One day, some studio will figure out there's money to be made by releasing Movies of the Week on DVD. Some of the finest suspense, mystery and horror ever seen on television were the compact melodramas that dotted the ABC schedule during the 1970s. NBC and CBS also made TV-movies, but ABC perfected the art of the 74-minute thriller with high-concept stories and recognizable stars.
DYING ROOM ONLY, which was ABC's Movie of the Week September 18, 1973, is a fine example of what television could do with a handful of terrific actors, a little bit of money and a great idea. A normal married couple drives across the Arizona desert on their way home from a vacation. They stop off for a bite to eat at a dinky roadside café. The wife, Jean (Cloris Leachman, then on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW), goes into the ladies’ room to freshen up. When she exits a minute later, her husband Bob (Dabney Coleman) is gone.
Richard Matheson based this suspenseful mystery on his 1953 short story. Director Phillip Leacock (BAFFLED) tells the simple but clever tale economically using a paucity of sets that accentuates Leachman’s paranoia. Performances are excellent all around, including "special guest star" Ross Martin (THE WILD WILD WEST) and Ned Beatty (just off DELIVERANCE) as the suspicious café proprietors and Dana Elcar as the sympathetic sheriff who believes Bob simply ran out on his excitable wife. The movie’s only weakness is the lack of a strong payoff; I appreciate the way Matheson and Leacock dangle clues to let us piece together the mystery ourselves, but too much is left unclear at the final fade.