Tuesday, June 24, 2014

They Only Kill Their Masters - 1972

"They Only Kill Their Masters" - 1972
Dir. by James Goldstone - 1 hr. 37 min.

Original Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

You know, sometimes I'm wrong about things.  When I was scouring the TCM listings late one night, I came across a movie starring James Garner and a dog, and I thought to myself that it sounded funny.  But I was dreadfully wrong.  It was not funny, and it wasn't entertaining, either.  I hadn't bargained for a lame small-town cop story, nor a ton of Simon & Garfunkel knock-off acoustic guitar noodling, nor my needing two sittings to finish the movie.

Let's begin with the premise that Abel Marsh (James Garner) is a crappy small-town cop with crappy instincts and no budget to work with.  Actually, just think back to watching "Jaws," but without the whole killer shark angle.  A dead woman turns up in the surf, discovered by a Doberman Pinscher, whom everyone immediately assumes killed the woman.  But a week later, they figure out that she had been drowned instead, and we have an official murder on our hands.  And since the dog, Murphy, is no longer a suspect, one of the women at the vet's office, Kate (Katharine Ross) guilts Abel into adopting the dog, and sweetens the pot by engaging in some steamy business with him.

I ordinarily start off by trying to say something complimentary about a movie, but I don't have much of anything to say about "They Only Kill Their Masters."  I'm generally pro-James Garner, and that was enough to get me to watch this in the first place, but even he seems bored by the conundrum he's in.  This decade of film is littered with fantastic "bad cop" movies (you could probably think of half a dozen of them that are pretty much essential-viewing without breaking a sweat), and this film takes that scenario, and then promptly forgets to pile on the main character, or even to make him that bad of a guy to begin with.  Abel isn't a "bad cop," he's just not very good at what he does, and that's not even exploited for laughs.  He gets a hunch, follows it, and then discovers that it's wrong and moves on to his next hunch.  I think that happens at least four times over the course of this film.  At the least, it's inefficient police-work, and for a cash-strapped small-town police force, that ought to be a matter of concern.

Beyond that, the tone is all weird.  Some of the people that Abel is investigating are basically swingers, and I think we're supposed to judge that harshly.  Abel has some weird, judgmental offhand remarks (there was one in particular, patronizingly making sure that he's got the nomenclature for a menage-a-trois right), partially motivated by the small-town folks being shocked by big-city behavior (the only real difference being that people in cities don't try very hard to cover up what they're doing).  At the same time, Abel is banging Kate like a barista trying to shake loose your smoothie from the blender, but I guess that's okay.  But instead of provoking some sort of moral outrage, these kinds of moments just come off lukewarm, and pretty much without meaning beyond making Abel look like he hates everyone around him, but doesn't have the courage to do anything about it.  And there's this dog, which doesn't even have the acting chops to command his own scenes.

Look, "They Only Kill Their Masters" is weak.  Even if you like James Garner, and are amused by the idea of him interacting with a dog on-screen, or even if you like bad cop movies, this isn't going to do the trick.  The only thing this movie succeeded at doing was making me wonder why I didn't just queue up a couple of episodes of "The Rockford Files" instead.

1 / 5 - TV (HD)

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