|They Only Kill Their Masters|
|Directed by||James Goldstone|
|Written by||Lane Slate|
|Produced by||William Belasco|
|Edited by||Edward A. Biery|
|Music by||Perry Botkin Jr.|
|Box office||$1,005,000 (US/ Canada rentals)|
They Only Kill Their Masters is a 1972 American mystery film directed by James Goldstone, written by Lane Slate, and starring James Garner and Katharine Ross, with a supporting cast featuring Hal Holbrook, June Allyson, Tom Ewell, Peter Lawford, Edmond O'Brien, and Arthur O'Connell. The title refers to Doberman dogs that might have been responsible for a woman's murder currently under investigation by the local police chief (Garner).
Garner wrote in his memoirs that "I'd rather not talk about" the film.
In the sleepy California coastal town of Eden Landing, police chief Abel Marsh returns from vacation to learn that divorcée Jenny Campbell has been killed by her pet Doberman on the shore of her beachfront home.
Abel, who has a bemused affection for his small town and its eccentric denizens, visits Dr. Warren Watkins, the veterinarian who tranquilized the dog when it was found over Jenny's dead body. Abel meets Watkins' new nurse, Kate Bingham, who objects to the dog being euthanized when it is so well behaved. When Abel asks, she tells him the dog’s name is Murphy. Sarcastically telling Abel that "they only kill their masters," she shows him how Murphy responds readily to voice commands. When she says that dogs usually attack the throat, it makes Abel wonder why the dead woman's bites were only on her extremities, and he orders an autopsy. The pathologist discovers that Jenny died from drowning in fresh water laced with salt. He also learns that Jenny was pregnant. Abel realizes that Murphy did not cause her death, and that her injuries came from the dog pulling her dead body out of the ocean.
Abel goes to Jenny's house, but before he can examine it, a man, who Abel only glimpses from behind, runs away from the scene. Abel discovers that the bathroom has been scrupulously cleaned, and that everything in the house that would have revealed the presence of a second person has been removed. He finds a photograph of a nude man and woman, holding hands and running on the beach away from the camera. However he is unable to identify either person.
Abel questions Jenny's ex-husband, wealthy playboy Lee Campbell, who reveals that he divorced his sexually adventurous wife because she fell in love with another woman. Abel returns to the dead woman’s house with Kate, ostensibly because he wants her help in looking around and the police force has few scientific resources. Kate, who has softened toward Abel and has become attracted to him, confirms that the bathtub was cleaned with industrial disinfectant, and he tells her it is the likely scene of the murder. Despite his previously voiced antipathy toward dogs, Abel takes Murphy in and they begin to bond. Kate and Abel's relationship progresses also, and they spend the night together.
Abel is summoned by Capt. Daniel Streeter, his long-time friend and the head of the sheriff's department. Streeter questions Abel's handling of the case but agrees that he should remain in charge. Abel, travelling with Murphy, goes to the dead woman’s house to conduct a previously arranged interview with Lee Campbell. Near the place, waiting at a one-way tunnel signaled by red and green lights, Abel is jolted by a speeding car rushing through. Abel proceeds to the home, only to find that it is on fire. Abel becomes aware of someone lurking nearby, but he is unable to capture the arsonist, who escapes in Campbell's sports car. A tire on Abel’s car has been slashed, so he is unable to give pursuit. When Abel breaks into the bedroom to call the authorities, he finds Campbell, who has been stabbed. By the time the police arrive Campbell has died and the home has been reduced to ashes. A young patrolman explains to a furious Abel that the emergency crews were greatly delayed in getting to the scene because a sports car was blocking the tunnel.
Back at his home, Abel and Kate are talking in bed when Murphy jumps up to sleep with them. While wondering why Murphy did not bark at the arsonist, Abel taps him on the snout, unaware that it is a command for the dog to assume attack mode. Kate successfully gets Murphy away from Abel and off the bed, but Abel, spooked, returns the animal to Dr. Watkins.
In the morning Streeter and his deputies arrive to take over the case. Streeter attempts to upbraid Abel about the second murder, but Abel refutes his criticisms. As Streeter is talking, he mutters about Murphy's strange name. This prompts Abel to wonder how Kate knew the animal's name, as the dog had not previously been treated at the veterinary clinic. He looks at the photo that he found at the dead woman’s home, of the naked man and woman on the beach, and thinks the woman is Kate. He rushes to her boardinghouse room and demands to know how she knew Murphy's name. Kate, sadly realizing that Abel suspects her, does not answer him until he tosses her onto her bed menacingly. Shaken, she relates that it was Dr. Watkins who told her the dog’s name.
Abel drives to the clinic and watches as Watkins plays with Murphy, including tapping him on the snout to make him attack and then employing the correct command to stop him. Deducing that Watkins has known Murphy for a long time, Abel arrests him for the murders. However Watkins escapes by injecting Abel with an animal euthanasia drug. Abel manages to radio in a call for help but passes out while chasing Watkins.
Abel wakes up in hospital. He learns from Streeter that the drug has been flushed from his system and Watkins has so far evaded capture. The next morning Abel tries to find Kate at the clinic, but discovers that she has quit and the veterinary equipment is being packed up by a moving company. When Abel questions Streeter about the search for Watkins, he deduces that the doctor is hiding where the police are unlikely to look, in the doctor’s own home.
Abel sneaks into the house and levels his gun at Watkins. The doctor seems resigned to being arrested, but asserts that he did not kill anyone. As they walk downstairs, Watkins' wife hits Abel from behind. Watkins runs outside, where he is shot by Streeter. Abel yells in frustration, having realized that Mrs. Watkins, not her husband, has committed the murders. Over her husband's dead body, Mrs. Watkins reveals that she was indeed Jenny's lover, but that when Jenny seduced the doctor as well, and then became pregnant by him, she could not take it. She killed Jenny and Lee Campbell, and her husband helped to cover both crimes.
Abel is saddened as Kate comes around to say goodbye. He painfully admits that he briefly considered her a suspect. After watching her taxi depart, Abel radios Streeter and asks him to follow Kate to learn where she is going.
The movie was filmed from late July to early September in 1972. It was the last major film shot on MGM's backlot before it was sold. Several former MGM stars accepted supporting roles in the film because it gave them the opportunity to be in the last film shot on the backlot. Other scenes were filmed at the Paradise Cove Pier, Paradise Cove in Malibu, California. Two years later, when Garner started to film The Rockford Files, Rockford's trailer was located at the same place.
The small town police chief concept and its main character Abel Marsh were reworked several times by writer Lane Slate. The first attempt followed a year later with Isn't It Shocking?, starring Alan Alda as similar character Dan Barnes and the setting relocated to Oregon. 1974 brought a similar character named Sam McNeill (Andy Griffith) in Winter Kill, intended as the pilot for a series set in a California mountain resort. Griffith tried again in 1975 with the short-lived TV series Adams of Eagle Lake, which lasted two episodes; the character was renamed Sam Adams. Two more reworkings followed in 1976 and 1977 starring Griffith, with the character's name restored to Abel Marsh: The Girl in the Empty Grave and Deadly Game.