They Only Kill Their Masters (1972)
They Only Kill Their Masters (1972)

Genre: Mystery Running Time: 1 hr. 37 min.

Release Date: November 22nd, 1972 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: James Goldstone Actors: James Garner, Katharine Ross, Hal Holbrook, Harry Guardino, June Allyson, Peter Lawford, Ann Rutherford




ocal resident dies after attacked by crazed dog,” states the headlines of the town newspaper. Jenny Campbell, the victim, washes up on shore, and her dog Murphy is the prime suspect; the canine is found hovering over the body, preventing anyone from approaching. The teeth marks all over her arms and legs don’t help the animal’s situation, and the vet is ready to put him to sleep for $20.

Chief of Police Abel Marsh’s (James Garner) vacation in Los Angeles is over and he’s back in small Eden Landing (a place so short on county budget that Abel has to share two police cars amongst the entire force). He’s assigned to wrap things up with the murderous dog, but once he meets Murphy, a Doberman Pinscher breed notorious for killing their masters, he sort of warms up to him – as well as with the veterinarian Dr. Warren Watson’s (Hal Holbrook) new nurse Kate Bingham (Katharine Ross). Abel quickly learns that Jenny didn’t die of blood loss – she drowned and the dog was simply trying to pull her out of the ocean. To complicate matters, she drowned in freshwater filled with a lot of salt – not salt water. Foul play is afoot; plus, Jenny was pregnant, which technically makes it a double homicide.

Abel’s not a very careful detective and evidently hasn’t had to deal with a mystery of this caliber frequently enough – on his initial inspection of the dead woman’s beachfront home he lets an intruder slip away. His first suspect, Mr. Campbell (Peter Lawford), two years divorced from Jenny, seems a little suspicious, especially when he doesn’t bother to attend her funeral. Apparently she left him for another woman and liked to take photos of people nude on the beach (read blackmail), which could be a major clue, along with a bottle of single malt scotch that keeps popping up. But there are a lot of red herrings to throw the audience off the trail.

While the detective is trying to solve the murder, he’s also trying to playfully woo Nurse Bingham, resulting in reasonably good lines of humorous dialogue that are a little politically outdated.  Garner really owns his character, a sarcastic, intelligent, easygoing man who grows tired of petty, ridiculous crimes (such as a man who accidentally bit off a woman’s nipple), but doesn’t quite know how to approach a real homicide. So instead he spends a good chunk of his time with Kate, an equally natural performance by Ross, who creates a convincing romance, even if it’s slightly rushed and a tad convenient. The film does go to great lengths to ensure that her long naked legs are clearly visible in every scene she’s in.

On the downside, the light and poppy music doesn’t fit the murder mystery themes; the soundtrack never seems to match the mood or events. This is most notable when a bar fight breaks out, when Marsh cruises around in his beat-up car to mull over the day’s findings, and even during the climactic chase sequence. The denouement is also a bit overlong, wasting time once the killer is revealed to dwell on a surplus of various motives and the dwindling romance between Kate and Abel. The mystery isn’t too complex, but Garner and Ross make the film interesting nonetheless. While not wholly extraordinary, “They Only Kill Their Masters” is a smart, simple, and engaging film that isn’t so heavily flawed as to sap the entertainment value of the stars.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10