I have very little to say about A Matter of Wife ... and Death, a TV-movie starring Rod Taylor that first aired on the NBC network the evening of April 10, 1976. Taylor plays private detective Shamus McCoy, the same character Burt Reynolds portrayed in Shamus (1973), a moderately popular theatrical film, though its $3.3 million in domestic rentals pales compared to that year's big hits, movies like The Sting ($159 million) and American Graffiti ($140 million). A Matter of Wife ... and Death was also a pilot film for an intended Shamus TV series.
That it didn't sell is hardly surprising. I requested this title primarily after seeing Rod Taylor (The Time Machine, The Birds) and Joe Santos (The Rockford Files) on the cover art, two actors I've always liked. Both are likeable here, too, but the material they have to work with is resolutely ordinary. Even by television standards, nothing about A Matter of Wife ... and Death distinguishes itself from a million other detective shows. None of the characters, including Shamus himself, is the least bit interesting, and the story painfully routine and in no way compelling.
On the plus side the show, filmed in 35mm, gets an attractive full-frame video transfer courtesy Sony's manufactured-on-demand Choice Collection.
The story has L.A.-based Shamus McCoy (Rod Taylor) receiving an urgent call from Paulie Baker (Tom Drake), a down on his luck P.I. reduced to running the occasional errand for McCoy. Paulie insists his life is in danger, so Shamus abandons girlfriend Zelda (Lynda Carter, just prior to landing the title role on Wonder Woman) and heads for the Whittier Street Bridge, where Shamus arrives just in time to see Paulie's car blown to smithereens.
Paulie's wife, Helen (Anita Gillette) persuades Shamus to look into her husband's death, concurrent with the official police investigation being supervised by Lt. Vince Promuto (Joe Santos). Clues gradually lead Shamus to bag man Blinky (Eddie Firestone), gangster Dottore (Cesare Danova), interchangeable bad guys Snell (Luke Askew) and Ruby (John Colicos), and young Carol (Anne Archer), all of which cause Shamus to suspect a major gambling ring is muscling its way into the city.
Though filmed all over downtown Los Angeles, A Matter of Wife ... and Death falls squarely in the middle of Dullsville. It's hard to imagine anyone connected with this project thinking it was going to be good or even particularly promising, a shame since star Rod Taylor possesses a unique, barrel-chested charm, alternately macho and sensitive, that's appealing. He could have enjoyed a long run on TV had the right vehicle come along.
Berry Beckerman, who created the character for the movie with Burt Reynolds, seems to have had a fondness for literary private eyes of the previous generation, with Shamus modeled slightly after Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, rather than, say, Mannix or Cannon. Beckerman wrote few scripts, but the same year this premiered he wrote the script for the Charles Bronson film St. Ives, another throwback to that earlier era. Usually cop and detective shows from the 1970s gave its leads at least one distinguishing feature (Cannon was fat, Barnaby Jones was elderly, Ironside was disabled, etc.) and usually a distinctive automobile. Shamus has a cat, Freddy, named after The Treasure of Sierra Madre's Fred C. Dobbs*, and he's a good pool player, but that's about it. Since then Shamus McCoy hasn't developed much of a following. Even this website devoted to the character doesn't offer a lot of information.
"Shamus" has an obvious double meaning, the word being Yiddish slang for private detective. Of course Shamus or, more accurately, Séamus, is also the Gaelic equivalent of "James," and with a surname like McCoy one wishes Taylor's character could have been refashioned into a more colorful, explicitly Scotch or Irish rogue instead of a blandly American one. (Taylor hides his slight Australian accent.) They couldn't have called the series McCoy in any case. An NBC Sunday Mystery Movie series with that name and starring Tony Curtis aired during the 1975-76 TV season.
Emblematic of the program's lack of imagination is the casting and use of Joe Santos as Shamus's police friend. Santos had been playing Sgt. Dennis Becker, Jim Rockford's policeman friend on The Rockford Files, for two years already. Here, Santos's part is a veritable photocopy of Becker; there's not even the slightest whiff of a difference between the two characters in dress, manner, dialogue - nothing.
The big climax shows a teeny amount of imagination, filmed as it was in a real ice house where one of the bad guys falls into a giant ice block-making contraption, but it's far too little and too late to salvage this dreary telefilm.
Video & Audio
A Matter of Wife ... and Death is presented in full-frame format, and looks terrific, probably because it's likely that the original film elements have barely been touched since it first aired 37 years ago. The audio, English only with no other choices and no subtitle options, is likewise strong. There are no menu screens; the movie simply begins then restarts automatically after it's done. The disc is region-free. No Extra Features.
Not much here, a by-the-numbers TV movie with almost nothing to recommend it beyond star Rod Taylor's appearance. Interested parties will want to Rent It first.
* So was an African Grey parrot I once owned, for those who care.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.