Available through Warner Brothers’ Archive Collection (a real rarity, considering how few MTVs from this era have made it onto disc), ABC’s 1973 telemovie, Dying Room Only, directed by Philip Leacock, written by the master, Richard Matheson, and starring Cloris Leachman, Ned Beatty, Ross Martin, and Dabney Coleman, is a model of efficient, effective suspense.
By Paul Mavis
The set-up is simplicity itself. On the final day of their long vacation sans kids, Jean Mitchell (Cloris Leachman) and her husband Bob (Dabney Coleman) are tired, hot, and beginning to get on each other’s nerves. Riding in their sweet, sweet ’73 Chevy wagon over a melting two-lane blacktop in the empty Arizona desert, irritated Bob can’t leave it alone that they traveled 100 miles out of their way so Jean can take photographs for their child’s school project. Jean tries to placate him, but he won’t let the matter drop. Seeing a café and motel ahead, he asks if they should stop to eat, and she agrees…once they pass it. Jean gets him to laugh as they U-turn back.
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They should have just kept right on driving down the road. Once inside the café, owner Jim Cutler (Ross Martin) and country boy punk Tom King (Ned Beatty), are none too pleasant to the couple. Jean doesn’t feel comfortable there, but Bob digs in his heels, matching Jim’s and Tom’s rudeness with his own brand of upper middle class disdain, going so far as to dismissively call them “jerks” within earshot. An increasingly concerned Jean asks again to leave, warning Bob they’re out in the middle of nowhere, but arrogant Bob isn’t having any of that; besides, he has to hit the can. There’s only one problem, though: he never exits the restroom. He disappears. And no one is going to help an increasingly desperate Jean.
Certainly there were many excellent made-for-TV movies on the other networks back during the form’s heyday; CBS’s The Homecoming (which became the pilot for The Waltons) and NBC’s The Deadly Tower (with newly-sprung Disney star Kurt Russell scaring the sh*t out of everybody as “Texas Tower sniper” Charles Whitman) are just two that immediately spring to mind. However, there did seem to be something special about the titles that appeared on ABC’s weekly series, The ABC Movie of the Week—the first television series specifically dedicated to premiering original made-for-TV films each and every week of the season.
There was a buzz of excitement about the show that’s impossible for today’s younger TV viewers to understand, certainly because of all the programming choices at their disposal. Plain and simple: we just didn’t have as much to watch back then on the three networks, so anything new or different-looking caused some excitement for regular TV watchers (and everybody was glued to their sets back then). Even the longer running times for these telemovies were a source of anticipation for viewers. If all you had were hour-long dramas and half-hour sitcoms on the schedules, a 90-minute or two-hour telemovie (with commercials, of course), was actually noteworthy, sad to say (it didn’t take much to please us back then).
As well, ABC’s production and lighting “house style” usually delivered a product that approximated quite well the look of big-screen features (you should have seen the look on my old man’s face when seven-year-old-I tried to make him understand that CBS shows looked “film-like smooth and glossy,” NBC’s looked “grainy and dark,” and ABC’s popped like comic books: “Call a head-shrinker for this kid!”). Dying Room Only looks like a cool little movie you’d catch in the middle of triple feature at the drive-in…only without the overt sex and violence.
Marrying a “what would you do?” suspenser to a “city folks at the mercy of country psychos” actioner (a subgenre that just reached its peak the year before with Deliverance, the Gone with the Wind of this kind of exploitation film), Dying Room Only managed to stay with people who saw it back then, although nobody seemed to remember or mention it in reviews when obvious—but excellent—rip-off Breakdown came out in ’97. Author and screenwriter extraordinaire, Richard Matheson, riding high with ABC after the twin MTV monster successes of Duel and The Night Stalker, had a busy year in ’73, including Night Stalker sequel, The Night Strangler, and a big-screen feature, the equally well-regarded The Legend of Hell House. Cloris Leachman was swinging into a high point of her career, too, having won an Oscar two years before, while racking up an Emmy win for her current gig on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (and right before achieving screen immortality as Frau Brucar in Young Frankenstein). All signs pointed to Dying Room Only scoring a sizeable hit with the viewers and critics.
And while Dying Room Only doesn’t quite hit the highest levels of those previous Matheson TV classics, it is beautifully set-up and snazzily directed and performed, delivering its fair share of scares and chills. Setting the stage with the couple’s brief car ride before chancing onto the cafe and motel (hey…Vacancy ripped off this movie, too), Matheson effortlessly gets across the tension between this couple, all in a few, short, sparse exchanges (credit for this realism is also due to Coleman’s and Leachman’s expertise, whom, along with the rest of the excellent cast, do much with seemingly very little).
Much like Duel, where Matheson, with just one short scene on the telephone, nails down Dennis Weaver’s character as a spineless wimp (calling his wife and whining about not protecting her from a handsy partygoer), Dying Room Only sets up the almost-bickering couple in just a few minutes (one of the benefits of that tight 74-minute run time). Their pithy dialogue perfectly captures the petty bickering between a long-married couple who know just how far the anger will escalate if they give into the squabble. When pissed-off Bob says that he just wants her to admit she’s wrong, any married person out there understands exactly where this argument is going (typical for Matheson, he does a neat bit of witty foreshadowing, as well: with the argument on the cusp of turning nasty, Jean falls back on angry resignation, saying, “I’m sorry, Bob! Shoot me!” to which Bob responds with blasé contempt, “Load the gun, baby”).
Once inside the diner, Matheson and director Leacock turn up the increasingly uneasy tension by having Bob remain oblivious to the tell-tale warning signs all around him. Still ticked off about not getting his own way (in the car he was bitching about being five hours off their schedule), and ready to show his dominance over his wife’s objections, Bob can’t see that from the minute he and Jean walked into the café, something was wrong with that room. Jim the owner refuses to talk to them or extend even the simplest of courtesies, while Tom sizes them up in a manner that would make any couple say, “We’ll be leaving,” and turn right around and out the door. Both men exchange baleful glances at the couple while silently communicating something malevolent to each other (the editing by Bill Mosher is really first-class here: tight and worrisome), while Jean quietly asks to leave, saying specifically she doesn’t feel comfortable around these men in this isolated spot. What husband wouldn’t leave then?
Bob, apparently, because not only does he refuse to listen to his wife (“Bob, I wouldn’t….” “You wouldn’t what?” he snaps disgustedly), he aggressively pushes the confrontation over Jim’s rude service, insisting on knowing what kind of beer and bread they have…as Jim looks as if he’s going to kill him. It’s a quietly nerve-racking, realistic scene (the best in the movie), and one that promises great things for Dying Room Only. Leacock, long a veteran of polished, accomplished TV fare, having directed everything from Falcon Crest and Dynasty, to Family and The Waltons, doesn’t waste a shot here, approximating a sparse, lean visual style that relies on subjective reaction shots for quite a bit of the story development, with a visual design that falls somewhere between Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock and Hitchcock’s Psycho—an interesting coincidence, since the story as it’s worked out here, has elements that remind me of those two classics (the desert environment, the unfriendly locals hiding a secret, the dilapidated motel with someone snooping around it, looking for their loved one, danger lurking in a seemingly innocuous space: the bathroom).
Unfortunately, just as Coleman starts to get warmed up (nobody played a sneering, sarcastic dick better than Coleman), he drops out of the picture altogether, only to return for a brief moment at the end when Leachman rescues him (…or he rescues her). And that’s really the (minor) trouble with Dying Room Only. It’s tight, it’s comfortably exciting, and it delivers on the suspense, but motivation for the action disappears along with Coleman. We just never get a bead on Leachman, because her character is never fleshed out. She argues with her husband, he disappears, and she frantically searches for him. SPOILER! She rescues him at the end, but even that’s fudged because Bob has to tell her how to ward off Vi, the evil motel manager (Louise Latham, so good as the mother in Hitchcock’s Marnie, is terrific as usual in a too small role). Bob’s anger at her and at Jim and Tom sets the story in motion, but he doesn’t have to “pay” for putting Jean in her situation at the end (the way it’s shot, nervous Jim and Tom do not want the arriving couple to stay—it’s Bob who pushes them too far). No scene is shot showing them discussing what happened after they defeat Jim and Tony; Bob never has to say, “Sorry.” Jean’s simple motivation—a wife saving her husband—isn’t deepened by anything in her characterization. She suffers no internal conflicts over the situation, other than a growing desperation and terror.
As for the villains (SPOILER!who apparently kidnap people through a second door in the café bathroom—Vacancy again—to rob and kill them, burying them out in the desert), we only hear from Tom, who chillingly states, “Killing don’t mean nothing. This is our territory out here. You folks come here. This is my place. You have something I want, I take it, see? I just take it. That’s all. I just take it.” It’s an intriguing statement, full of implications about Western and rural resentments directed towards “city folks,” but Matheson either ignores it or didn’t have time to expand any further on this menacing theme (apparently greed was the only motivation for Martin’s character; pity more wasn’t done with him, since he and Beatty are so good together). So with Coleman out of the picture, villains who have tantalizing but underdeveloped motivations to rob and kill, and with no acknowledgment of Bob’s role in getting the couple in trouble in the first place, Dying Room Only ultimately becomes a straight, more-than-competent action/suspenser…and no more.