A TV Movie Review by Michael Shonk


THEY CALL IT MURDER. TV movie, 17 Dec 1971. NBC / 20th Century Fox TV /Paisano Production. Based loosely on the book The D. A. Draws a Circle and characters created by Erle Stanley Gardner. Cast: Jim Hutton as D.A. Doug Selby, Lloyd Bochner as A.B. Carr, Jessica Walter as Jane, Leslie Nielsen as Frank, Jo Ann Pflug as Sylvia, Robert J. Wilke as Sheriff Rex Brandon, Edward Asner as Chief Otto Larkin. Written and developed by Sam Rolfe. Directed by Walter Grauman. Executive Producer: Cornwell Jackson. Associate Producer: William Kayden. Executive Story Consultant: Erle Stanley Gardner. Available on DVD and for downloading (Amazon).

   This TV Movie pilot for NBC is the only time the Selby character has been adapted for TV or film. Doug Selby first appeared in Country Gentleman magazine in 1936. The first of a series of nine books, The D. A. Calls It Murder was published in 1937. This story was loosely based on the third book The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939).

   There is evidence the TV movie was filmed in 1969 but did not air until December 17, 1971, and that Erle Stanley Gardner (Perry Mason) was involved. Garner died February 11, 1970, yet is credited as executive story consultant. Executive producer Cornwell Jackson was Gardner’s literary agent.


   More than one reference book gives 1969 as the date made. In an article about Ed Asner (New York, March 15, 1982), Pete Hamill wrote than when Grant Tinker was casting Mary Tyler Moore in 1970 he remembered this pilot from his NBC executive days and asked Asner to read for the part of Lou Grant.

   They Call It Murder was a better than average TV whodunit. Set in a small town called Madison City, Doug Shelby and Sheriff Brandon had recently won election pledging to keep the evil big city Los Angeles from taking over the town. The local Police Chief, Otto Larkin was on the other political side and supplies comedic relief. (He has his police car stolen while he is in it.)

   A dead body is found in the swimming pool of Jane Antrim’s home. She shares her home with her disabled father-in-law Frank Antrim. Frank lost the use of his legs in a car accident that killed his son and Jane’s husband Brian. They are waiting for the insurance company to pay their $500,000 policy, but an insurance investigator refuses to approve the payout.

   The victim did not die in the pool, but was shot elsewhere, twice, with two different guns using the same entrance hole. The first bullet killed him, but which gun fired the first bullet?


   Selby spends his time interviewing suspects and potential witnesses, despite having his own “Paul Drake” aka Sheriff Brandon. The defense attorney’s “Hamilton Burger,” A.B. Carr arrives and actually beats Selby in the single very brief courtroom scene as Selby loses his fight to keep his murder suspect in Madison City jail. Instead the suspect is transferred to big city Los Angeles.

   Selby realizes it all ties into the accident involving Frank and Brian a year ago. He asks his questions, nearly gets run off a mountain road by a bad guy, finds the clues and reveals all in the end.

   Even Sam Rolfe (Man from U.NC.L.E., Delphi Bureau) was unable to install a personality into Hutton’s Selby. The script relied too much on the stiff boring Hutton and the equally boring Selby.

   The supporting cast from the books was underused and their relationship to each other implied rather than explained. It was the relationship between Mason, Drake, Della, and Burger that made Perry Mason so much fun to watch. That was sacrificed here to focus on Selby.

   I am not a fan of the puzzle mystery. I am a fan of Perry Mason but ignore the story until Mason gets involved. I rarely care who the murderer is. But this proved to be an interesting puzzle with who did it not as surprising as the twists in who did it.


   There was little visually interesting about They Call It Murder, a whodunit more interested in clues than action. However the filming of the denouncement scene by director Walter Grauman was creative. As Selby explains, in voice over, what happened and who did what, the picture broke up into picture within a picture (slightly similar to the Mannix opening theme).

   Fans of TV whodunits might enjoy They Call It Murder and wish it had been made a series. But the D.A. as the hero cop working for the establishment (compared to Perry Mason doing the opposite) did not have much appeal at that time. Plus, Hutton’s Selby had virtually no appeal as someone you would want to watch every week. They Call It Murder may have had a good whodunit, but it was no Perry Mason.


Justice Denoted, by Terry White (Greenwood, 2003)