Cast & Crew
In the sleepy California coastal town of Eden Landing, police chief Abel Marsh returns from vacation to learn that reclusive divorcée Jenny Campbell has been killed, presumably by her Doberman pinscher. Abel, who has a bemused affection for his small town and its eccentric denizens, visits Dr. Warren G. Watkins, the veterinarian who tranquilized the dog when it was found on the beach guarding Jenny's body. At the office, Abel meets Watkins' new nurse, Kate Bingham, who is angry that the dog, Murphy, is being euthanized despite how well-behaved he is. Sarcastically telling Abel that "they only kill their masters," she makes him view the dog, who responds readily to his commands. She relates that dogs usually attack the throat when killing, making Abel wonder why Jenny's bites were on her extremities. Abel then orders that Jenny be exhumed, and the pathologist states that she was not killed by Murphy. The doctor reveals that Jenny was drowned in fresh water doctored with salt, so that her killer could dump her body in the ocean and make it look as if she drowned there, and also that she was pregnant. Postulating that Murphy, not realizing that Jenny was dead, was trying to rescue her from the ocean, Abel returns to the vet's office. Watkins states that although they have never treated the animal before, they will find him a good home instead of euthanizing him. That night, Abel drives along the coast road, which includes a one-way tunnel signaled by red and green lights. At Jenny's beach house, Abel discovers that the bathroom has been scrupulously cleaned, and that anything that could have confirmed the presence of someone else has been removed. Later, Abel questions Jenny's ex-husband, wealthy playboy Lee Campbell, who reveals that his sexually adventurous wife demanded a divorce after falling in love with another woman. Back at Jenny's house, Abel finds a photograph of a nude man and woman, holding hands and running away from the camera, although he is unable to identify them. Having been summoned by Abel, Kate arrives and he explains that he wanted her help in looking around, as the police force has few scientific resources. Kate, who has softened toward Abel and shares his attraction, confirms that the bathtub was cleaned with industrial disinfectant, and Abel confides that it is probably where Jenny was killed. As they talk, Abel learns that Kate is divorced and that no one will adopt Murphy because they think he is a killer. Despite his self-proclaimed antipathy toward dogs, Abel takes Murphy in and they begin to bond. Kate and Abel's relationship progresses also, and soon they spend the night together. One evening, Abel's date with Kate is interrupted by a summons from Capt. Daniel Streeter, his childhood friend and the head of the sheriff's department. Streeter questions Abel's handling of the murder case but agrees to let him remain in charge. Abel then begins the drive to Jenny's house, at which he is to meet Campbell. During the journey, however, Abel and Murphy are delayed when they have to wait at the one-way tunnel, after which a speeding car rushes through. Abel proceeds to the home, only to find that it has been set on fire, and when he attempts to capture the arsonist, the culprit escapes in Campbell's sports car. When Abel breaks into the bedroom to call the authorities, he finds Campbell, who has been stabbed. By the time the police arrive, Campbell is dead and John, a young patrolman, explains that they were delayed because the sports car was blocking the tunnel. At home, Abel and Kate are talking in bed when Murphy jumps up to sleep with them. While wondering if Murphy did not bark at the arsonist because it was someone familiar to him, Abel taps him on the snout, unaware that it is a command for him to assume attack mode. Kate successfully gets Murphy off the bed, but Abel, spooked, returns him to Watkins. In the morning, Streeter and his deputies arrive to take over the case, and Streeter upbraids Abel about the second murder. As Streeter is talking, he mutters about Murphy's strange name, prompting Abel to wonder how Kate knew the animal's name if he had never been treated at the clinic. Staring at the photo of the naked couple, Abel suspects that the woman is Kate and rushes to her boardinghouse room. There, he tosses her onto her bed and demands to know how she knew Murphy's name. Realizing sadly that he suspects her, Kate relates that it was Watkins who told her, and later, Streeter arrests her on suspicion of conspiracy. Abel drives to the clinic and watches as Watkins plays with Murphy, including tapping him on the snout to make him attack and employing the correct command to stop him. Deducing that Watkins has known Murphy for a long time, Abel arrests him for the murders, but Watkins escapes by injecting Abel with a euthanasia drug. Abel manages to radio in his dilemma but passes out while chasing Watkins. Later, Abel wakes in the hospital and learns from Streeter that the drug was flushed from his system, and Watkins has evaded capture. Abel orders Streeter to release Kate from custody, as he now knows that she is innocent, then staggers out of the hospital. The next morning, Abel tries to find Kate at the clinic but discovers that she has quit and the equipment is being packed by a moving company. When Abel questions Streeter about the search for Watkins, he deduces that the doctor is hiding in his own home and arranges to be boxed into a crate that is delivered to the house, along with the clinic equipment. There, Abel sneaks up on Watkins and levels his gun at him, but Watkins asserts that he did not kill anyone. As they walk downstairs, Watkins' wife hits Abel from behind and Watkins runs outside, where he is shot by Streeter. Abel yells in frustration, as he has realized that Mrs. Watkins, not the doctor, is the killer. Over her husband's dead body, Mrs. Watkins reveals that she was indeed Jenny's lover, but that the voracious Jenny was not content. Jenny seduced the doctor as well and then became pregnant, after which the intensely jealous Mrs. Watkins killed her, and the doctor helped to cover her crime. When Campbell saw the two of them at the beach house, Mrs. Watkins killed him and set fire to the home. Mrs. Watkins is arrested, and soon Murphy has regained his place at Abel's side. Abel is saddened when Kate says goodbye, and he reluctantly admits that he briefly considered her a suspect. After watching her taxi depart, however, Abel radios Streeter and asks him to follow Kate to learn her destination.
Alma Lenor Beltran
Hans, A Dog
Edward A. Biery
Perry Botkin Jr.
Duke, A Dog
Arnold M. Lipin
Ray Mercer Jr.
Al Overton Jr.
Lawrence G. Paull
Thomas J. Schmidt
Harry W. Tetrick
They Only Kill Their Masters
Only a year or so before Kerkorian had authorized the selling-off of the contents of seven soundstages stuffed with classic MGM memorabilia. Over 350,000 individual items -- costumes, props, vehicles, furniture, and everything in-between -- went on the block in a gigantic three-day auction open to the public. Dorothy's ruby slippers went, Esther Williams' swimsuits went, Tarzan's loincloths went, and the HMS Bounty from the 1935 Clark Gable version of Mutiny on the Bounty sailed away, too. While it delighted film enthusiasts who could secure a piece of Hollywood history for their own, it was nothing less than the wholesale liquidation of MGM's entire legacy. Even more controversial was Kerkorian's decision to sell off Lot 3, nearly forty acres of the MGM back lot where so many of the studio's classic movies were filmed. Kerkorian was much more interested in creating his own legacy -- construction of the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas -- than in preserving anything dealing with the studio's past. The Andy Hardy streets, the hometown setting for Judy Garland's Meet Me in St. Louis and so many more memorable settings were just an inconvenience, a collection of derelict buildings taking up space on valuable Culver City real estate that Kerkorian couldn't wait to put on the market.
The plot of They Only Kill Their Masters was set in motion by the murder of a promiscuous divorcee by her own dog, a Doberman pinscher. Local police inspector Abel Marsh (James Garner) proves the victim was actually drowned and his investigation into her death leads to several suspects and some ugly secrets about his not-so-innocent community. This was the last full-length feature to be filmed on Lot 3 before it was bulldozed into oblivion, later to be transformed into a pricey condominium development. (The short segment intros in 1974's That's Entertainment were also filmed on what was left of the back lot. Anyone who saw it will remember the tattered condition of the settings. Those segments were the very last things to be filmed before the demolition of Lot 3.)
Director James Goldstone was primarily known for his television work starting in the mid-1950s, including directing episodes of such popular series as Highway Patrol, Dr. Kildare, The Outer Limits, and even some episodes of Star Trek. Starting in the late '60s he alternated between television and the movies, directing such features as The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight and the enigmatic Sidney Poitier film Brother John, plus important movies-for-television Shadow Over Elveron and A Clear and Present Danger. Screenwriter Lane Slate made his name with a teleplay about the Trail of Tears Cherokee tribe death march, and They Only Kill Their Masters was his first feature film. He later went on to a solid career in television, including many episodes and TV movies, especially in the mystery genre, and was an Emmy-winner for his teleplay Tail Gunner Joe on the life of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, played by Peter Boyle.
Star James Garner was a popular favorite in movies and on TV, with big screen successes in all genres, from two-fisted action in war movies and westerns -- The Great Escape, Up Periscope, Duel at Diablo, Grand Prix, Hour of the Gun -- to comedies such as The Thrill of It All, Move Over Darling (both opposite Doris Day), and Boys' Night Out. Garner was successful in all genres, and only a year or so after They Only Kill Their Masters he would begin work on a TV movie which would evolve into his six-year super hit series The Rockford Files, somewhat reminiscent of They Only Kill Their Masters with its sharp-witted and cool detective lead character, tempered with much humor.
In addition to the charming Katharine Ross, Garner's romantic interest in They Only Kill Their Masters, one of the key charms of the movie was the appearances of classic movie stars in supporting roles such as Ann Rutherford, an MGM studio veteran of many years. She was most famous for playing one of Scarlett O' Hara's sisters in Gone With The Wind and Andy Hardy's girlfriend Polly in that series of films starring Mickey Rooney. When Rutherford returned to the back lot after several decades to appear in They Only Kill Their Masters, the soon-to-be-liquidated streets were festooned with banners welcoming her home again. Rutherford had been retired from show business since the mid-1960s, happily married to producer William Dozier and today she's still a fan favorite.
Classic MGM fixture June Allyson, whose image at the studio through countless films was chipper and charming, also appears in the film playing a decided different character - one which would shock and displease some of her oldest fans. Other former Hollywood luminaries also peppered the cast of They Only Kill Their Masters. Suave Peter Lawford, known as much for his capers with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack as for his movies, came back to the MGM lot for this role. According to the biography Peter Lawford by James Spada, it was a bittersweet if depressing experience for the actor, whose personal life was somewhat unsettled at the time -- rumors of heavy drinking abounded -- but who could always be relied on for a professional performance. Lawford and former Good News co-star June Allyson had a few scenes together and joked between scenes, but overall, "It was a totally depressing scene," Peter said. "That old back lot, number two, hadn't been touched for years. We used the old Andy Hardy house in the film - it's completely overgrown with vines and bushes...I get moments of melancholia. Middle-aged melancholia, if you will." In regards to the Lawford-Allyson reunion, director James Goldstone recalled "There were jokes and light banter between them, and some of it got a little nasty. Peter found it rather amusing, in his way, which is a sort of fey, wan kind of sophisticated bemusement. Here he was back, burying the lot on which he was born."
Last but not least, we can't forget the contribution of the Doberman pinschers to They Only Kill Their Masters. Dobermans were enjoying sort of a pop culture boom at the time, with the movie The Doberman Gang, a low-budget production about a cadre of dogs who pull off bank robberies. It became a surprise hitthe same year as They Only Kill Their Masters. It also spawned several sequels, and of course many Americans had to go out and get themselves a Doberman, precipitating several well-publicized attacks with all the attendant bad publicity. The Doberman in this movie ends up in bed with James Garner and Katharine Ross.
Reviews for They Only Kill Their Masters were definitely mixed. While everybody everywhere seemed to love James Garner, some of the more sordid plot elements in the movie caused audiences to wince such as the detail that the murder victim was a dead pregnant lesbian (This was a time when tasteless jokes and derogatory terms for alternative sexuality were commonplace). Some critics felt these attempts to reflect contemporary culture seemed to be shoehorned in to what was essentially a TV movie. The New York Times critic found it "original and likable" though, and praised the movie's "casual relish and wisely amusing dialogue." The Village Voice, however, found it completely television-level in its sensibility, calling it "essentially a series of genre set-pieces and mostly gratuitous character sketches."
Middling reviews or not, They Only Kill Their Masters wasn't a big hit for MGM, only verifying Kirk Kerkorian's decision to back away from film production. Still, it's an engaging little mystery with a solid cast of favorites, and even more importantly offers one last chance to see those memory-laden MGM back lot streets.
Producer: William Belasco
Director: James Goldstone
Screenplay: Lane Slate
Cinematography: Michael Hugo
Art Direction: Lawrence G. Paull
Music: Perry Botkin Jr.
Film Editing: Edward A. Biery
Cast: James Garner (Police Chief Abel Marsh), Katharine Ross (Kate Bingham), Hal Holbrook (Dr. Warren Watkins), Harry Guardino (County Sheriff Captain Daniel Streeter), June Allyson (Mrs. Watkins), Christopher Connelly (John), Tom Ewell (Walter), Peter Lawford (Campbell), Edmond O'Brien (George), Arthur O'Connell (Ernie)
by Lisa Mateas
They Only Kill Their Masters
This was the last movie filmed on the MGM backlot; the property was sold after completion of filming.
Although Hollywood Reporter production charts include Tami Shaw and Edgar Justice in the cast, their appearance in the completed film has not been confirmed. A April 3, 1972 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that the picture would be shot on location in New England, but it was shot in California instead. According to studio press notes, greater Los Angeles location sites included Malibu Beach, the site of "Jenny Campbell's" house, and Canoga Park, where the veterinarian clinic was located.
As noted by contemporary sources, They Only Kill Their Masters was primarily filmed on M-G-M's famed Lot 2, and was the last picture to be shot there before the studio's backlot was sold off. Among the many films shot there were "The Hardy Family" series in the 1930s and 1940s, in which Ann Rutherford played "Polly Benedict," the girl friend of "Andy Hardy" (for information about the series, see the entry above for the 1937 film A Family Affair). Rutherford, who had not been on the M-G-M lot in thirty years, according to press materials, had not made a film since the 1950 production Operation Haylift.
They Only Kill Their Masters also marked the return to the screen of June Allyson, who had not appeared in a feature film since the 1959 Universal picture A Stranger in My Arms. Allyson and Peter Lawford, another former M-G-M contract player, had previously co-starred together in the 1940s M-G-M productions Good News and Little Women, among others, which were filmed on the same lot as They Only Kill Their Masters.
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1972
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1972