'The Girl in the Empty Grave' (1977)/ 'The Delphi Bureau' (1972)

by Michael Barrett

9 May 2014

Sheriffs, Spies & Pilots--70s style
cover art

The Girl in the Empty Grave

Director: Lou Antonio
Cast: Andy Griffith

USDVD release date: 26 Mar 2014

The Delphi Bureau: The Merchant of Death Assignment

Director: Paul Wendkos
Cast: Laurence Luckinbill

USDVD release date: 26 Mar 2014

Freshly on demand from Warner Archive are two TV movies that served as pilots for prospective 1970s crime series. One of them succeeded, the other didn’t.

The Girl in the Empty Grave is the first of two 1977 movies starring Andy Griffith as Abel Marsh, police chief of the sleepy, beautiful town of Jasper Lake (actually Big Bear Lake) in the San Bernardino Mountains; Warner Archive has already released the sequel, Deadly Game. As scripted by Lane Slate, this mystery about a local girl who apparently didn’t die in the opening car-off-the-cliff stunt is a routine procedural enlivened by gorgeous locations and lots of comic, none-too-scintillating small-town interplay divided between deadpan repetitions and kvetching over budget issues. Maybe one reason for their money problems is that they seem to have at least two officers too many. For more comic relief, Marsh drives a DeSoto that doesn’t always run. The modestly clever plot winds down in an endless, unnecessary, picturesque car chase.
This is an attempt to revise the concept of Adams of Eagle Lake (1975), also created by Slate and starring Griffith as a small-town lawman (a sheriff) in another fictional “Lake” shot at the same location; cancelled before its premiere, that two-episode show isn’t even listed in standard TV references. Furthermore, Griffith had previously played a Big Bear Lake sheriff in the grim, well-received TV movie Winter Kill (1974), not written by Slate. So, after developing a gentler mountain-lake sheriff for the abortive Adams series, Slate combined the concept with his low-key Abel Marsh character, played by James Garner in the 1972 feature They Only Kill Their Masters.

If you’re not sufficiently confused, Slate also wrote a brilliant small-town-sheriff TV movie, Isn’t It Shocking (1973) with Alan Alda; too bad that was never a series, but Alda was caught up in a certain other project. Anyway, Winter Kill and They Only Kill Their Masters are both, like Deadly Game, already out from Warner Archive. Adams is still in limbo.

The Delphi Bureau: The Merchant of Death Assignment stars Laurence Luckinbill as Glen Garth Gregory, a “researcher” for something called the Delphi Bureau, which reports only to the President and really only to chignon-and-champagne Washington socialite Sybil Van Loween (Celeste Holm), who sends Glen on assignments that throw him into more danger than he bargained for. He’s on his own, with little to help him besides an eidetic memory that makes him an expert on everything. His quick thinking and useful reflexes belie his hapless demeanor. “He’ll think of something,” Sybil says when he’s arrested for murder in the middle of this story. Hmm, Sybil…the oracle of Delphi?

This light-hearted pilot (airing March 1972) is written and produced by Sam Rolfe, an illustrious creator-producer for Have Gun Will Travel and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. As 70s TV adventures go, it’s a good pilot, with an exciting climax involving farm machinery and a less exciting wrap-up with a gabby killer. The cast includes Joanna Pettet (convincing and pretty), Dean Jagger (effective without saying a word), Bradford Dillman, Bob Crane, and Cameron Mitchell. Director Paul Wendkos keeps things fast and flashy, with transitions by a spinning mirror effect. Although there’s no striking art direction, that service was rendered by Eugene Lourie, a legendary figure most famous for directing movies about giant monsters. Aside from the rousing, martial theme music, much of Harper MacKay’s score forecasts his career in cartoons.

Aside from his creator credit, Rolfe wasn’t retained for the 1972-73 series, and neither was Holm, who was replaced by Anne Jeffreys. The series rotated with two others under the umbrella title The Men, so there were only eight more episodes. We’d like to be able to say more about it, and we can if Warner Archive decides to release the series in the future.

The Girl in the Empty Grave


The Delphi Bureau: The Merchant of Death Assignment


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