Air Date: Oct. 29, 1971 (CBS)
Production Companies: Bob Markell Productions, Metromedia Producers Corporation (MPC)
Running Time: 74 min.
Available on: DVD from Synergy Entertainment
Written by: Charles S. Dubin
Directed by: John Llewellyn Moxey
Cast: John Forsythe, Richard Kiley, Reta Shaw, Wendell Burton, Joseph Campanella, Barbara Bain
Murder Once Removed (1971) demonstrates why you should never be friends with your doctor. Frank Manning (Richard Kiley) and Dr. Ron Wellesley (John Forsythe) frequent the same parties and are golf buddies, although Manning is blackmailing Wellesley, and Wellesley is plotting to kill Manning. These aren’t spoilers; the movie is not a whodunit, or even a whydunit. It’s a how’d-he-do-it.
Wellesley is a sort of mirror universe Dr. Leonard Cook (Bing Crosby) from another TV movie that aired earlier the same year, Dr. Cook’s Garden. Wellesley has no noble cause for his murders, though. They’re all about greed and lust. The two men are similar, though, in that once they get started, it’s nearly impossible for them to stop. Cook believes he’s doing a service. Wellesley is servicing only himself.
Manning’s wife, Lisa (Barbara Bain) is having an affair with Wellesley. This isn’t a spoiler, either, particularly to her husband. However, he thinks he can threaten Wellesley with information that would ruin his career, so that he will leave town. At one of the aforementioned parties, Lisa jokes with Wellesley that he could kill her husband while on the operating table (he’s having a cyst removed from his shoulder.)
While Lisa may have planted the seed in his head, Wellesley’s real motivation is to prevent her husband from revealing what he learned from the detective, Lt. Phil Proctor (Joseph Campanella), that Manning hired to dig up some dirt on him. The intrigue in the plot comes not from these details, but from watching Forsythe’s doctor meticulously plan Manning’s murder.
This is just one layer on top of a strong script by Irving Gaynor Neiman, in which the dialogue is rich, particularly between Manning and Wellesley. There’s not much action, yet the wordplay keeps Murder Once Removed clicking along. Suggestion and innuendo among the characters, including Lisa and Phil, make the movie compelling and engrossing. I really enjoyed it.
The conclusion is unexpected and surprising. If there’s any doubt, it cements the idea that Murder Once Removed is modern day (well, 1971 modern day) noir. My only complaint is that it might be a little heavy handed. I liked the twist, but it’s the one part of the film that doesn’t quite ring true, mostly because of the dialogue. Otherwise, it’s my second favorite TV movie of this series... so far.