Monday, November 12, 2012

Alan Alda Investigates Small Town Murders in "Isn't It Shocking?"

Alan Alda in Isn't It Shocking?
Three deaths in one week isn't unusual...even in a quaint New England town like Mount Angel where the population is 1325 and the police department consists of four people. But when all three victims die of the same cause at the same age--and they graduated from the same high school class--that's enough to get the chief of police thinking it's more than coincidence.

There are no surprises in Isn't It Shocking?, a nifty murder tale originally broadcast on ABC's Movie of the Week in 1973. Indeed, the culprit is revealed in the creepy opening scene, in which the killer (Edmund O'Brien) methodically prepares a slumbering elderly woman for electrocution. Yet, unlike Columbo, this film isn't about a cat-and-mouse game between detective and murderer. In fact, the candy bar-eating killer disappears into the background except for occasional glimpses and a car chase through a a cornfield.

What we have here is a non-mystery in which the viewer knows the villain's identity, his modus operandi, and eventually who will be murdered next. So why is Isn't It Shocking? such a delightfully offbeat film? The answer lies in the charms of Mount Angel and its wonderfully-detailed characters. 

Louise Lasser--but not as Mary Hartman.
Dan (Alan Alda), the chief of police, is a middle-aged bachelor toying with the idea of taking the sheriff's job in a bigger town (the nearby Horse Creek). His primary interests are birds and, well, women--though eligible ones are in short supply locally (his deputy Jesse maintains that all the female residents in Mount Angel are 47). Dan sleeps with the owner of the local motel, but he's clearly not ready to be a father to her three young sons. He's intrigued when he learns that the coroner's assistant, "Doc" Lovell, is a single attractive woman. In contrast, he pays little attention to the police department's office manager (Louise Lasser) until she displays a keen interest in solving murders.

As for Mount Angel, it reminded me of Highwater, Vermont, another quiet hamlet interrupted by murder in Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry. Although Isn't It Shocking? is less tongue-in-cheek than Hitchcock's black comedy, it still revels in quirky touches such as the cab used to transport corpses because the funeral home's 1954 Packard hearse requires repairs.

Nolan discussing the crimes with Alda.
Alda, who had started his incredible run in M*A*S*H the previous year, slips comfortably into the role of the easygoing small-town police chief. Both Louise Lasser (looking just like Mary Hartman) and Lloyd Nolan (as Jesse) add strong supporting performances. Will Geer and Ruth Gordon round out the central cast, appearing in the kinds of roles that made them famous.

Director John Badham hit the big time four years later with Saturday Night Fever and forged a solid career in the film industry. Composer David Shire, whose playful score is a highlight, also had a very successful career. He was married to Talia Shire from 1970 to 1978 and has been with his current spouse, actress Didi Conn, since 1984. Finally, if the tone of Isn't It Shocking? seems a little familiar, it may be because you've seen They Only Kill Their Masters--both films were written by Lane Slate. They Only Kill Their Masters starred James Garner as another small-town police chief investigating murder.


  1. I've always liked Alan Alda, and he sounds like a good fit in this movie. Who doesn't love a film with quirky characters! Thanks for recommending.

    1. I think Alan Alda could have played this role in a regular TV series. Of course, with crimes each week, Mount Angel would have quickly become the per capita crime capital of the U.S. Plus, that show M*A*S*H turned out to be pretty popular.

  2. I've always wanted to see this one and always hoped a decent DVD would turn up though I think it is available on YouTube (presumably illegally) - great write up, I really, really want to see it now!



    1. The print on YouTube is pretty watchable (if not enlarged to TV screen size). Sadly, not may of the ABC MOVIE OF THE WEEK telefilms are available on DVD.

  3. Rick,

    You make me want to watch this and I am no fan of watching movies on youtube. Yet sometimes that is the only source. Enjoyed!

  4. I do vaguely remember seeing this years ago, Rick. Wow. You've jogged my memory with this one. I think I might want to watch this again - the Louise Lasser casting intrigues me - don't remember it at all.

    I grew to love Alan Alda in later years. He was SO wonderful in THE WEST WING.