‘Death Among Friends’ Is Blissfully Unconnected from Reality

[23 July 2014]

By Michael Barrett

Above:  Feet with toe tag on a morgue table image from Shutterstock.com, not from this obscure made for TV movie.

What is it about homicide? “It’s far more interesting than vice or burglary,” says Lt. Shirley Ridgeway, a middle-aged widow played by Canadian actress Kate Reid. “And believe it or not, you meet a better class of people.”

At least that’s true if you’re a character in a ‘70s TV movie that’s blissfully unconnected with reality. Even though she works for the Los Angeles Police Department, Lt. Ridgeway’s world consists of a homey office where she’s supplied with a cute young uniformed patrolman, Manny Reyes (A Martinez), as a kind of personal batman. “He’s a beautiful boy,” she sighs, before explaining he used to run with an East Side gang.

Now they water plants, fill out crosswords, arrange her hair appointments (“I look worse than my passport photos!”), and debate whether to attend the opera or a baseball game (together!) while waiting around for the next murder in Bel Air. No East Side Gangs for them.

Welcome to the world of “Mrs. R: Death Among Friends”, the onscreen title to this pilot for a series that never materialized. We should also mention that she cooks dinner for her craggy boss, Capt. Lewis (John Anderson), who wants to marry her while she suggests living in sin. Yes, this is ‘70s television. The cops are called to the stunning mansion of a financier (Martin Balsam) who got rich while cheating his investors—well, not everything in this story comes from Neverland. Lt. Ridgeway or Shirley (no one calls her Mrs. R) chats convivially, like a less annoying Columbo, with all the aggressively artificial suspects, like the live-in alleged psychiatrist (Lynda Day George) and the alcoholic tennis pro (Jack Cassidy), in between bizarrely complicated outbreaks of death.

The reasonably obvious whodunit angle requires no special insight in Stanley Ralph Ross’ script, which is mostly interested in fantasy and likeable protagonists, all the way to the lame joke in the closing freeze-frame. Director Paul Wendkos keeps it all TV-style except for the intense highlights of the deaths or attempted killings, when suddenly the movie bursts into rapid, expressionistic cross-cutting.

TV crime shows often had a character gimmick: blind detective, fat detective, bald detective, etc. So the idea here is a smart, unthreatening woman of a certain age. In 1975, that was original enough, and we can only speculate why it didn’t sell. It surely can’t be the unreality, because that has never stopped anything from getting on the air. Producer Alex Beaton handled this in between Kung Fu and Harry O, while executive producer Douglas S. Cramer would move on to little shows called The Love Boat and Dynasty with Aaron Spelling.

Also in the cast are Paul Henreid, Pamela Hensley, William Smith, and Denver Pyle. For all those nostalgists of TV series that never were, it’s freshly available on demand from Warner Archive.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/182805-death-among-friends/