While many of you will no doubt agree with Christopher Lloyd's line in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock that a failure is the most powerful destructive force ever created, I have to beg to differ when it comes to television pilots. When it was quite clear that these vehicles would never be able to spread their wings and learn to fly, they wound up banished to the hoary netherworlds known as vaults, wherein they practiced the fine art of collecting dust. It is only when studio folk start rummaging through these motion picture relics of yesteryear that we can fully appreciate them - no matter how terrible they usually turn out to be. But of course, that's what makes them so appealing.
In the case of Death Among Friends, we get a look at what is quite possibly the nicest homicide detective ever. Played by Kate Reid, Lt. Shirley Ridgeway is a kind and considerate mother-like figure in a world where chauvinism ran rampant. Whether she's interviewing victims or suspects, her emotional thermostat is always set to warm - even as the assailant of this TV movie is caught red-handed at the finale and retaliates by pinning her up against the wall with a knife to her chest. Her one and only assistant - Manny (a young A. Martinez) - follows her around like a lost puppy, and is treated with great care by his superior (though she still has a lot to teach the kid). Why, the sassy seasoned widow is even sleeping with boss (John Anderson) in a level-headed, drama-free fashion!
I think I'm already picking up on why this series didn't get picked up.
Anyhoo, in this, the fictitious character's sole adventure on film ever, we find Shirley - as she prefers to be addressed by all, because she's a nice lady like that - and Manny on the case of a mysterious strangling at the plush estate of a shifty international financier, as played here by the great Martin Balsam. If you're a fan of Mr. Balsam (and you damn well should be) then Death Among Friends will be a must for you, as the late great character actor gets to play it up as he begins to realize that one of his houseguests is a killer - and he's the next target. We also get to see Martin sport one of the greatest '70s shirts (with collars like Rodan's wingspan, kids) and don little more than a towel as he gets a rubdown by veteran heavy William Smith. OK, so maybe that last part won't form any orderly queues, but still.
In addition to the aforementioned Smith, supporting players for this telefilm include Jack Cassidy (one of Columbo's greatest guest villains ever), Paul Henreid (as an ex-Nazi chef), Lynda Day George (who gets the best and by far funniest death in the tale), Denver Pyle (in a cameo), and a trio of centerfold models as brought to bouncy life by Pamela Hensley, Robyn Hilton (Mel Brooks' busty secretary in Blazing Saddles), and Katherine Baumann. Paul Wendkos, who made a career out of helming TV movies, directs from a script by Stanley Ralph Ross (who penned many a classic episode of Batman in the '60s, and helped develop Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman series) for the Douglas S. Cramer Company (yes, the same folks who kept The Love Boat afloat for so darn long).
Rarely seen outside of late-night TV airings when local stations had timeslots to fill (before these now-dreaded days of infomercials, kids), Death Among Friends is a charming, extremely lighthearted police procedural. Most of the movie's performers had been doing the same thing for so long that it obviously came off quite naturally for them, and Kate Reid succeeds in keeping her dignity throughout, despite being attired in some of the least-flattering '70s attire for older women that ever escaped from the lowest, darkest depths of designer hell. The Warner Archive Collection brings this lost cause to DVD-R in a modest standard definition presentation that delivers the various eccentricities this one has to offer. Curiosity seekers and fans of '70s TV fare will no doubt be in heaven here.