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