I don’t know if I can think of a more mild mystery than They Only Kill Their Masters. It’s a solid vehicle for James Garner, giving him a lot of leading man stuff to do and a fair amount of internal conflict. But it’s so slight, so genial, it doesn’t leave much of an impression.
Some of the film’s problems stem from the running time. Just under a 100 minutes, there’s not enough time to develop Garner on his own and have him investigate a murder (especially since he’s also got to be the one to discover it is a murder) and romance Katharine Ross. The romance kind of makes Masters special–Garner’s character fills out because he and Ross get together–and it’s maybe the only time I’ve seen Ross play a regular person. She does it very well.
But the romance eventually has to go to a back burner, to make time for the mystery, which is resolved terribly. There are two major revelations within eight minutes of each other and neither are particularly interesting.
Worse, the amazing supporting cast is mostly done by the end, so it’s all rapid fire resolution.
When the film’s not Garner investigating or Garner and Ross, it’s usually Garner and a supporting cast member in a nice scene. Maybe the best is Edmond O’Brien, who’s not just hilarious, but shows what Garner’s used to dealing with on a daily basis, providing some context.
It’s a decent, sometimes really good, movie. It’s just underwhelming overall.
Directed by James Goldstone; written by Lane Slate; director of photography, Michel Hugo; edited by Edward A. Biery; music by Perry Botkin Jr.; produced by William Belasco; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring James Garner (Abel), Katharine Ross (Kate), Hal Holbrook (Watkins), Harry Guardino (Capt. Streeter), June Allyson (Mrs. Watkins), Christopher Connelly (John), Tom Ewell (Walter), Peter Lawford (Campbell), Edmond O’Brien (George), Arthur O’Connell (Ernie), Ann Rutherford (Gloria) and Art Metrano (Malcolm).