playing the part in The Girl in the Empty Grave and Deadly Game.
The mystery here has its share of intriguing elements and I liked the methodical pace, which is reminiscent of actual police work where the clues don’t just come easily and quickly. I also liked how the viewer remains just as in the dark about who did it as the investigator. The subplot involving the doberman is interesting as well and like in the film To Kill a Clown, which came out the same year, the dog ends up being the ultimate scene-stealer from his human counterparts.
Due to this being the last film made on MGM’s famous backlot many former stars from Hollywood’s golden age agreed to appear in small roles including Ann Rutherford in an amusing bit as a old-school secretary who can’t figure out how to work an electric type writer. The best bit though comes from June Allyson who doesn’t have any speaking lines until the very end where she gets a bravura-like finale similar to Betsy Palmer’s in Friday the 13th and even sports the same type of hairstyle as hers and sweater/pants, which makes it all the more ironic.
The thing though that I found annoying was the formulaic romance that starts almost immediately between Garner and Katherine Ross. For one thing the mystery could’ve worked just as well had Ross’ character not been in it at all, but if they did feel the need to throw in a romantic subplot it’s always more interesting when there’s some friction or resistance at first only to have it evolve into a relationship later versus making it a ‘love at first sight’ scenario, which is too quick and unrealistic especially when there’s a 15-year age difference between the two.
What gets even more aggravating is that after spending the night with her Garner then starts to suspect that she may know more about the crime than she lets on, so the next day he storms into her apartment and quite literally starts strangling her to get the info. Then when he realizes he may have jumped to the wrong conclusion he leaves her place in a huff without even bothering to apologize. Several hours later he sheepishly returns, but instead of slamming the door in his face she asks if he’s alright?!
Later near the end of the film she returns to his office and acts like somehow it was all her fault and seems to leave things open to rekindling the romance, but why? Unless she’s desperate (and she’s way too beautiful for that) or has extremely low self-esteem she should’ve ended things right when he attacked her because it was an obvious red flag and the fact that she doesn’t shows how dated and out-of-touch the film is in regards to modern day relationship dynamics.
The scenery is nice especially the Malibu location of the victim’s house and seeing it get burned quite literally to the ground is kind of cool too. However, the quirky elements don’t gel and overall the film ends up being transparent and flat.
My Rating: 5 out of 10
Released: November 22, 1972
Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes
Director: James Goldstone
Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive), YouTube