When the sleepy seaside town of Eden's Landing is jolted out of it's perpetual bucolic slumber by the shocking death of one of its more eccentric residents (-- and judging by the locals we meet, that's saying quite a bit), it's up to the small town's police chief to unravel what few clues there are, sift through all the town's seamy secrets, and find the killer.
They Only Kill Their Masters (1972) begins with the body of Jenny Campbell (Pulford), local artist and nudie photographer, rolling in the surf, seemingly under attack by her pet Doberman that's savaging the bodies' extremities. Thinking the volatile breed went nuts and killed her, the body is recovered and the animal is scheduled to be put down. However, the autopsy not only reveals that Campbell's cause of death was not the mauling, she actually drowned in fresh-water that was made to look like salt-water, but the victim was also six-weeks pregnant.
Realizing he now has a homicide on his hands, Chief Abel Marsh (Garner) and his dippy deputies check out the victim's bungalow: that's a little too clean in some spots, namely the bathtub, and obviously ransacked in others; but the only clue he finds is a photo of a retreating, unidentifiable naked couple running along the beach. Marsh also arranges to meet with the victim's jilted ex-husband (Lawford), an obvious suspect, who reveals their divorce was caused by his wife's infidelity, not his, but swears the split was amicable and that the "other person" was, in fact, another woman. Confused by the news of his late ex-wife's condition, Campbell has no idea who it is in the photo, nor whom the baby's father could be, but agrees to meet with the equally confused Marsh later at his ex-wife’s bungalow to see if anything else seems suspicious or missing.
Meanwhile, Marsh delivers a reprieve to Murphy, the Campbell's exonerated dog, at the local vet clinic, where we meet the genial Dr. Watkins (Holbrook) and falls for his new leggy assistant, Kate Bingham (Ross), who reeducates him on the Doberman breed's dubious reputation for viciousness. Later, with his new dog in tow, things start to heat up when Marsh returns to the beach and finds the victim's bungalow engulfed in flames -- with Campbell already dead inside! Marsh catches a glimpse of the retreating killer before he roars off, but finds his own tires slashed, negating any chance of pursuit.
Adding up the clues, which, honestly, add up to the point on the graph that's exactly between shit and squat, a frustrated Marsh makes a quantum leap in logic and concludes the original victim was involved in a ménage à trois gone bad with Watkins (-- hey, it's Hal Holbrook, he's gotta be a turncoat baddie, right?,) and most probably Kate Bingham. He confronts her, accusing Kate of being the nude woman in the picture; it doesn't go well, she denies it, and things get ugly from there.
Moving on, Marsh confronts and arrests Watkins. He cops to the murder, sort of, but manages to engineer an escape and nearly kills Marsh in the process with a near lethal dose of dog tranquilizers. However, things are not quite as they seem. And will Marsh be able to recover in time to see the truth and bring the real killer to justice? The short answer? Yeah, he does. The long answer? Well, that's gonna take a little more explaining. WARNING: There be massive spoilers ahead.
Like most major studios, after a string of high-profile flops, MGM was in dire financial straits by the time the 1970s rolled around. And after a hostile takeover by Las Vegas financier, Kirk Kerkorian, former CBS exec James Aubrey was appointed to take over the studio and turn things around. To accomplish this, Aubrey ruthlessly slashed budgets, canceled productions, ran off a ton of talent, and sold off the majority of the studio's assets, including cameras, props and costumes (-- like Dorothy's ruby slippers), funneling all that cash back to the boss to help finance the new MGM Casino in Las Vegas, ushering in the era of Mega-Resorts along the famed Sin City Strip.
Also on the block was MGM's famed back-lot, and They Only Kill Their Masters was the last feature film to use these familiar landmarks before the developer's wrecking ball and bulldozers moved in. And while the film isn't a complete waste of time, and that's being pretty generous, it is a testament to the studio's corner-cutting at the time and an indictment on the quality of the behind-the-camera talent pool of that era, making it a cheap and sad last gasp for a storied franchise like MGM.
Honestly, the whole thing comes off like a tired and tepid TV Movie of the Week that's laughably whitewashed over with a few naughty words and some kinky scenarios to try and punch things up. Lane Slate's script is pretty bad, asking us to accept a lot, and hopes we won't mind when the plot dots are finally connected to reveal a concluding picture that makes little sense and comes completely out of left field. Things aren't helped out much with James Goldstone's direction, either. His pace is ... very slow. And ... deliberate. And ... horribly plodding, when it isn't tripping over the padding; the padding being a lot of cameos by some old MGM celebrities as the kooky townsfolk.
Garner, as always, is worth the time and does his best to keep things moving forward. But he always seems to be angry about something. I don't think anybody does the world weary cynic better than Garner --see The Americanization of Emily (1964) or The Rockford Files (1974-1980) as proof, but here he is way beyond cynical and needling well into bitter and downright surly. But I guess if I had to say some of that clunky dialogue I might be a little cranky and churlish, too.
Meanwhile, the ever beautiful Katherine Ross -- The Graduate (1967), The Stepford Wives (1975), is pretty much wasted in a thankless, sleep-walking / eye-candy roll as Marsh's squeeze, and later punching bag. And sadder still, with no help from the script, there is absolutely no spark or chemistry between the leads at all whatsoever. I mean: Holy crap, was that "romantic dinner" scene painful to sit through.
Which leaves us with the ultimate victim in this film (-- no, not the viewer), and one final cinematic kick to the crotch by the cheating script. Turns out Holbrook -- unlike in Magnum Force (1973) and The Star Chamber (1983) was innocent for once and was covering for the real killer: his kooky, bi-sexual wife -- whose brief, dry-belch of screen-time before the conclusion totally justifies my calling shenanigans on the whole damned movie, who was played by a barely recognizable June Allyson.
It's true. I thought it was Betsy Palmer until I checked the credits. That's right: the doting wife of Jimmy Stewart in many a classic movie -- the Depends lady fer chrissake -- is our psychotic, sex-addicted lesbian killer. Wow. Just, wow.
They Only Kill Their Masters (1972) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) / P: William Belasco / AP: Barry Mendelson / D: James Goldstone / W: Lane Slate / C: Michel Hugo / E: Edward A. Biery / M: Perry Botkin Jr. / S: James Garner, Katharine Ross, Hal Holbrook, Harry Guardino, Tom Ewell, Peter Lawford, June Allyson