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Being a popular TV star can be a double edged antennae; great, steady income and national (sometimes international) fame. But the downside is you can become so popular that as a performer, what you’re known for is all you become known for, and it can be difficult to step beyond people’s perception. Such is the case with Elizabeth Montgomery, as the Bewitched actress took on the somber lead role in The Victim (1972), an entertaining little mystery that showed a welcome serious side to the star.

Originally broadcast on Tuesday, November 14th as an ABC Tuesday Movie of the Week, The Victim would have to go up against Hawaii Five-O and NBC’s own movie night; and while Jack Lord always won out, ABC had the particular market cornered for mystery and horror with The Victim being a fine addition to their roster.

Make sure it’s a dark and stormy night when you crack open your TV GUIDE to look up:

THE VICTIM (Tuesday, 8:30pm, ABC)

A woman visits her sister at her summer getaway, not realizing that someone has already murdered her by the time she arrives. Elizabeth Montgomery, Eileen Heckart star.

The telefilm opens with Susan (Jess Walton – The Peace Killers) coming home to her massive country estate that she shares with her soon to be estranged husband, Ben (George Maharis – The Sword and the Sorcerer). Since Ben is away in L.A. on business, Susan calls her sister Kate (Montgomery – The Legend of Lizzie Borden) to tell her she’s ending the marriage. Kate offers to come out to the cabin since both their husbands are away on business, but Susan wishes to be alone. As she ends the call with her sister, Susan is attacked by an unknown assailant. When Kate calls back, the phone is off the hook.

Worried, Kate heads out to see her sister, even though the local authorities warn against it, what with a nasty storm brewing and all. But proceed she does, and when she arrives, she finds not her sister present, but rather the miserable housekeeper, Mrs. Hawkes (Heckart – Burnt Offerings), who claims not to have seen Susan since she arrived in the afternoon. However, the audience is privy to a little information that Kate is not, as we saw Susan’s lifeless body carried down to the basement by a shadowy figure. Who could have killed her? And why?

There is not a single moment in The Victim, from its generic title on down, that has not been trotted out on the small (or big) screen since the dawn of the thriller genre. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t worth checking out, but rather that one needs to check expectations at the door; nothing unexpected is done, but if that were a film’s only criteria, we’d be in short supply of reliable entertainment. Which is what The Victim offers, and that’s often enough.

Director Herschel Daugherty was an old TV pro by the time he made this, helming everything from The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse in the early ‘50s through Alfred Hitchcock Presents to The Six Million Dollar Man. He does a good job here, working with all the time worn travails of candles, rain, lightning, and murder in such a way that may not seem fresh, but it sure is comforting all the same.

The teleplay by Merwin Gerard (One Step Beyond), based on a short story by McNight Malmar, plays completely fair in its mystery, which may leave some viewers disappointed that there aren’t more twists and turns; having said that, even though there are so few suspects to deal with, Gerard does keep you guessing until the final act, which isn’t the easiest thing to pull off.

I suspect some people may be rankled with the fact that Kate and Susan both come from money, and that The Victim appears to be yet another rich folk in trouble picture, but Kate and Susan are independent women, and the focus is on them and not their spouses (or soon to be ex, in one case), making the telefilm squarely their plight without any white knight rescuing along the way. The only thing that rankles me about their wealth is the push button phones in 1972; hell, the less fiscally prosperous among us never got push buttons until the ‘80s – we had to dial on a rotary. Harrumph, I say.

With a story as simple as this (and such a limited purview) it’s important that the casting works, and The Victim has a couple of standouts in Montgomery and Heckart, two more than dependable actresses with decades of experience between them. Their exchanges are the highlight, as Kate tries to determine if Mrs. Hawkes has anything to do with Susan’s disappearance when she discovers the cantankerous woman was fired by Susan only the previous evening. Both ground the mystery while giving it a boost by their mere presence.

Presence, charm, and comic timing are what Montgomery was known for at the time, finishing up her 8 year run as witch Samantha on the immensely popular sitcom Bewitched; she had of course done drama before, but The Victim was her first step towards coming out from the shadow of nose twitching and cute spells. All her charm and beauty is intact here, as well as an intelligence and determination necessary for Kate.

The Victim will certainly bring a smile to anyone looking for a well told mystery; if you like your thrillers dark and stormy, pour yourself a brandy, cozy up to a nice fire and let it warm you up for 73 minutes. Just make sure the doors are locked and your push button phone still works.

Next: Read Earlier Installments of This Series!
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