Dying Room Only (1973) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

In 1953 Richard Matheson published ‘Dying Room Only’, a vanishing spouse variant on the Paris Exposition story. Like in his Twilight Zone episode ‘Nick of Time’, a young couple stop at a cafe and find their lives unraveling as unexpected stresses are placed on their relationship. Unlike the TV script, which had a hint of the supernatural, the short story is a nifty and straightforward little thriller: the husband goes to the bathroom and the wife starts to panic when he doesn’t return. Their car is then seen to leave. What’s going on – has he abandoned her, been kidnapped, has the car been stolen? Or something else? In 1973 it became a TV-movie.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

“You must have seen where my husband went!”

After his success with Duel, both in print and in its dynamic TV version directed with genuine verve by a Steven Spielberg still in his 20s, Matheson was asked to expand his 1953 short story for an ABC ‘TV-Movie of the Week’. The result is a less flashy but still exciting tale of suspense with the author’s trademarks all over it and which doesn’t betray its origins as a solid piece of pulp fiction, building on a simple suspense idea and then seeing how far it will stretch. At 74 minutes it manages to do this comfortably without either snapping or subverting its central premise. It is in fact remarkably faithful to its  brief short story.

Cloris Leachman is Jean Mitchell, the leading lady in peril, and is just a knockout in the role – but then, either in comedy or drama, I’ve never seen her ever be less than terrific frankly. At that time, despite being a veteran with over twenty years of experience on TV and film (she made her cinema debut in the classic Film Noir Kiss Me Deadly in 1955), she was in the middle of a major career renaissance. She had just won an Academy Award for her role as the sad wife in Peter Bogdanovich’s exceptional The Last Picture Show and was a regular on the Mary Tyler Moore Show as the ditzy Phyllis (who went on to have her own short-lived spin-off). She and her husband Bob (a typically stern and grumpy turn from a youngish Dabney Coleman) are arguing in the car. To help one of their children with a school project they took a huge detour and are now five hours behind schedule and boiling in the heat of the Arizona desert. They stop at a cafe, as much to patch up their differences as to take a break – unfortunately the place is a real dump and they get a decidedly unfriendly welcome.

She and Bob realise right away that the cook (Ross Martin, always at his best as a villain) and his slovenly beer-swilling buddy Tom (Ned Beatty, recently on the receiving end of very unwelcome attention from unfriendly locals in Deliverance) are unhappy to see them – in fact, they are downright hostile. But Bob, you see, is stubborn, so he insists they stay, eat the food, which will undoubtedly be lousy, and then leave, just to make a point. They both got to the rest rooms, and Jean return to an empty table. After a while the door to the gents opens but it’s Tom – her husband has apparently vanished.

She insists on inspecting the men’s room, much to the consternation of the other two, but the room is empty. There is a locked door that leads to an annex, but it is never used. The initial absurdity of the situation soon becomes genuinely frightening when Bob is apparently seen driving away, leaving her on her own in the middle of nowhere. Why would he abandon her after a simple domestic spat? She calls the police and seemingly makes a genuine ally in the shape of the local sheriff (Dana Elcar, before becoming an 80s TV mainstay in McGiver). But he can’t find any evidence of foul play either, though he agrees to put out a request for a search of the car to be made nearby. In the meantime Jean has no option but to take a room in the adjacent motel, run by the taciturn and subdued Vi (Louise Latham, one of the best character actresses of any generation and who, incidentally, turns 90 in a couple of weeks on 23 September).

Matheson’s essential method in most of his stories (and certainly nearly all of his best ones) is to take an average Joe (or Jane), someone rather like himself in fact – a reasonable, sensible, down-to-earth sort of person, not one given to flights of fancy or attacks of wanton hysteria – and then drop them into a nightmare situation in which none of the normal rules of organised society seemingly apply. Duel is a classic example of this, as is I am Legend, the Twilight Zone classic ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’, The Shrinking Man and even in such early thrillers asRide the Nightmare (which I previously reviewed here). All are deeply paranoid tales in which the protagonist is pitted alone against a terrifying world, the odds stacked against them. Jean refuses to give up and discovers that a conspiracy is in fact at work. To survive she must find out what happened to her husband and see who she can trust and who is her enemy. For the most part she doesn’t do what usually happens in this kind of movie and just get all hysterical and allow everyone to dismiss her as being overly ‘emotional’. Instead, while clearly upset, angry and scared she is also depicted as resourceful and determined. I’d certainly want her on my team.

Technically this is a highly impressive piece of work for its calm understatement, a million miles away from the flashy supercharged stunts of Duel – instead we get a story that sticks closely to the unities of time and place for a highly claustrophobic story. Set over a period of about 12 hours or so, it rarely leaves the diner and motel but never feels restricted and  manages to keep the suspense brimming right to its violent finale. This is a tribute not just to the performances and Matheson’s tightly woven script but also to Philip Leacock’s restrained direction and the highly unusual score by Charles Fox, an often undervalued composer probably best remembered for such songs as ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song’ as well as such TV ditties as the themes for Happy Days, The Love Boat and Wonder Woman but who also handled some varied assignments over the decades. He certainly provides something totally unexpected and highly effective here.

Matheson’s original story first appeared in Fifteen Detective Stories [volume 19 issue 4, October 1953]. Here are the details of the original contents of that issue, all info taken from The Fiction Mags Index web resource available at: www.philsp.com/homeville/fmi/t1061.htm

  • 8 · Death Is My Host · C. William Harrison
  • 52 · Murder Moon · Richard E. Glendinning
  • 26 · The Finishers · John Bender
  • 32 · One Against Murder · Frank Scott York
  • 42 · You Die Alone · Larry Holden
  • 62 · Dying Room Only · Richard Matheson
  • 73 · The Last Sleep · Fletcher Flora
  • 82 · Terror Walks Here · Ken Hunt
  • 91 · Killing Time · David Stewart
  • 6 · The Witness Chair · Walter Lange
  • 31 · Oddities of the Law · David Crewe
  • 50 · Strange Trails to Murder · Nelson & Lee
  • 104 · Solving Cipher Secrets · M. E. Ohaver
  • 110 · The Case of the Canceled Wedding · Joseph C. Stacey
  • 112 · The Chump · Bess Ritter

DVD Availability: Available in the US as part of the Warner Archive manufacture on demand series, the DVD offers an excellent transfer with strong colours and very good sharpness. No extras.

Dying Room Only (1973)
Director: Philip Leacock
Producer: Lee Rich
Screenplay: Richard Matheson
Cinematography: John W. Stephens
Art Direction: Ed Graves
Music: Charles Fox
Cast: Chloris Leachman, Dabney Coleman, Ross Martin, Ned Beatty, Dana Elcar, Louise Latham

*****(3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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42 Responses to Dying Room Only (1973) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. Mike says:

    This sounds great! It’s only available in the UK on import, of course, but it’s the sort of thriller I know I’d enjoy and Matheson’s presence is always a recommendation. Great review – a title I’ll look out for, not to mention a reminder to look out for some short story collections.

    • Cheers Milke – it was on the BBC a few times but quite a long time ago. The easiest way to get the original story is in the recent anthology released to tie-in with the release of The Box, the Cameron Diaz movie adapted from Matheson’s Button, Button adapted by Richard Kelly of Donnie Darko fame. It is easily available as The Box: Uncanny Stories – here’s a link. It was previously issued as Button, Button: Uncanny Stories – here’s an Amazon link.
      The Box by Richard Matheson

      • Colin says:

        Finding myself at a loose end this afternoon, I headed out for a coffee and stroll round the city centre. I ended up browsing round book stores and, lo and behold, there was a copy of The Box staring right back at me! Well, after your recommendation here I just had to buy it, didn’t I?
        I’m about half way through a Rex Stout short story trio right now so this one will be next on my schedule.

        • That is very cool Colin – hope you enjoy it as I think it’s a pretty decent collection. My favourite of the Stout trios is probably Curtains for Three but they’re all great fun and in fact I’ve never met a Nero Wolfe book I didn’t like!

          • Colin says:

            Cheers! Really looking forward to getting stuck into it.
            I’m in the middle of Three Men Out and liking it a lot. Unfortunately, I starting to run out of Stout novellas – he really was at his best in the short form.

          • You’re probably right about the shorter works being superior – but I always enjoy them (probably because I never care about the plots and just want to enjoy all the repartee – a bit like Morse and Lewis really!

          • Colin says:

            Absolutely! The plots can, on occasion, be a bit thin but that’s not why I read Stout. The dialogue and exchanges are priceless. On top of that, the whole “World of Wolfe” is just so damned attractive – wonderful stuff.
            I think the only book I recall being disappointing was the much lauded League of Frightened Men.

          • ‘World of Wolfe’ is right – truly eccentric and wonderfully self-contained. But really, League of Frightened Men didn’t ring your doorbell (sic) – surely you jest? I love that book (I even gave it a splendiferous review right here) I mean, I know what you mean in the sense that it is often singled out as Stout’s masterpiece and in some ways it doesn’t really feel all that different from many, many others of his top notch books – but it’s still an excellent mystery, surely ..?

          • Colin says:

            I dunno – it just didn’t grab me like I hoped. I mean I had heard so many good things about it and it just didn’t live up to it all. Up to now, I’d say the best Wolfe novel I’ve read is Some Buried Caesar.
            Maybe I should give League another go?

          • I actually find it very hard to pick a favourite – The Arnold Zeck trilogy is definitely a bit special and I love The Doorbell Rang for instance, as much for its critique of J. Edgar Hoover as for its perfectly decent plot; Prisoner’s Base is another I really as it has quite a strong story. Some Buried Caesar is a very good one, you’re right, as is Too Many Cooks, which led unusually to a semi-sequel, Right to Die, which is also great if totally different. I haven;t read Plot it Yourself and have saved the last 2 or 3 for a very rainy day – but you see what I mean? Keep me going and it’ll turn out I think they’re all great – way to be a useless critic!

          • Colin says:

            Yes, Prisoner’s Base is tip top stuff. I’ve been saving the Zeck trilogy until I find time to read them all together, not that I suppose that’s necessary, but still…
            Too Many Cooks is another I have but haven’t read yet, likewise Too Many Women & Too Many Clients – too many books it seems!

          • The Arnold Zeck books don;t have to be read in sequence, though the first two are more fun that way – but to not read the third one last would be sheer flummery, sir!

  2. Colin says:

    I don’t know how I’ve never seen this one. It sounds great, coming from the pen of Matheson, and boasting a fantastic cast.
    The premise of the story is the kind of thing I love, even if the pay off doesn’t always live up to what comes before.

    • It’s a great little movie – in the 50s it probably would have been directed by John Sturges or Andrew Stone and starred (if we were lucky) Barbara Stanwyck. I know it’s MOD but the Warner DVD, while being the purest vanilla, is very impressive looking – there’s a flurry of scratches at the halfway mark between reel changes and that’s it. I could have easily added another 10 image grabs for the review but some of them were a bit spoilery …

      • Colin says:

        I’m no fan of MODs but I have this marked down for future purchase, when the price is round what I’m willing to pay.

        • The price point is absolutely infuriating, inn’t it? As if it weren’t bad enough that the dyes will probably fade much faster, they then make you pay even more for the privilige – there, I ranted, had to do it – feeloing better now! I got it through All Your Music on Amazon … And I should add in fairness, of the dozen or so Warner discs I have, they have all been absolutely fine so far (knocks wood apprehensively …).

          • Colin says:

            Hey, I’ve done plenty of ranting myself in the past so I know exactly where you’re coming from.

            I’ve only bought about a half dozen Archive discs myself and they’ve given me no trouble either, so far

          • The long term is the worry, isn’t it? At a rough estimate I think I have a dozen Warner Archive titles (including the second Harry O pilot, a half dozen Michael Curtiz movies including The Breaking Point and a couple of Hammer thrillers) and one MGM Limited Edition (the excellent Hickey & Boggs). They all look superb – have there been reports of these discs failing yet do you know?

  3. Colin says:

    I don’t recall hearing any reports of failures so far but I can’t feel 100% confident about the long-term durability of burnt media. For that reason I try to pick up what I can from other, usually European, sources. I have The Breaking Point (http://www.starscafe.com/en/movie/punto-de-ruptura.aspx) & The People Against O’Hara (http://www.starscafe.com/en/movie/el-caso-ohara.aspx) on order right now.

    • Great news about BREAKING POINT – I had no idea there was a pressed version anywhere – look forward to reading that review chum as it’s such a great movie and I hope it gets the transfer it deserves.

  4. Todd Mason says:

    Indeed…one of the last of the crime-fiction pulps, there, the Popular title (only Columbia persevered much longer). And also an impressive cast, as noted. It is a pity how little respect these often get…

  5. This sounds great and she is such a great actress even as the demented great gran in RAISING HOPE. I hope that’s not the role she’s remembered for.

    • Thanks Patti – I really enjoyed watching this one again. I doubt this is what she will be best remembered for as there si so much choice (for that matter her roles for Mel Brroks!). Really arenlt many who can navigate comedy and drama so seamlessly.

  6. Yvette says:

    Cloris Leachman is wonderful. She can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned – there are certain actors who are always good no matter what. This sounds like something I’d like to see. Dabney Coleman? I like him too. Thanks for another terrific review, Sergio. You always make everything sound so tasty. :)

  7. Ed Gorman says:

    Excellent review. Thanks for writing it. I’ve seen this a couple times and enjoy and admire it. I i wish there were still TV movies of this quality. I realize there were only a handful of truly transcendent TV movies back in the 60s and 70s but I enjoyed even some of the mediocore ones. To me they were more watchable than all these cop-lawyer shows. I mean how many “rogue” cops can there be? :) “O’Brien you ran over five nuns last night chasing that perp. Now I want you to sit down and write the Pope a letter of apology.”

    • Thanks Ed, that is very kind of you. I know exactly what you mean. While I like the sophisticated use of sserial elements in modern dramas, I love stand-alone movies and stories. The Jese Stone films are probably the closest to that I get access to here in the UK but there were so many terrific TV-movies that I remember from the 70s that I’d love to see again. Although not cheap and bare-bones, it was a real pleasure to get this disc and to have it in such good technical condition.

  8. Hello Sergio! Paranoid tales where the principal character is alone and “pitted against a terrifying world” appeals to me. I have never read Matheson and I don’t think I have seen Cloris Leachman on film or television before, though her character, both from your review and the pictures, gives you a fair idea of what to expect from her role—a realisitic portrayal of a principled woman who won’t give up till she gets to the bottom of it all. I’d also like to see this film for Ned Beatty whose last film I saw had him in a “sidey” role, not counting his role in “Superman” of course.

    • Hi Prashant – admittedly this particular film is not very well known and Matheson’s Duel is probably held in higher regard, which one can understand given the Spielberg connection. But Leachman is really wonderful though – but then she always is. Beatty was great as Otis but he is another actor who is great in either comedy or dramatic roles – like Leachman he is still active in the biz. Matheson is a real favourite of mine though – I’m reviewing another one of his suspense novels shortly but I Am Legend should be easy to find and is still preferable to any of the three movie adaptations.

  9. John says:

    For me Cloris Leachman will be remembered not for any single role but for being a brilliant comic actress and a surprisingly gifted dramatic actress as well. Frau Blucher, Nurse Rancid, Phyllis Lindstrom – all trademark roles for this multi-talented woman. Years ago I got to see her live onstage in a one woman show about Grandma Moses, the primitive American painter. She’;; alwasy be a favorite of mine — from her bit part as the trenchcoat clad woman running down the highway in KISS ME DEADLY to her insane turn on “Dancing with the Stars”. I love coming across her in my constant viewing of old vintage TV shows. She does a nasty manipulative villainess is an episode of the Thriller TV anthology series (“Girl with a Secret” based on a Charlotte Armstrong novel), small role that was wonderful to watch.

    This is one of the better 70s TV movies. Growing up I was addicted to the ones shown on ABC. There were a slew of them (I think they were all part of a thriller movie of the week series) that are still deeply embedded in my memory: The Elevator, Killdozer, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and of course Duel with Dennis Weaver and that ominous truck.

    Louise Latham! Marnie’s horrible mother! She’s a great one to watch for in old time TV as well. One of these days I want to do one of those posts Yvette does on underappreciated character actors and actresses from old American TV. I’d include Louise Latham, Virginia Gregg, Philip Coolidge, Robert Emhardt, Henry Jones, Carmen Matthews, and Jo Van Fleet — an Oscar winner for East of Eden, but so incredibly good in some TV shows, too.

    • Cheers John – Ed Gorman mentioned some of the great 70s TV-Movies and it has brought back all sort of memories, from the various other Richard Matheson projects from the time (the Kolckack TV-Movies, the Palance Dracula, Barbara Eden getting impregnated by aliens in The Stranger Within, Karen Black getting pursued in Trilogy of Terror as well as his powerful film about alcoholism The Morning Afterr starring Dick Van Dyke) to those marvelous projects by Levinson and Link and dozens and dozens of others!

      I hope you do that post about character actors – I see it leading to an endlessly entertaining torrent of backchat mate!

      • John says:

        THE STRANGER WITHIN! LOL. I forgot about that one. Did that become before or after THE DEMON SEED and similar probing sci-fi horror movies? (couldn’t resist the nasty pun) And how could I have passed over the landmark TRILOGY OF TERROR? Karen Black’s masterpiece of high camp acting. Seriously – a masterpiece. There were also plenty of straight dramas like THAT CERTAIN SUMMER — one of the earliest movies to deal a with a gay member in a family — DAWN: PORTRAIT OF A TEENAGE RUNAWAY with Eve Plumb breaking out of her role as Jan Brady. That one movie seemed to launch an entire subgenre about troubled teens. Oh! what about Linda Blair in BORN INNOCENT? The infamous BORN INNOCENT with it’s horrifying attack in the shower sequence. Truly taboo stuff fro TV in the 70s. Not so much a fan of Palance as Dracula, but I did like Michael Sarrazin in Frankenstein (with Jane Seymour as the creature’s ravishing doomed bride). I think it was the first adaptation to be the closest to Shelley’s
        original story.

        OK, that’s enough reminiscing. Time to get to work.

        • Get to work? It’s Friday afternoon (well, in London anyway …). Demond Seed, both the book by Dean R Koontz (originally published in 1973 then revised completely in 1997), and the 1977 Cammell adaptation, came way, way after the Matheson story the script is based on, which was originally published n 1953 as ‘Mother by Protest’ (Matheson’s original title was ‘Trespass’ incidentally). It also predated John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cockoos by four year (and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby by several more) though I dare say the Old Testament got there first … I’d love to have a decent DVD of That Certain Summer and some of the other Levinson and Link dramas.
          The Stranger Within

  10. Rod Croft says:

    Besides Cloris Leachman’s astonishing versatility in acting roles, she also sings! Not only did she take the lead role in the 1975 TV film “Someone I Touched” but she sang the theme song.

  11. Colin says:

    Just finished reading Matheson’s short story, and working my way through the others in the book, and I was very impressed with it. It’s a lovely piece of sustained tension that builds relentlessly. Thanks for the tip.

    • Really glad you’re enjoying it Colin – it is a very early piece by Matheson (some of the other titles are from much later) but it does hold up quite nicely doesn’t it?

      • Colin says:

        Definitely. Pulpy, unpretentious and gripping – just the way I like ‘em.
        The same publisher has another Matheson collection Steel, and I may well pick that up too.

        • Just saw the Hugh Jackman remake, Real Steel, which occasioned the TOR paperback. The book is full of good things, focusing almost completely on the 50s apart from a couple of much more recent tales. The new movie (as opposed to the superior Twilight Zone adaptation by Matheson starring Lee Marvin) is actually OK though it really is just Rocky remade by Spielberg with his trademark fascination with robots and his usual emphasis on father-son relationships.

  12. Seems we have another shared love in Nero Wolfe.

    In addition to “Button, Button” and “Dying Room Only,” THE BOX contains several other stories adapted for the screen: “Girl of My Dreams” (an episode of the Hammer TV series JOURNEY TO THE UNKNOWN, co-written by Robert Bloch), “No Such Thing as a Vampire” (an episode of the BBC’s LATE NIGHT HORROR and a segment of the Dan Curtis/Matheson TV-movie DEAD OF NIGHT), and “Mute” (an hour-long fourth-season TWILIGHT ZONE episode).

    • We’re just men of taste Matthew and we’ll just have to live with it! It’s a very good primer it seems to me – I’ve only seen the TZ episode and not the other two (I don’t think – I have a very distant memory of Journey to the Unknown being repeated in the late 80s on British TV …) – mind you, it would be nice if the Shock quartet were re-released.

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