Death Among Friends

(1975, not rated) Kate Reid (Det. Shirley Ridgeway), John Anderson (Capt. Lewis), A Martinez (Manny Reyes), Martin Balsam (Ham Russell Buckner), Jack Cassidy (Chico Donovan), Paul Henreid (Otto Schiller), Pamela Hensley (Connie Benson), William Smith (Sheldon Casey), Linda Day George (Dr. Lisa Manning), Denver Pyle (Morgan). Music: Jim Helms. Screenplay: Stanley Ralph Ross. Director: Paul Wendkos. 72 minutes.

Tags: Mystery, Detective, Television Pilot

Notable: Starring role for Reid, in a television pilot, before her appearances in Dallas

Rating: ★★★★☆

Three men bilked millions from small investors; one had died in Paris, and now one is murdered on the estate of the third. How can a man be strangled, apparently in the middle of a tennis court, when the only set of footprints to be found anywhere are those of the victim? It’s up to Det. Shirley Ridgeway — “Mrs. R” — to interview a household full of suspects and sift the clues to catch a killer.

Originally the pilot to a proposed series to be called Mrs. R, this made-for-TV mystery is a little-known gem that deserves more attention than it got. I had the good fortune to interview England-born, Canadian-grown actress Kate Reid (The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Ugly Child) not long after this show appeared. When I asked if she had reservations about being in a television series, she replied “Not that one.” She was impressed by the producers, the crew, and everything about the concept. Sadly, it didn’t pull its market share, and the series didn’t take off.

Fans of Murder, She Wrote will enjoy the methodical yet relaxed questioning that this police detective provides. Like MSW, the technique of showing the moments of insight as flashbacks during the final confrontation with the murderer is used to great effect. If you watch, you too can figure it out; nothing is withheld, and the conclusion makes good sense. There is also the sense that, once figured out, the results are appropriate and will be taken care of properly. This is an homage to shows like Perry Mason and even MSW, where we get to see that the bad guys, whatever their motives, really do get caught and punished after all. It’s a very satisfying sense of fiction that we all can enjoy in our otherwise cynical, world-weary lives, where most bad guys rarely even get arrested, much less punished.

Reid was a particularly underrated actress of her day, with an ability to create and maintain a character with substance, using bits of back-story, quirks, and/or developments in the story to give greater depth to her performance. Even in a comparative “bit of fluff” such as this simple murder mystery tale, there is a sense of “Mrs. R” that makes me wish the series had taken off, so that we would learn still more about her.

Supporting Reid is John Anderson, who classic film buffs might know from Psycho and moderns might know from the episode “The Survivors” in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The classic “crusty but benign chief cop” role gets a proper dusting-off as we find that he and Mrs. R have something more than just friendship after hours — nothing tawdry, mind you. Now a multi-soap actor, A (for Adolfo) Martinez had been part of the short-lived series Search when he caught this role. His film work includes The Cowboys (1972) and She-Devil (1989). He brings the right touch of youthful, just-past-rookie that serves as a happy foil to Mrs. R’s more methodical style, as well as being the “cute guy” for the show. (Don’t knock it — both the actor and the character have their share of smarts, and the producers didn’t try to dumb him down just to attract a fan-base. As I write this, he’s half a year shy of 70, and he can still steal your girlfriend.)

Dated by the standards of 21st century cop shows, this pilot still holds its own with plot, character, and teasing clues that will amuse the mystery buff in you. I was particularly glad when this film came out on DVD. Go check it out.

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