With the rise of critical, personal filmmakers like Coppola, Scorsese, Altman and Woody Allen, the 1970s are often cited as one of the high points of American film making. Flying beneath the radar, however, it is not as if the “average” movie disappeared. It merely became the made-for-TV movie of the week.
Pauline Kael once referred to such production as “processed schlock,” which is reductive and unfair, but it is certainly true that many if not most 1970s made-for-TV films feel tired and mechanical. They Call it Murder does not defy that description, but it has qualities that were taken for granted at the time which now have a touch more interest. It is not a question of previously unrecognized aesthetic power. It is more what it reveals about the audience’s unspoken expectation of what a movie “should” be. (Just as today’s viewers assume a film “should” be technologically slick.)
A mystery based on characters from Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner, Murder is set in a small city outside Los Angeles. Local District Attorney Doug Selby (Jim Hutton) investigates the murder of a man found floating in a swimming pool, in one of those flamboyant mystery setups designed more for attention than plausibility. As Selby investigates, he does not so much dig deeper as get buried under more and more, as the writers obscure implausibilities and smother questions through ever-greater confusion, effectively leading us away from the obvious.
The actors, over-exposed from other television appearances, go through the motions like a walk on a treadmill, so that the relationships between the stock characters have to be taken on faith. You certainly do not feel anything about the one half-hearted effort at emotional involvement, the John Donne-quoting bond between Selby and suspect Jane Antrim (Jessica Walter). Like the rest of the action, they fall for each other for no reason more profound than because it’s in the script.
Nonetheless, the complex action keeps your attention despite the mediocre execution. There is nothing profound or original in it, but this is real storytelling, albeit excessive to the point of nonsense. When wrapping things up, Hutton rushes through the bewildering de rigeur exposition of the elaborate action as if he were slightly embarrassed that someone might question how he pieced it together. His summary is the only time the film making rises above the routine, as director Walter Grauman visualizes Selby’s description with rapid, split-screen flashbacks. Far from clarifying matters, the technique just distracts further—which may well have been intentional.
Of course, it could be argued that no one expects the solution to a mystery to make sense so long as it closes things off. It is more important that the convoluted action unfolds in a simulation of life convincing enough to hide the construction. The complexities can compel by themselves, even when executed unimaginatively. So while They Call it Murder may be the film making equivalent of American cheese, it still works.